Allison Cortson, The Blood Arm (2011), oil, dust, glue, acrylic sealer on canvas, 18 x 24"

Allison Cortson - the woman who paints with dust

Santa Monica artist photographs subjects at home then asks them for three months worth of vacuum cleaner bags

If you have attended any form of schooling you're probably aware that dust is just a byproduct of humans, a delicate and sometimes intriguing waste product we leave when hair and skin cells fall off. It clumps in corners and onto blinds and frames until is it cleaned away. The usual final place for domestic dust is in the belly of a vacuum cleaner. And that's where Santa Monica artist Allison Cortson finds her work material of choice. For Cortson, dust has another lease of life as a kind of sentimental paint.


Eric and his dust

Allison Cortson, Eric and his Dust (2009), oil, dust, glue, acrylic sealer on canvas, 68 x 84


Cortson photographs friends going about their normal activities in their homes then asks them to collect two or three months worth of vacuum cleaner bags which they send her. In the resulting 'paintings' the person is the focal point, the only one in colour, standing out from their background. It's almost as if she took to her work with a highlighter to say, “This is the subject.” What surrounds the people is a brown-grey environment that establishes their place. It could be their couch, a field or the staircase from which they descend. But it is always created from dust – the subject’s own. 

“I use a spray glue and liquid glue to make the dust stick to the canvas.  I also use a brush to take away dust to try to give the background a ghostly depth," she says. "I then seal the dust with a clear acrylic spray. The painting is completed by rendering the subject in a realistic manner with oil paints and the rest of their environment is made solely out of the dust from their home, which I sprinkle on the canvas and manipulate with a brush. When finished the dust is coated with an acrylic sealer.”


Eric descending the staircase

Allison Cortson, Eric Descending the Staircase (2011), oil, dust, glue, acrylic sealer on canvas, 68 x 90


For Cortson, the deeply personal technique of using a person’s own dust to paint them also represents something of place in time. Acknolowlging parallels in other dust work she says, “Duchamp’s 'Dust Breeding' project in collaboration with Man Ray seemed to use dust as a  marking of time.  Dust was collected on a pane of glass for a year and then abstract images were formed out of the dust.  My work functions much in the same way given the time it takes to collect.  Also, it relates in that I too use unconventional materials to make images.”


Lee and his dust

Allison Cortson, Lee with his Dust (2009), oil, dust, glue, acrylic sealer on canvas, 60 x 72


Cortson says the decision to make paintings using dust came to her after taking a class at UCLA titled Elementary Particles in the Universe.  "We were learning about how matter is mostly empty space and this concept is very strange and contradictory to everything we experience on a daily basis.  I was sitting on the couch watching dust particles float around in the light coming through the window and the idea came to me to use dust as a material to depict solid space as something light and ephemeral. I found it interesting that just the act of someone living and regenerating cells creates this substance that is everywhere."

If you're intrigued by Cortson's work you may also be interested in another artist who uses an unusual material in their art. Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang uses gunpowder and explosions, producing drawings made of post explosion dust. Just as Cortson’s works take on something of their space – quite literally as they are made using dust from the subject’s home - Cai's projects are also strongly influenced by their location and the works are frequently altered or developed as they are exhibited at new sites. You can see him in action in the video here. If you like what you see (and we can't imagine you won't) you should check out this great monograph on him.