All photos by Thomas Little
“I became really intrigued in the history of [ink making]. As a medium to record history, ink itself wasn’t actually recorded — the process of making ink wasn’t super well known. I started thinking about it as this interesting kind of magic,” Thomas Little, an illustrator, ink maker, and citizen alchemist from rural North Carolina told me. He has been making ink for the last six years but his first attempt started much earlier.
“The first time I made ink I was actually in the fifth grade when I was doing a project on Houdini. It was a magic trick that involved a water to wine sort of chemical reaction. At that time I didn’t know but I was essentially doing the ink process — the actual chemical reaction. That didn’t go over very well.” Little grew up in religious and rural North Carolina and water to wine is just close enough to mocking Jesus: “That wasn’t real popular.”
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Ink kits now available! After much experimentation, I've found a micro-formula that is simple to make, and yields a satisfying ink! Included is a pouch of sumac, a jar of vitriol and a chunk or two of gum. Instructions are clear, despite my tendency to want to write like an 11th century monk. Makes about four ounces of ink (the amount in the spice jar) you just provide water and an inkwell! $20 plus shipping. DM if interested. Thanks!
Little has been running his A Rural Pen Instagram account since 2017 and uses it to discuss ink history and sell his illustrations and ink directly to interested customers and promote his workshops. Little’s dedication to crafting is a continuation of cultural devotion to crafting and making. Practices that grew of necessity — woodworking, homesteading, weaving — morph into expression, art, and utility. What you have must come from somewhere, and rural queer makers and crafters have their hands in the dirt of creation, sharing their cultural history and story.
Crafting is also tied to sharing specifically queer history. The NAMES Project AIDS memorial quilt began in 1985 and remains the largest community folk project in the world. Queer Threads: Crafting Identity and Community, an art exhibition from 2014, showcased felt paintings, yarn drawings, quilted tapestries, and crocheted sculptures from queer artists around the world was ground breaking in the city centers, and coverage by media sources focused on the connection between folk art and queer life as “unexpected”. But for rural queers, the separation between folk art identity and queer identity doesn’t exist. Artists like Libby Paloma, Amelia Christensen, Steph Littlebird Fogel, and Janie Stamm not only operate as queer makers, but explore queer experience through embroidery, woodworking, painting, and beading.
Little’s passion for ink is as poetic as it is practical, considering its existence and history with the pointed analysis of a scientist and the empathic creativity of an artist. “Ink’s powerful in that it is ubiquitous and prosaic but also carries all of our meaning around. It revolutionized our way of speaking, the ideas of the dead are recorded in ink, the dead speak through ink, it just had this really mystical element to it.” During Little’s research into the ingredients in ink — sumac, yarrow, red ochre — he found a certain alchemy involved in the ink making process. “Ink is one of the more important things to come out of the alchemical process.”
Little has also lived in rural queer communes in Tennessee and found that he loves living in rural spaces, but like anywhere there’s a cost. Little felt unsafe working as a waiter in North Carolina, and needed to find a way to take himself out of “the harmful spaces of everyday life.” So Little became an illustrator. “It’s lonely and sad in the woods, it can be. But it’s also a good place to breathe and think about what it means to be human in this world.”
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Spots are filling up fast for the Alchemist's Palette this February 9th at the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum. If your interested, you can reserve a spot at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn a few chemical tricks to make colors. The cost is $15 which you can PayPal at the above email address. Hope to see you there!
Little goes on to say that while he’s a queer creator, “I don’t have the energy to maintain visibility or the need to explain my queerness to people” while also creating. “I’m also a private person, and I don’t have to explain myself in the woods.”
Little’s point is one I hadn’t considered as a queer writer. Being queer is not just a pillar of my identity, but being visibly a queer artist is important to me and my (vomits in mouth) brand. Little is not closeted, but his desire to not have to explain himself everywhere he goes is understandable. We don’t owe every straight person a coming out moment, it’s a lot of energy and intimacy to trade in, and some of us just want to make our art. As for living in the city, Little isn’t really a fan. “I can be more me in the woods than I can in the city, it seems. I feel more alone in the city and I don’t even have the solitude [laughs].”
Little discovered he could create ink out of almost anything. “The ink I enjoy [making] the most is my black ink which is an iron gall ink variant. It uses iron sulfate, which you can make by dissolving just about anything in iron with sulphuric acid. So that got me thinking that ink is this sort of magical substance and what you can transmute into it. I’ve had some friends lost to gun violence, and I thought what better way to use a gun than change it to ink?” Most recently Little has turned a Smith and Wesson into his black ink. “Granted ink isn’t exactly innocent itself, but it’s more in the theatre of the mind than in the world as a violent thing.”
The process of melting a gun in sulphuric acid is captivating for Little. For the Smith and Wesson, “it formed these really beautiful blue/green crystals, and then that is scraped off and dried, and then added to a solution of sumac abstract or some kind of plant matter with high tannic content. It does this beautiful reaction on paper and it’s somewhere between a dye and a paint and it chemically bonds on the paper and it kind of breathes with oxygen. Ink is a momentary organism, it breathes once and dies on the paper.”
Little also teaches workshops in pigment making. “There’s a lot of esoteric history around certain colors. The first cave paintings were with Red Iron Oxide, it’s over 40000 years old. Following that thread and its use throughout the world — every continent has used it. It’s a very cosmopolitan color. Understanding all the mysticism and beauty in the mundane. We take color for granted so much in this world. I like to know where it came from and its roots.”
To support Little’s work, pledge his Patreon, and to purchase ink or his illustrations, follow him on Instagram.
This is fascinating! I loved hearing about both some of the science behind how the ink is made as well as some of Little’s views and philosophies.
This is amazing!! Great article… and now I want to learn more about ink and dye