Ochre is a mineral pigment primarily containing iron oxide, which is abundant all over the earth and occurs in a rainbow of hues. “Most scholars agree that we have evolved as humans because of our use of Ochre throughout time, but I believe we have evolved in parallel–with Ochre–from our common ancestor with nonhumans: extra-terrestrial iron” said Elpitha Tsoutsounakis, assistant professor of Multidisciplinary Design at the University of Utah.
She prepares maps, prints and products using Ochres from Utah field sites in order to present alternative narratives to our traditional aesthetic and economic values of “place” in the American West and hopes her work will encourage those who interact with it to think differently about color, the materials it comes from and our human relationships to the natural world.
Tsoutsounakis was recently invited to Venice, Italy to present her work with the Field Studio Geontological Survey (FSGS) at the Time Space Existence Exhibition in Venice, Italy. The exhibition, hosted by the European Cultural Centre, runs from May 20 to November 26, 2023, concurrent to the famed Venice Biennale.
The installation, titled Siderophillic Siderophile, Siderophilliac, presents “Bulletin 2301” of the FSGS–a design research collective established by Tsoutsounakis in 2022.
Organized by ECC Italy, a branch of the larger European Cultural Centre, the Time Space Existence Exhibition features an international and eclectic group of over 200 architects, designers, artists, academics and photographers across three locations in Venice: Palazzo Mora, Palazzo Bembo and Marinaressa Gardens. The exhibits are free and open to the public and draw an international audience.
Tsoutsounakis’s contribution to the exhibit features 70 Ochre samples from the Temple Mountain District in the San Rafael Swell. The collection represents the culmination of seven field visits to the site over three years.
Tsoutsounakis’s work with Ochres grew out of her experience teaching field studio courses. “In the studio, I invite the students to respond to their experience in the field through design and making in a land response exercise—this is my own version of that practice,” she said and observes that this project is a thread between her Cretan ancestry, her interest in open lands and land ownership and the Utah Cretan community’s historical ties to mining in the state.
“The content of this exhibit is really the relationships, not just the objects,” said Tsoutsounakis.
FSGS grew out of Tsoutsounakis’s interactions with her students and that engagement remains an important theme, as she makes it a point to include research assistants in the gathering, processing and display of the samples, as well as much of the community outreach that the project affords.
“FSGS is compelling to me because of how multifaceted it is. With Ochre at its nucleus, it exists as a practice of researching, surveying, collecting, considering, making and educating. FSGS aims to connect the human and non-human through Ochre. It also explores avenues of reconciliation and resistance and it is important that these explorations happen collectively and communally. FSGS does exactly that, facilitating impactful discourse through the study of Ochre,” said Kevin Howard (BS Design ‘22), former research assistant and current FSGS collaborator.
“In my experiences with FSGS, each time something new is presented. Ochre is constantly showing a new part of itself to me, from the collection process to the swatching. The part I enjoy the most, is the ever-changing story that is created through the manual process of making pigments and the conversations that this experience creates and informs,” said Nikki Bennett (BS Design ‘24), research assistant.
Tsoutsounakis is a founding faculty member in the Division of Multi-disciplinary Design in the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Utah. Her work has been featured in The New York Times and Southwest Contemporary. She was recently named a 2023 Utah Design Arts Fellow by the Utah Division of Arts and Museums.