Kirsten Kurtz, MS ’21, manager of Cornell’s Soil Health Lab and a soil artist, pictured in her home studio

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A recent painting by Kirsten Kurtz, MS ’21, depicts a closeup of a hand saying “I love you” in sign language. But it wasn’t created with the usual acrylics or watercolors.

Viewed up close, the hand’s texture reveals grainy ridges and valleys, looking in some places like an aerial view of cracked, parched earth and in others like the sandy shores of a gravelly beach.

The tones are brown, golden, and near-black—an earthy palette that reflects the paint’s origin: soil.

Kurtz manages Cornell’s Soil Health Lab in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. And for nearly a decade, she has increasingly delved into using soil as her artistic medium.

“A Mother’s Love” is Kurtz’s most recent work of soil art
A Mother’s Love (2023) in Kurtz’s studio.

Both a scientist and a formally trained artist, Kurtz creates works not just for artistic expression, but as a way to underscore soil’s importance as an essential natural resource, as crucial as air and water.

“We’re at this really important time in human history, where we need to show more care for the Earth and for these resources,” says Kurtz, noting that the world has already lost at least a third of its arable soil. “It’s incredibly important for our resilience.”

Increasingly, Kurtz is receiving commissions to create her pieces—like one from fellow CALS alum Charles Hyland ’06, MPS ’11, who hired her to make the “I love you” painting as a gift to his mother.

“These soil paintings are not merely beautiful,” he says of Kurtz’s work. “They serve as a clarion call, urging us to recognize the delicate balance of our ecosystem and the crucial role that soil plays in maintaining it. By transforming soil into vibrant pigments, she allows viewers to grasp the nuanced and alarming realities of soil erosion and degradation.”

Kurtz grew up on a 200-acre organic farm in Upstate New York and studied visual arts at SUNY Empire State and at Alfred University.

Soil paint varieties at an art of horticulture class module Kurtz teaches
A spectrum of colors. (Provided)

She eventually landed at CALS as a master’s candidate in natural resources, working in the lab while studying prairie and grassland soil remediation in the Midwest.

Located in Bradfield Hall, the soil lab conducts some 55,000 tests a year on samples from around the globe.

It assesses not just nutrient and chemical components, but their physical properties, biological elements, and overall health.

It’s the world’s most comprehensive soil lab, serving farmers, landscapers, researchers, agribusiness clients, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as home gardeners.

In 2014, Kurtz was taking a painting class and found herself dissatisfied with typical acrylic colors.

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Already fascinated by the hues and textures of the samples coming into the lab—purple from New Mexico, blue from Maryland, green from Russia and France, and more—she wondered if she could create paints and pigments derived from soil itself.

Earth Tones: A Sampling of Kurtz's Oeuvre

“Probably like most people, I hadn’t been aware that soil was anything but brown—but there are thousands of soil types,” Kurtz says. “It’s an earth-based palette, but there are blues and greens and all these other colors.”

Experimenting with different formulas and techniques, Kurtz discovered she could mix soil with clear Gesso (a primer and binder) and water to create paint that captured the soil’s exact colors.

Samples of soil at the Soil Health Lab on the 8th floor of Bradfield Hall
Samples come to the Soil Health Lab from around the globe.

“I wanted it to look as if I did a sand painting with soil right on the ground,” she explains, “but it’s on the canvas in a permanent way.”

Kurtz’s pieces are time-consuming, taking roughly seven to 20 layers of paint, each of which needs to dry completely before she can move on to the next.

And since soil paint lightens as it dries, she has to continually assess a work’s developing colors.

“Three Sisters in Soil” (2017) by Kirsten Kurtz with Patty Chan, Shulie Li, Fatma Rekik, Emily Detrick, and Shiyi Li
Three Sisters in Soil (2017) was a collaborative effort by Kurtz and several other artists.

Her oeuvre ranges from six-by-six-inch pieces to huge five-by-eight-foot canvases, several of which have been community projects or collaborations with other artists.

The largest can take 40–50 hours of painting, not counting canvas prep or drying time.

In 2015, Kurtz organized a World Soil Day celebration in Mann Library, inviting students, faculty, and staff to try their hand at soil painting.

A time-lapse video of the event even inspired an arm of the U.N. to create a global soil painting competition.

Three Sisters in Soil, a work on which Kurtz collaborated (and which now hangs in Bradfield), won first prize in that competition’s university category in 2017.

“So often, people see my pieces and they’re like, ‘I didn’t know soil came in all these different colors,’” she observes. “It’s a huge opportunity to start a conversation, and to get people excited about soil.”

Top: Kurtz in her home studio. Art images provided; all others by Noël Heaney / Cornell University, unless indicated.

Published August 7, 2023


  1. Marsha Pappas

    Dear Kirsten—-
    I am SO, SO HAPPY AND DELIGHTED with my “I love you” painting! It is so very special and I know it takes someone with your many talents to create the unique an beautiful paintings that you are making. I will call you soon, and maybe get to Ithaca and drop by!

    • Kirsten Kurtz, Class of 2021

      Thank you Marsha! Please visit or reach out any time. I am so pleased you like the painting!

  2. Paula Davis, Class of 1976

    This is just sooooo amazing!!! Would you please mind sharing the ratios of clear gesso and water to soil? What surfaces do you find work best with this — are canvases okay, or do you find a stiff surface to be better? And how do you preserve the final painting — do you brush over it a matte or satin medium? Would LOVE to try this myself!!!

    • Kirsten Kurtz, Class of 2021

      Thank you Paula! I typically mix 50% soil, 30% gesso and 20% water but it depends on the soil texture. I only paint on canvas, I think the flexibility of the material helps the soil to adhere to the canvas. I spray my pieces with matte varnish. Feel free to email me with any additional questions. I also have directions for making soil paint on my website:

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