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From Beyond the Sea

I have been reading Color by Victoria Finlay - it is a fascinating book, diving deep into the history of color's and the authors journey's to witness the origin of these pigments, firsthand. Needless to say, I am enthralled with the chapters on blue.

The Arctic is a blue landscape. To view the indigo's in the depths of the Arctic Ocean, two thousand meters deep at the pack ice is a gift. There is the ultramarine of an iceberg that just calved, exposing a glacial interior, and the turquoise of glacial melt, intensified with the oldest particles of sediment, suspended in its coolness. There are varieties within combinations within tones of blue.

As Finlay notes, Goethe wrote in Theory of Colour, "there is something contradictory in [blue's] aspect, both stimulating and calming. Just as we wish to pursue a pleasant object that moves away from us we enjoy gazing upon blue - not because it forces itself upon us, but because it draws us after it."

I had the immense pleasure in organizing and curating an exhibition of work from some of the participants of the Summer 2016 Arctic Circle Residency. The exhibition is in the Mildred I. Washington Art Gallery on the Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, New York. More on this shortly, but to say there were pieces in A Magnetic North that were drenched in blue, is an understatement.


The name, ultramarine comes from the Italian word, oltramarino, meaning from beyond the seas. The color is derived from lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone. Finlay specifies that these stones are only found in a few places on Earth - Chile, Zambia, Siberia, and Afghanistan. There is a part in her text where she is visiting Afghanistan to hopefully travel to a once prominent mine. The grades of lapis lazuli are being described to her and I found the qualities that are given to this stone quite perfect.

"There are three main colors...The most common is rang-i-ob, which mean simply 'color of water' and is a general word for blue. This stone is the darkest, the shade that sea goes when there is nothing but deep sea beneath it; no sand, no land, just water. The second is rang-i-sabz or green...But the greatest of the three is the extraordinarily named surpar, or 'red feather'...It is the color of the deepest moment of the fire...The very heart of the flame." (307-308)


Throughout points in history, indigo has been one of the most influential dyes in the world. "Ancient Egyptians used indigo-dyed cloths to wrap their mummies, in Central Asian it was one of the main colors for carpets, and for more than three centuries in Europe and America it was one of the more controversial dyestuffs, and it would have been familiar to people of many nationalities." (319) Similar to ultramarine, indigo as a moniker comes from where the material originated from - meaning 'from India' in Greek.

When I think about indigo I am taken back to the pack ice. Indigo, for me, is the shade of the sea where there is nothing beneath it - not ultramarine. The water, so deep and dark, almost beyond comprehension. I was comforted while there, bobbing in the swell on a zodiac, but in thinking about that water now I am a bit unnerved. How easily could that water have lost me, one meter below the surface and everything was unseen. A water that was so crystal clear, but saturated at the same time.


"For centuries the Mayans in the Yucatán peninsula had made a vivid turquoise for their frescos by mixing a local species of indigo with a special clay called 'palygorskite.' Europeans did not understand the way the pigment was made - by trapping indigo molecules in a lattice of clay, and imprisoning them - until 2000. It was so bright... that up until the 1960's people believed Mayan Blue was made from metal, not from a plant." (333)

I am enticed by this description of how this color was produced because all I can think about is the hue of glacial melt and how, that too, is created.