Luiseño Red

Last week I had a magical experience in San Diego … It involved beautiful people, a red landscape, and ancient tools!

It was a joy to meet up again with Dr. Norrie—she is an amazing combination of child-like enthusiasm and deep knowledge! Together we headed back up to the mountains around the La Jolla Reservation. Once again I was struck by how beautiful the area is as we travelled higher and higher looking at the granite bounders and the brightly coloured gabbros. It was a windy day, and at one point Norrie had to slam on the brakes when a car-sized tumble weed blew onto the road ahead of us! (this was my first time seeing tumble weeds …) Once we arrived safely we picked up her friend Julie, a local artist who paints beautiful art interpreting plants and maps in her work, and who lives nearby. It was Julie who had invited us and was excited to share the colour and history of where she lived.

Leading us from her house, we took a short drive up to the top of the hill and then proceeded along its ridge. To the left we could see down to rolling hills—along which had footpaths meandered—and then, as we came around a bend in the road, a bright red earth suddenly spread out beneath the grass to our right. It was a brilliant, bright red that continued with us as we stopped the car and began to walk alongside it.

This red earth was hard—too hard to dig with a shovel, but a hammer turned it instantly to dust. So, with a light tap and a strong grip I carefully collected some samples. The red was bright, but the golden mica embedded in it was what  made the colour beautiful. This same glitter appears in the pots that have been unearthed from thousands of years ago and I think it’s part of what is so unique about this local colour.

Given its proximity to an ancient village site of the Luiseño People, we suspect that this red was one that was used traditionally, and the next leg of our adventure furthered that connection. After we had explored the ridge and collected a little of the earth, we returned to the village where Julie lives and visited one of her neighbours who is a retired archaeologist. Beneath his new home (all the homes in this area were rebuilt after the 2007 forest fire) are old fieldstone foundations from centuries ago; and beneath those are the ancient remains of the Indian’s village, stretching back thousand years. The invitation was for us to come and make pigment in the traditional grinding holes around his home.

It’s here that the magic took place for me—my experience doing this is one I hear echoed in W.H. Auden’s Horae Canonicae,

You need not see what someone is doing to know if it is his vocation,
you have only to watch his eyes; a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon
making a primary incision, a clerk completing a bill of lading,
wear the same rapt expression, forgetting themselves in a function.
How beautiful it is, that eye-on-the-object look.

I have never felt so sure of my vocation as when I was grinding that rock into pigment. Taking a little of the earth, I placed it onto the ancient rock bowl provided. With a well fitted rock in my hand, I began to powder the hard soil (it didn’t take long). My hands pushed and pulled the increasing red pigment across the granite as I added water. At first the pigment grated and complained roughly, but as it smoothed out it relaxed into silence. The process consumed my attention. And, when I was finished I had a red-rimmed stone bowl with a little sea of brilliant vermillion inside it.

Even as I write this account I’m still on a high from it! I’m deeply thankful to both Norrie and Julie for their invitation and help during the day. And, if you’d like to read about my last trip to San Diego, you can follow this link:

3 thoughts on “Luiseño Red”

  1. Symeon, wow this sounds so exciting. I haven’t worked pigments for a while but have a few workshops coming up, as well my collection is grown. Would love to try to screen print with it. Sounds like all is well. Best Kelly

  2. Gorgeous, Symeon! I wish I was there to watch you grind in that trough in person – the video really helped me understand how beautiful it was. I’m so glad you shared this experience.

  3. Beautiful day, beatiful stops, and we transcended time metaphorically speaking, as we collected the brilliant earth, sparking snd beaming red, and then transformed it into raw pigment. I will let my visitiors paint this pigment on a boulder on my property that was dedicated to activity 20 years ago. Traditions carry on, the same, yet different.


Leave a comment