The Colors of the Earth and Beyond: Artist Interview with Ulrike Arnold

Marga Patterson 22 April 2022 min Read

Ulrike Arnold (b. 1950) is a contemporary German artist working with earth pigments that she gathers by hand. For the last 40 years, she has traveled to all seven continents and collected earth pigments while working in situ. Ulrike works intuitively, collaborating with nature, connecting to the earth while capturing the essence of place. In recent years, she began working with meteorite dust, materials from the cosmos. We caught up with Ulrike in her studio to find out more about her life and work.

Ulrike Arnold painting with earth, meteorite dust and snakeskin in front of Broken Arrow Cave, Utah,
Ulrike Arnold painting with earth, meteorite dust and snakeskin in front of Broken Arrow Cave, Utah, USA, 2018. Image courtesy of the artist and Victor Van Keuren.

Ulrike Arnold earth pigments painting made in Popenguine, Senegal, 2014
Ulrike Arnold earth pigments painting made in Popenguine, Senegal, 2014, 160 x 200 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

Early Years

MP: Can you tell us about your background?

UA: I was born and grew up in Düsseldorf, Germany. I have three brothers. My father was a priest and my mother was a kindergarten teacher, but stopped that to take care of us. I had a very religious and strict upbringing. We had no TV and we weren’t allowed to go to the cinema. We did meet missionaries who traveled around the world and seeing photos of them probably had a big impact on me as a child.

MP: When did you realize you were an artist?

UA: Very early on, I was always drawing and painting as a child and enjoyed art lessons in school. At 12, it was clear to me that becoming an artist was my direction.

MP: Were your parents supportive of your decision to become an artist?

UA: My mother was very creative and open-minded, her side of the family was artistic. She supported and encouraged my talent. We went to art exhibitions together and she even went with me to see the work of Joseph Beuys when I was 13. My father was interested in nurturing our intellect. He was teaching me different languages on vacation. His side of the family was very musical. The talents of both sides came together, so later I studied art and music.

Inspiration and Decisions

MP: Can you share with us your educational experience?

UA: I studied art and music at Padagogisches Fachinstitut and later became a teacher of both. For my examination at university, I wrote about the prehistoric rock art from the caves at Altamira in Spain and Lascaux in France. These caves are like 17,000 years old. I had gone to the Dordogne region in France and saw a lot of caves, so impressive! Some years later, I was also going to a very beautiful area, east of Avignon that had ochre pits where people were digging the dirt in ancient times to make colors for their homes. There were mountains with all these colors of red, pink, lilac and ochre-that was the impact to create only with Earth.

MP: How did you decide to become a full-time artist?

UA: I think it was in 1988 when I was 38 years old, I decided to totally stop teaching and take the risk. Since then, I have been living off of my art. Sometimes it was at the edge and I was thinking, “Oh my God, how will it work out?” but, always a second later the problem was solved.

MP: What inspires you most? Favorite artists?

UA: Mainly, it is the cave art that I love. I also like the work of British painter J.M.W. Turner, his layers of golden tones and the Spanish artist, Antoni Tapies for his structure and thick materials.

Ulrike Arnold's collected earth pigments and brushes at Broken Arrow Cave, Utah
Ulrike Arnold’s collected earth pigments and brushes at Broken Arrow Cave, Utah, USA. Image courtesy of the artist.

Earth Pigments

MP: How did your journey working with earth pigments begin?

UA: Inspired by prehistoric cave art, I wanted to find out how everything started with these cave paintings: the creative process in humans, why and how they started to paint, the different techniques they used and how it was developed. In that moment, I decided to study more, but I needed to finance myself so I continued teaching and was accepted into the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf (and it’s not easy to gain entrance and I was already 30 years old…)

When I had visited France in 1980, I took the earth from Provence back to the studio. I brought to my class the dirt, the earth, and the professor asked me, “What’s that, what do you want to do?” I told him that I want to work like the cavewoman. He told me, “You have to figure it out yourself, I can’t tell you anything”. So, I did. I experimented and tried all the possibilities with oil, eggs, wax, bone, glue, rubber, and transparent acrylic binder.

The Artistic Process

MP: Can you share with us a bit about your process?

UA: When I work on-site, I work with the earth pigments, using only site-specific pigments, earth that I have collected from the area. I never sketch, I just work intuitively, mainly on raw, un-stretched canvas. I make a natural binder that is fast drying with a matte finish and create layers using this binder. Mostly, I mix the materials together like a cake: the glue, the water, the earth. In the studio, I do the asteroid works. Drawings made with meteorite dust. In 2003, I coincidentally met meteor scientist, Marvin Killgore, in Arizona. He gave me some cosmic materials to work with that wove my work together with the universe.

Ulrike Arnold, meteorite dust on canvas, 2008, 124 x 155 cm.
Ulrike Arnold, meteorite dust on canvas, 2008, 124 x 155 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

Ulrike Arnold working in situ at Cueva Chulacao, Atacama Desert, Chile,
Ulrike Arnold working in situ at Cueva Chulacao, Atacama Desert, Chile, 2012. Image courtesy of the artist.

