Collecting Carbon, Part 2

March 30, 2010
photograph by Teresa Tamura


This is a photograph of me assembling the bottom section of my two-section carbon trap. The top section is standing on the floor to my right.  Behind that, you can see my painting wall that is covered in black ink—an ink composed of the very pigment I am out to capture.

Song Yingxing (宋應星) states in his description of Chinese carbon traps that they were made of bamboo. I don't have access to bamboo, which initially presented something of an obstacle. Ultimately, I opted to use a fine wire mesh that is abundantly available at the local hardware store where I live. The use of bamboo for making these traps is puzzling as it is flammable, especially when it has been cut into fine strips. It is hard to collect carbon if your carbon trap burns up. I suspect that in the Ming dynasty they used bamboo to make their traps because they did not have access to fine wire mesh. But, of course, there is no way to verify this.

More seriously, one of the principle reasons I like to gather my own pigments is that it provides me an opportunity to closely observe the world. Potential danger heightens our capacity for observation. So in this regard, a bamboo collector is vastly superior to a metal one. I say this because it would force one to pay rather scrupulous attention to the fire, to be constantly vigilant of the flame. By extension, one would be more vigilant of the wood, the smoke, and the resulting buildup of carbon. I wonder what these early collectors of carbon learned after tending these carbon traps over months and years? What marvelous things they saw in the billowing smoke?



Want to start at the beginning of this series of postings on carbon traps? Click here.