In a tangle of disciplines that began as a simple question, art and science have merged and Northwest Coast artist Melonie Ancheta has begun to put together the long history of Northwest Coast native pigments and paint technology. As a professional artist for many years, she has always been fascinated by traditional materials and methods as a way of understanding the art of people who created it.
Early in her career, Ancheta became consumed with the question of what pigments the old blue and green were made from. The question of green was answered quickly; green pigment has been used by the Coast Salish for more than 3,000 years.
But blue — no one seemed to know or care, so Ancheta immersed herself in finding the answer. It didn’t come until 2010, when after being given a small sample, she had it analyzed at the atomic level by an electron microscope. While the blue pigment turned out to be a common mineral, it has proven to have complex behaviors. That led Ancheta’s research into areas she never imagined visiting, such as chemistry, biochemistry and geology.
Ancheta has spent hundreds of hours studying artifacts, talking with conservators and curators, and trying to map deposits of mineral pigments that might help determine the provenance and dates of artifacts more clearly. Her research into traditional Northwest Coast artistic practices has led her to a more profound understanding of the practices, beliefs and behavior of those early people.