Working In Situ

MP: Why do you work in situ?

UA: For me it’s very important to work on site. I want to experience the power of nature, the weather. To feel what it is to be totally alone and have no fear. I want to express the place and the forms that come up in the moment. The stillness and the heat are important to me. I want to understand, to feel and to have compassion with the place, then I can transform these feelings into authentic forms.

To experience day and night is also important for me. I have made work under the full moon. The studio is full of distractions like sounds and the phone. To create work during a thunderstorm, to hear it, feel it, smell it- that is very inspiring for me. Watching the first raindrops attack the painting-that is a structure I love and this collaboration with the weather. The weather becomes part of the story.

Ulrike Arnold on the move in White Pocket, Arizona,
Ulrike Arnold on the move in White Pocket, Arizona, USA, 2018. Image courtesy of the artist.

Work and Travel

MP: What is the significance of the sites where you choose to work and travel to? Do you repeatedly return to some of these places and why?

UA: Sometimes there are really magical mountains like in Bryce Canyon, Utah (North America) it’s about the color and the rock formations. Sometimes it’s a very spiritual or historical place or archaeologically interesting. Every place has its own beauty. I follow my intuition. Sometimes I travel to a place because of its magical appearance or to experience working in an ancient cave and I can feel it is a very special place, it is peaceful and it feels good. You feel nourishment for the body and soul when you are in such a place. Utah and the Atacama Desert (Chile, South America) are the places I feel most connected with. I like Via Arco Iris (Rainbow Valley) in the Atacama. The rock formations are great and the colors are fantastic. The feeling I get is like the beginning of time, like you are the first human there. A really archaic feeling.

MP: Have you noticed the effects of climate change in places that you have revisited over the years?

UA: Yes, the weather is getting worse, more extreme. I have visited the Atacama Desert six times over the years and there has been stronger rainfall and flooding. In North America, the desert has become hotter, drier, with even less rain and more wildfires.

Ulrike Arnold collecting earth in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco
Ulrike Arnold collecting earth in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist and Victor Van Keuren.

A Semi-Nomadic Lifestyle

MP: You have two main bases: Flagstaff, Arizona (North America) and Düsseldorf. How do you spend your time between the two?

UA: Düsseldorf is my hometown, so I always come back. In Arizona, I built a place there, but I’m not there so often. It is my base in America from where I can go to New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and so on. I like to go there in the Springtime a little bit and in the Summer during the Monsoon season. It is so powerful and you feel that power of the earth. I’m like a world citizen, but I’m not a nomad because I have bases.

MP: What have you learned from being a semi-nomadic artist?

UA: I have learned to have more compassion for all the people in the world, for their problems. And I have realized that I am not that important, just a little point in the whole system. From my travels, I have a rounder view of everything together. It’s like going to life university.

Ulrike Arnold, trailer for Dialogue Earth, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and filmmaker, Hank Levine.

Dialogue Earth

MP: A documentary film about your work, Dialogue Earth, was released in June 2020. Can you share your experience with making this film?

UA: When I travel, I always have a camera with me so I film myself or meet someone along the way to film me. I met Hank Levine, the filmmaker for Dialogue Earth, by coincidence on a flight in 1994. We stayed in touch for many years and reunited 15 years later at a film festival in Berlin. He proposed to do a film about my work so slowly, the concept came.

I work with the Earth, caring for the protection of the Earth and this film communicates how we need to work together to preserve our Earth. In this film, I painted an exclamation mark that is 7 meters long rectangle and 190 cm diameter circle. I used colors from all the continents I had visited. These colors are symbolic for the dialogue to express the diversity of the continents, the countries, their history and their people. A deep communion of forms and colors that create a nonverbal peace and harmony to reflect the beauty of the Earth and how we must work together to protect that.

Art can be an ambassador. How can we all help and teach each other to achieve peace through communication to get away from hate and war?

Ulrike Arnold, One World earth pigment painting, 2017.
Ulrike Arnold, One World earth pigment painting, 2017, painted on both sides with collected earth from all continents. Featured in film Dialogue Earth, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist and Victor Van Keuren.

Current Work

MP: What are you currently working on and where? 

UA: Now, in this time of corona, I draw a lot. Just in the last two years, I started to draw again. I am in my studio in Düsseldorf, Germany. I also plan to work on my archives since there never seems to be enough time for everything.

Ulrike Arnold’s work respects and honors the planet we are so privileged to call home. Her primitive practice reminds us what it means to be human upon the Earth. She has dedicated her life to following her passion by sharing the power and potential the colors of the Earth and the cosmos hold for humanity. For Ulrike, making art is a give and take process that tries to bring us together to experience something as a whole.

You can view more of Ulrike’s work on her website and Instagram account.

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