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Insights of an Eco Artist

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Magazine - Narratives of Care

Natural Pigments and Environmental Art with Heidi Lowell

Joana Alarcão

In this insightful interview, we delve into the fascinating journey of Heidi Lowell, a multifaceted artist whose work seamlessly blends art and environmental care. Heidi's profound connection to nature, inspired by her early explorations of Austin's unique landscapes and a reflective pandemic period, has deeply influenced her artistic practice. From her transformative experience of re-wilding her urban garden to creating natural pigments, Heidi's work not only embodies ecological sustainability but also fosters an intimate relationship between her viewers and the natural world.

5 July 2024

I am a multi-disciplinary artist based in Austin, Texas. My background in science and nature informs my work. I work in multiple media including clay and watercolor. I am an autodidact who trained in classical painting and intuitive painting. I strike a balance between the two, by creating a structured plan for each work, with freedom for my intuition inside. I find that systems in nature and science work with a balance of predictable patterns and chaos. The balance between structure and freedom are imperative to my work.

The flow of water is central to my work. There is a magic that happens when I allow the watercolor to flow freely within the boundaries I have planned. I photograph each work in progress multiple times so I can analyze the color values.  I often intuitively incorporate sgraffito or mark making to each piece as it connects to the symbolism of the story I have kept in my mind throughout the process. I love to continue the story onto the sides of my panels, which I finish using Dutch oil.

I work with watercolors because I am fascinated with fluid dynamics, and I love letting nature take part in the creation of each piece of work. The transparency of watercolors allows me to layer in such a way that the paintings have an incredible depth to them, allowing viewers to stare into their complexity. I think this aspect of my work mirrors nature in the way that even seemingly chaotic events, such as a waterfall, can evoke a sense of calm and wonder. I hope that the viewer will feel quieted by my work, much as they would if they were sitting in a pristine natural landscape. My work celebrates the peaceful and messy aspects of the natural world, and in doing so, I would like to encourage viewers to celebrate those same aspects in themselves.

Can you start by giving us an overview of your practice and what led you to explore the intersection of art and care?   

I have always loved nature and making art. I started my career as an art teacher. When I was in college, I took a wonderful biology class. The professor took us out every week for hikes all around the greater Austin area, and so I became very intimate with the native plants and landscape of central Texas. Austin is unique because we are located on two separate biomes, a prairie and the Hill country. And prairies, of course, became celebrated when we realized the bee population was endangered.

However, Austin is recognized as the most altered ecoregion with only 1 percent of the original blackland prairie still existing today. During the pandemic, I, like most people had a lot of time to reflect on our current social, economic, and political upheaval. I would go sit in my hammock everyday and meditate in my garden.  I felt a deep sense of peace but I also came to the conclusion that all social and economic issues hinged on the well-being of our planet. None of those things would matter if we did not work to correct and heal our current environmental imbalance. I felt so powerless during that time being stuck at home and watching the news. I decided the one thing I could control was my yard. So I did re-wild my entire little urban piece of land. The HOA was very upset, and we spent years in discussion trying to negotiate this. I recognized that many folks in the USA are emotionally attached to lawns and manicured gardens as a sign of wealth or community buy-in.

As a previous educator, this gave me a lot of opportunity to reflect on how to educate and inform people without being combative or political.  So, in the end, despite nearly 3000 in landscaping fees from the HOA, it did end up being a gift. And, I am just so incredibly grateful to my husband who has supported me during this process. Anyhow, all of this has bled into my art practice in my studio. I knew most paints were made with plastic, but art buyers often do not know that.  I took a class on making natural paints at Earth Native, an eco-school near Austin.  I refined and expanded on their recipes and practices to create my own watercolors. And after collecting soil pigments for paints, I started to wonder what was in the soil, so I reached out to Dr. Allison Veach, to shadow, and assist in her 5-year urban soil study program in Texas. 

As an autodidact, you’ve trained in both classical and intuitive painting. How do you navigate the transition between these two styles within a single piece?

I typically have a plan when I begin a piece. I like to work in sections on my work. I create spaces where the water and pigment can flow freely within. In this way, the water brings a unique voice to each piece that is outside of my control. I use my intuition as I work between these tensions of planning and organizations and nature. 

painting made out of natural materials with a blue colour and leaf patterns
Study in Indigo by Heidi Lowell. Image courtesy of Heidi Lowell

In your artist statement, you mention that your practice is focused on scientific research and building intimate relationships between viewers and the natural world. Can you elaborate on this line of thought?

I think about the idea of slow living in regards to my creative practice.  Collecting pigments from soil, plants and insects is slow and time-consuming. Grinding, processing, refining and boiling these materials is also a slow process. However, in the process, I know EXACTLY where my materials will come from and can predict how they will return to the earth.

In this process, I build a far more intimate relationship with the land and the communities of humans and other organisms around me. I can share my process with visitors who come to my studio. Almost everyone loves to try out grinding pigments, smelling my indigo and fermented gardenia mixes.  In a very literal sense, people are building a relationship with the land when touching and exploring these materials in my studio. For example, once someone sees the beautiful orange pigment from a coreopsis flower, they are far more likely to recognize and identify these flowers in their community because they have a personal connection.  When my work is invited into someone’s home, they are bringing the literal land into their home and sacred space. 

