Retired professor road tripping across Sask. to gather soil samples, find art inspiration

Ken Van Rees has been combining his love of soil and art together in his field courses

Ken Van Rees has been combining his love of soil and art together in his field courses

Ken Van Rees has created different pieces of artwork about soil and the natural world. (Submitted by Ken Van Rees)

A Saskatchewan professor is travelling across the province in search of soil and inspiration. 

Ken Van Rees recently retired as a professor of forest soils in the Department of Soil Science at the University of Saskatchewan. Now he's planning a road trip across Saskatchewan to collect dirt. It's a quest to merge art and science. 

"Over the years as a soil scientist, seeing these soil maps, they're called soil zone maps ... they're broken up into different colours," he said. "We have this idea in our mind of what it actually might look like based on those colours, but what does it actually look like?" 

Van Rees put in a proposal to the College of Agriculture and Bioresources to create this road trip to collect the soil samples. 

Ken Van Rees has recently retired as a professor at the University of Saskatchewan. (Submitted by Ken Van Rees)

"And then creating some kind of artwork based on those samples depicting the different colours of these different soil zones," he said. 

He's off to Willow Creek, then driving up Highway 21 to Pierceland. Then off on Highway 2, starting at West Poplar on the American border and up to Weyakwin. Then he'll start at Highway 9 at Northgate and drive up to Hudson Bay, Sask. 

The soil map Van Rees has taught for years was developed in 1928. It's based on climate and relates to the amount of organic matter that's in the soil. Knowing these aspects of the soil is key to knowing what can be grown there and how to manage the soil.

Combining art and science to foster connection, educate public 

Van Rees has been combining his scientific studies with art for the past 15 years. It started at a social science field course where he had the chance to walk through an art gallery in Toronto and saw large landscape pieces. 

"My course was actually going to be called soils and boreal landscapes. And I thought, wouldn't it be kind of cool if my students could actually paint the landscape as well as looking at it scientifically, digging soil pits and classifying vegetation?"

Ken Van Rees has created different artwork with soil, such as this piece capturing the soils from his hometown in Ontario to his current home in Saskatchewan. (Submitted by Ken Van Rees)

He started without knowing anything about art and has developed his skills over the years. He now makes soil profiles as imprints on canvas with acrylic paints.

"When I go to a landscape, I not only try to depict it artistically in terms of the colours, but then I start thinking about why are those trees there? How did they get there? What was the disturbance that caused them to get there?" Van Rees said. "And so I try to bring in the science aspect into trying what I'm trying to do."

Soil is also something personal to him, he said. 

Ken Van Rees has created soil rubbing art, including this piece he made for his son's wedding. The piece features soil from the garden at his family home and at his daughter-in-law's family home. (Submitted by Ken Van Rees)

"Just recently, my son got married, and so what I decided to do was take soil from our garden and her garden and create this art piece that represents kind of their lives because they both lived in their homes for their entire lives."

He said the students have loved incorporating artwork into the field studies and it gives them a better connection with the landscape. As well, merging the two also has applications in terms of helping educate the public in certain aspects of science through art.

With files from The Morning Edition