The KKK took my colours away

This is the title of a work of art by Jim Thalassoudis of Australia, done in lead white oil paint, wood and glass, 2017. It is impressive. To see it you will have to go to Chromatopia: An Illustrated History of Colour by David Coles, with photographs by Adrian Lander, published by Thames and Hudson, [p 217]. You’ll know the artist’s intention when you face the work that produced this challenging title. He is challenging white supremacy and all that it represents. But why does this work of art belong here with the Sciences and Humanities? This is a gift from Dr. Adriana Dutkiewicz, Senior Lecturer in Geological Science in the University of Sydney.

On the surface, it looks as if the book belongs on the HASS – Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences – side of that divide put in place by the reviewers in the 2015 Australian National Curriculum.

But David Coles takes me to minerals. I learn that Lead White is ‘the greatest and the cruellest of the whites’. What! Something made can be cruel? I discover it is “basic lead carbonate, formed by the reaction of lead with vapours of vinegar (acetic acid) and carbon dioxide.”

I have been taken across that artificial, troublesome divide into the world of the sciences, technologies, engineering and mathematics. In this case, it’s chemistry: one of the most important pigments for artists for 2,000 years. But lead is toxic.

David Coles gives me further information. “This is not such an issue for artists whose contact with it in paint is limited, but for workers in lead white factories the symptoms of poisoning include headaches, memory loss, abdominal pain and eventually death. In the late 19th century safer synthetic whites superseded lead white. Zinc white was its first competitor and then, in the 20th century, the introduction of titanium white almost completely replaced lead white’s commercial use.” [p 39]

Our children and their parents know how toxic it is because factories, like lead smelters for example, have been built too near homes, too near schools, with too little regard for its deadly impact on the brain: that is because of little concern on the technological side for the human side.

There we have it. Too much separation. Too little connection.

And we are back with a previous blog – the Periodic Table – science AND the humanities

But, back to Chromatopia. Such a marvellous, beautifully produced, holistic history of colour. Each pigment, each colour has a page, with a magnificent facing photograph. Look up ‘woad’. Look up ‘indigo’. See the connections that cross millennia. The ancient Egyptians first developed synthetic colours. Look up ‘mummy brown’. Look up ‘brazilwood’ – a country named after a wood! Consider graphite. Consider Mars colours, since Mars is on our space-based agenda.

But don’t forget.

Lead is still widely used for car batteries, pigments, ammunition, cable sheathing, weights for lifting, weight belts for diving, lead crystal glass, radiation protection and in some solders. It is often used to store corrosive liquids.

Lead – Element information, properties and uses | Periodic Table

In South Australia secondary school students today might not, since the official 2015 curriculum does not encourage it, have the chance early in their secondary schooling to make connections across disciplines. They did at Marion High School, a ‘lighthouse school’ for South Australia destroyed by a Liberal government in 1996. Students began the process through a theme in Year 9. In Year 10 ‘Bridging’ was student-directed. In Year 11 Independent Study took them in all kinds of directions to the surprise of teachers and the delight of the Inventors group that came to see their work displayed in the Durney Resources Library. In 2019 the Year 12 research project that encourages these connections is seen too often as an infringement of subject time. That attitude results in the perpetuation of subjects as ‘silos’. That earlier initial approach depends upon the attitudes and skills of teachers.

Look what we miss by the segregation of disciplines in this thoughtless, divisive way. Effective learning values intersections*, crosses boundaries.

For fun, I looked up the saying, “Get the lead out’ and found the following:

Etymologists do agree it began to be commonly used in the United States beginning in the early 20th century, often as the slightly longer “get the lead out of your pants”. The idea is simply that the person whom you are telling this is moving slowly as if they are weighted down with lead, so “getting the lead out” would make them move faster.” Today, how do we get the lead out, find the less toxic alternative? Artists were able to do it.

2 thoughts on “The KKK took my colours away

  1. We are taken from the first colours, through colours in ancient times, the colours of the classical world, mediaeval colours, through writing inks to mysterious colours, the brave new world of colour and the science of modern colour. Even colours in the stars glowing on the ceiling of a child’s bedroom. Photoluminescence. Such a close connection between the sciences and humanities.


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