Belowground visions of life: soil makes art (BeSA)

We need to save our soil if we want to grow food, have clean water and sustainably recycle wastes but the relationship between soil and us is deteriorating. How can we provide the public with a thorough understanding of the vital importance of soil for humanity? BeSa will give us an artistic answer to this urgent question.


Soil image: Photo by Scott Bauer, courtesy of USDA NRCS.

Soil biodiversity is tremendously threatened by the challenges that global change dynamics are inexorably posing while fewer and fewer people realise that soil is alive and home to phenomenal biodiversity. This biodiversity is essential to provide physical and biochemical support to aboveground life, including humans who need it to grow food, obtain water and recycle wastes. Still, if asked, most people, especially in urban areas, would name some 'germs' as the main inhabitants of soil and think that these 'dark creatures' chaotically thrive in the ground because soil is dirt. Worldwide and across cultures, people from rural environments would be more enlightened about soil, to the point of showing an almost religious appreciation of the key role played by soil in supporting our life cycle. 


Collembolan painting its soil animal fellows, Ed Reynolds.

How can we provide the public with the experiences that could holistically lead to a deep appreciation of the vital importance of soil? Soil is inherently complex, dark and opaque, but unravelling its secrets would reveal a kaleidoscopic universe hosting phenomenal physical, chemical and, most importantly, biological diversity full of beauty. The residency of Ed Reynolds at the School of Biological Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) is designed to shed light on the unseen soil biodiversity. Ed has a vibrant and bright style and uses a variety of techniques and media, ranging from very small-scale projects to large murals. There is not a better time for an artist to explore soil: the year 2015 was the UN International Year of Soils (IYS). Several initiatives have been conducted within the IYS platform with the main aim of raising awareness of the vital role of soil for ecosystem services and food security. Many countries, including the UK, are significantly investing in research that will underpin the future management of soil. Ed’s work will be part of that via QUB and its Institute for Global Food Security, involved in the NERC Soil Security Programme. 

The idea that the arts can convey knowledge and awareness through beauty underpins our aim of using art to rebuild the deteriorating relationship between humans and soil. The project will deliver a critical mass of graphical and pictorial pieces in the form of sketches, paintings and digital images. The resulting large archive will be used for an exhibition at the end of the residency and as the basis to plan a children’s book. Finally, Ed will deliver a mural in Belfast having soil biodiversity as main theme. Soil life, which provides us with the basic support for growing our food, will for the first time be back in our urban lives to tell us its astonishing and forgotten story.

Dr Tancredi Caruso
School of Biological Sciences and Institute for Global Food Security, Queen’s University of Belfast
Artist in Residence Grant