The Art of Compost

By Eric Grissell

Can compost be a work of art?

A difficult philosophical question some might think, but for those of us who garden,

compost is simply a work of rot—a process best left to the imagination, scarcely worth a

second thought. In garden-speak, compost is the workaday process of purposefully recycling

organic matter. When viewed in biological terms, however, compost and composting become a

much more complicated matter involving decomposition, that is, harnessing the powers of a

complex world largely ignored by our routine existence.

Without the unseen work of fungi, bacteria, protozoa, insects, and earthworms feeding

upon the dead, our living world would be continually engulfed in its rapidly expanding past.

Imagine a present day world, awash in the carcasses of a hundred million years of undigested

dinosaur carcasses, and you will understand the significance of the decomposers. Such minute

organisms, dedicated as they are to recycling death, are, in their own microcosm, the overlords

of the planet, more immensely important than the largest living organism the world has ever

known and even humankind itself. But to the gardener’s credit, we rarely need concern

ourselves with the complexity of everyday life, and we certainly do not need to ponder the

subject of compost as it might grace our living room walls. Or do we?

For one artist, the art of the dead represents a subtle and unheralded role in the lives of

the living—a role well suited to the living room wall. Carll Goodpasture, an American artist

now living in Norway and Spain, sees compost as a unique confluence of art and

metaphor expressing his concern for our future. Carll says “I’ve always been fascinated by

photographs—trying to figure out what a photograph is and what it means. An artist, it is said,

can never stop paying attention.” As with most artists, he looks “at what photographs might

represent beyond their literal content. One of my ongoing photo projects is picturing my

compost heap every few days. I was initially inspired by the idea of compost as a metaphor of

climate change. My idea to accumulate as many image-day photographs as parts per million of

carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the infamous climate gas ‘tipping point,’ seemed like an

excellent concept for an environmentally engaged contemporary art project. And so it turned

out to dovetail fortuitously with the brilliant advocacy work at, which is a leading

grass roots campaign to raise climate change awareness.” As a result, Carll assembled 350

images of his compost pile, taken over nearly a decade.

As gardeners we may judge Carll’s concepts of compost as art, or as a metaphor of our

changing future, or we may simply enjoy the inherent beauty in his images, realizing that the

contents of each represents a sense of the enjoyment we once found in our gardens. Gardens,

after all, are temporal creations, built upon seasons of hard work and years of dreaming for that

perfect work of art we envision in our minds. To see the end of spring or summer in our

compost pile is to relive their passing in a humbling, perhaps even sad, way. But to view the

end of fall or winter is a reminder that another year of garden potential awaits us and we will

begin the process renewed. If we have been diligent in our composting efforts, last year’s

remains will become this year’s garden, and we may brag, if not a bit reluctantly, that we have

created a work of art ourselves.