The Beauty Beneath Our Feet

For an artist, it’s always nice to get a little public recognition—it helps make up for all those hours spent alone in the studio. So when Deborah Foutch’s piece, “Soil Horizon,” won a blue ribbon at the Minnesota State Fair in 2015, she was thrilled. But even more exciting was that the artwork—it uses various pieces of painted fabric to represent the different levels of a typical living soil profile—actually got people to thinking about a resource that is often treated like dead dirt.

“There were people standing in front of this piece talking about living soil and what farmers are doing now that’s not good for it, and what things other farmers are doing that are good for it,” recalls Foutch. “Right there, I have succeeded.”

One State Fair attendee was even overheard asking what she could do herself to help resolve the problem of degraded soil. As a result, Foutch was able to strike up a conversation with the woman and provided her information based on her own experience and research into soil health and ways the general public can promote it—from having a more natural backyard and garden to supporting sustainable agriculture in the marketplace and in the policy realm.

“She now has real information and she may act differently having seen that piece of art and having had that conversation with somebody,” says Foutch of the fairgoer.

At that moment, Foutch realized she had succeeded in blending her passions for expressing herself through art with natural resource protection and childhood memories of tagging along after her soil conservationist father. And that lively mix had produced artwork that did more than enlighten or entertain for a fleeting moment—it had gotten people motivated to take the next step. It had, appropriately, hit pay dirt.

She’s explaining all this while deftly manipulating cloth, yarn, rocks and tissue paper on a tabletop in her bright studio, which is located in a former factory in Northeast Minneapolis. A pair of old white silos outside her window bounce afternoon light at just the right angle into the workspace. It’s not surprising that what Foutch is working on is another “Soil Horizon” piece—since her showing at the State Fair, the artist has found strong interest in what she calls her “soil works.” It’s resulted in several commissions, and even more importantly, has brought her in contact with farmers who give her hope that healthy soil will not become a museum piece of the past—it can also be part of our agricultural future.

Finding a Medium & a Message

Foutch grew up moving around rural Iowa, going where her late father John McCleary’s various postings with the Soil Conservation Service (the predecessor to the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service) took the family. She attended the University of Northern Iowa and studied art and history, hoping to be a painter. But Foutch switched to working with fiber after realizing both she and one of her professors agreed on one key point: “I was not a good painter.”

Fiber arts and working with fabric appealed to Foutch because it brought back memories of sewing with her grandmothers. After graduation, she moved to Minneapolis in 1977 and started out doing life-sized dolls, tiny dolls, tiny houses, angels and fairies. “You have to make a living,” says Foutch with a shrug as she shows off examples of that earlier work. But these days, she focuses mostly on large fabric pieces that can be hung on walls, and the theme is almost always related to the environment—it’s fragility and our relationship to it.

The artwork took on a personal tint four years ago when her father died, and Foutch began doing pieces related to his work: soil, roots and the way they all interact. It was a personal approach to art, a way to honor her father’s legacy.

The first “Soil Horizon” was done from memory—Foutch basically started layering fabric and pouring paint until it looked right and resembled what she remembered from Soil Conservation Service materials and from the information her father had shared. The artist describes one breakthrough she had: pouring paint through real rocks perfectly replicates the texture and pore spaces of healthy soil. As she works on her latest piece, Foutch shows how shredded fabric on the surface of the “topsoil” bears an uncanny resemblance to prairie grasses waving in the wind. She pulls strings and pieces of yarn apart to resemble root systems and other bits of soil life. Print impressions of those “roots” are made and excess paint is allowed to dribble down through the “subsoil,” adding an even more organic look to the work. In fact, perhaps the most striking aspect of the work are the roots—they start just beneath the surface and extend down through everything, connecting the surface world with the underworld, providing the sense that nutrients and energy are being exchanged up and down the profile.

“Then this part is the subsoil with the roots moving down through it,” says Foutch, pointing to the living, spindly highways so important to the soil universe. “They’re doing the work of moving water. And because I work with really wet paint, water is moving my pigment the way roots move the water. It’s this sweet metaphor that I get to engage in.”

Foutch works with everything from raw cotton and canvas to rice paper and organza (a sheer shiny material once used in prom dresses). She also extracts the natural colors and shapes she’s looking for by such ingenious methods as spraying vinegar on a rusted piece of metal and letting the oxides bleed out onto cloth.