Your work beautifully balances structure and intuition. Can you share a specific moment or piece where this balance surprised you or led to an unexpected outcome?

 I look at a lot of my work in making pigments as an experiment because the process is so malleable based on temperature and a bunch of other inputs. I often don’t know exactly what color will come from plant pigments. I think one of my favorite discoveries was finding that the oak galls in my front yard had been used by Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of Canterbury Tales, to make the ink he wrote with. 

Panel of 4 paintings in a light and dark brown colour made with natural pigments
Dust to Dust, Soil Paintings, 23X30 each by Heidi Lowell. Image courtesy of Heidi Lowell

How does your background in science and nature inform the themes and techniques you choose in your artwork? Can you provide an example of a scientific concept that deeply influenced a particular piece?

My work recognizes that everything we do returns to the ecosystem around us. There is no way to separate our choices from the web of life we participate in. For this reason, I am constantly making choices to refine my creative process so it is more sustainable. 

Watercolor and fluid dynamics are central to your work. What is it about the flow of water that captivates you, and how do you harness this natural movement to enhance your artistic expression?

All of life is a balance of planning, preparing, and also letting go of the final outcome because there is only so much we can control.  I think water is constantly teaching me to slow down, make my best effort, and let go of control. I tend to be a person who speeds through life at my core, however, working with water constantly reminds me to slow down. I love watching pigments flow and blend with the use of water. 

Your work often evokes a sense of calm and wonder, similar to experiencing nature firsthand. Can you describe a moment in nature that profoundly inspired you and found its way into your artwork?

Oh, nature calms and inspires me in large and small ways regularly. I of course am inspired by the majesty of a national park, or mountain hike. However, when I slow down and sit in my garden, I find myself equally amazed by the butterflies, birds and creatures that share my immediate habitat. I try to spend time every day outdoors, and regularly that time is meditating in my backyard hammock. When my mind or mouth begin to move quickly and/or without intention, I know it is time to step outside. Just sitting or lying quietly and listening to the sounds of the birds, cicadas, or wind is very soothing to my soul.  In this way, the calm and wonder of nature influence my work so profoundly on a daily basis. 

I remember gardening with my daughter one afternoon. She was so surprised to remember how much putting her hands in the dirt makes her happy. At that moment, it clicked for me that the dirt holds everything that has ever existed on this planet. Everything comes from the soil and returns to the soil. I expressed this to her and explained that she was connecting with all of Earth’s history, and our ancestry when she put her hands in the soil. 

painting on a wall, the painting has a brown colour and a leaf pattern
Dust to Dist WC Grey Upcycled Frame by Heidi Lowell. Image courtesy of Heidi Lowell

Your artwork celebrates both the peaceful and messy aspects of nature. How do you think this duality resonates with viewers, and what conversations do you hope it sparks about our relationship with the natural world?

Oh man, we are having a real evolution in the way we relate to the natural world. Right now, in America, we have millions of acres of this crop, grass, that has no purpose. We cut it before it can reproduce, and we expect it to be in a perpetual state of living and productiveness. We are incredibly uncomfortable with sexuality and death, even on our lawns. And even in our gardens, we aim to cultivate beauty. However, I hear stories more and more often of people re-wilding their lawns without a goal of letting it be natural and supporting bees and the natural ecosystem. I think we are in the process of rediscovering the beauty in the chaos and order of the natural world. 

Having your work displayed in various prestigious galleries and collections must be incredibly rewarding. Is there a particular exhibition or moment in your career that stands out as especially meaningful to you?

 I really enjoy the conversations I get to have and the people I meet. Today I had a gallerist in my studio to visit and we spent the morning talking about slow living, art, and our ancestors. I love hearing how people connect with my work, and how it connects to their values, beliefs and lives.  I feel lucky that I get to have these important conversations every day. 

One of the things I am very excited about now is becoming a board member for our local non-profit, Austin Creative Reuse, which diverts about 1.5 million pounds of materials from the landfill each year. I have always loved this organization and its mission, and so it is so meaningful that I now get to help guide and direct its future. 


painting with purple colours made out of natural pigments
Dust to Dust, Cochineal Mini by Heidi Lowell. Image courtesy of Heidi Lowell

What does the idea of 'care' mean to you in relation to your art and the world around you?

Care means doing my best, and having compassion for myself that I am just one imperfect human being. I constantly remind myself that I am doing my best.  Care means intimacy, and taking time to connect with the earth, my family, and people in my community. 


What message or call to action would you like to leave our readers with?

Well, with so many stories of climate doom circulating I would like to leave readers with the idea that the earth is in fact, resilient, and lots of people care. Sometimes I hear folks who are resigned to the idea that what they do does not matter. If everyone believed that, nothing would ever change. So, I think I would encourage people to adopt the mantra, “I matter. What I do matters.” 

Jane Goodall shared a story about Nagasaki after the Second World War. The atom bomb had been dropped, and scientists said it would take decades for plants or life to return to the charred land. However, a small kaki (persimmon) tree made its way from the charred remains fairly quickly.  Nature is far more resilient than we expect sometimes. 

Find more about the artist here.

Cover image

Salvia Bloom I by Heidi Lowell. Image courtesy of Heidi Lowell.

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