The result is uncanny, making it hard to determine where the representational nature of the art ends, and the scientific replication begins. That’s no accident. These days, Foutch spends hours doing research on soil and other aspects of the natural world.

“It’s like science is my hook, my home base into our system,” she says.

One recent project of Foutch’s involves replicating the very beginnings of the Earth itself, complete with ragged outlines representing shifting continents and nightmarishly beautiful pigments standing in for the “primordial soup” from which we originated. What sparked the artist’s interest in undertaking this piece was some reading she’d done about the Earth’s pre-history and an experience traveling to Mexico where she stood on an island that consists of a landscape resembling those early days in the planet’s existence. Standing in her studio, Foutch re-tells the story of life on Earth: asteroids pelted the planet, beginning a chain reaction that resulted in it raining for millions of years, creating oceans and the biological stew that spawned life. “Don’t you love that story?” Foutch asks, interrupting herself.

This is all leading up to something, something that has relevance to all of us today while connecting to Foutch’s passion and upbringing.

“I’m working my way up to soil eventually,” she says of the place she’s at with this particular artwork. “You have to have things alive and dying before you have soil.”

Foutch uses science to not only inform her work, but to help educate the general public. When her art is displayed, she includes a short write-up that puts things in context for the viewer. For example, her “Soil Horizon” piece at the State Fair included an explanation that there are more things alive in a handful of soil than there have ever been humans on the planet since the beginning of time. Foutch is particularly interested in all the new science emerging about the biological activity taking place in our land’s basement and how microscopic life interacts—this was information not available to her father when he was doing his conservation work.

Stewards of the Soil

Foutch’s art is not only inspired by the resource itself and the science behind it, but how her father worked with farmers to preserve and improve it. “He’d get in by telling them stories, and then he’d hook them in with more information,” she says, adding that he could get farmers excited about changing their practices by using the, “We’re going to do this together” approach. “So for me, it’s the same thing: find the stories—they’re going to hook people in. And then there’s the action you can take.”

That beats her initial knee-jerk reaction to seeing exposed fall-plowed fields along the road and wanting to put up a billboard that said, “He’s ruining the soil.” She’s decided “shame” is not the way to bring about change when it comes to the way farmers, and really all of us, view our relationship with soil. Foutch knew from watching her father that there were farmers out there who could be models for building and maintaining soil health. So she set out to get reacquainted with that side of agriculture.

Two people who stood in front of Foutch’s artwork during the successful State Fair showing were Dan Guenthner and Margaret Pennings, pioneering Community Supported Agriculture farmers. They were so struck by the piece that they commissioned Foutch to do a similar one for a meeting room at their Common Harvest Farm in Osceola, Wis.

“She gave a talk here at our farm when she unveiled the piece and it was one of the most moving pleas for soil stewardship I have ever heard,” recalls Guenthner. “She spoke about the power of art to spark deep emotional connections to the land and the natural world.”

Besides Guenthner and Pennings, Foutch now has relationships with a handful of farmers, including some from her Iowa roots, who are good soil stewards. Her goal is to put on art shows in rural communities where farming still prevails, connecting with farmers, and eventually, scientists, who can help communicate an important message to a wider audience. Why not put on events that demonstrate to the public how “lovely” our soil is, and then provide an opportunity for farmers and scientists to explain why it’s also a critical natural resource, and what we can all do to support it?

“You can have the things that we want to have in our food system, and still have the soil that we need to have by farming in a smarter way,” Foutch says. “It’s about knowing more deeply what the system is.”

Foutch has been doing art for four decades, but still gets excited over the thrill of discovery, whether it be a new factoid about the soil universe—she just read about how plants can communicate underground—or an inventive way to replicate nature in art —“Look at this! I got this!” Foutch says in an excited whisper as she demonstrates how pouring paint through stones replicates the texture of the soil profile.

Some of those discoveries can be depressing, such as the fact that industrialized agriculture has killed off much of the biological life in soil. But Foutch draws hope from environmental success stories like the bald eagle’s return from the brink after the pesticide DDT was banned. She is also inspired by farmers like Guenthner and Pennings, who care about the soil and its role in creating a sustainable food system.

“I’m talking to people and I’m making connections,” she says as she returns to her work. “We’re like the roots underground making connections.”

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter. More information on Deborah Foutch’s art is at