Meet the Urban Ink Forager Who Bottles Up Landscapes

For five years, Jason Logan has been foraging the streets of Toronto for ingredients — anything from berries to cigarette butts — to make his own ink. (Find out what gear he packs in his carry–on, here.) The founder of the Toronto Ink Company and author of Make Ink: A Forager’s Guide to Natural Inkmaking scours the landscape wherever he goes, setting up a makeshift laboratory in the field before returning to his studio to transform the ingredients he has collected into inks. Now, his process will be brought to the big screen: Logan is the subject of a National Film Board of Canada documentary, The Colour of Ink, which writer–director Brian D. Johnson begins shooting this fall.

enRoute What is the process of creating ink?

Jason Logan There are rules of thumb about when to boil or mash or add vinegar or salt or pure alcohol to an ingredient to bring out the pigment, but making ink involves a lot of experimenting. If you have a clear picture in mind of the colour you want, you should probably just go to an art supply store and get that. I like to turn ideas into ink, to bottle up an experience or a landscape. I’m working on an ink using dirt and grass from Kansas. I don’t know exactly what colour it will be, but I want to capture the essence of the Kansas plains.

September 25, 2019
A collage of colourful ink squares
   Photo: The Toronto Ink Company

ER How do you forage for ingredients?

JL When I go out foraging, I try to spend the first hour ignoring my research and just experiencing the landscape. I always have a backpack full of equipment — beakers, brushes, vials — to set up a mini–laboratory wherever I am. It’s better to start playing with ingredients in the field rather than just putting samples in a bag. I want as much context as possible about where the ingredients come from when I do the initial experimentation.

ER Is there a modern value to this ancient practice?

JL When people attend my foraging workshops, I see the way the experience wakes them up. It’s something they didn’t know they needed. While on my book tour, I realized there’s a social movement brewing. People want to use their hands for more than just typing away on a phone. There’s a growing interest in getting your hands dirty and reconnecting with old–fashioned methods, whether that’s inkmaking or carving or pickling.

Jason Logan gathering ingredients for ink in the snow along the rocky coastline
   Photo: The Toronto Ink Company

ER You have worked with ingredients from around the world. What is the importance of place in inkmaking?

JL For thousands of years, winemakers have been aware that the soil and other subtleties of a location affect the richness and complexity of wine. If place changes flavour, why not colour? Ink made from locally sourced ingredients also allows people to fly the flag of their neighbourhood or incorporate a piece of history into their art. I was recently sent tap water from Tokyo and fragments of ancient Roman roads to use in my inks.

ER What has foraging in Toronto taught you about the city?

JL So many people think of Toronto as a concrete jungle, but the city is a lot more wild than we give it credit for. I often find these little pockets of wildness because I'm not looking for beauty when I forage. I think there's growing dissatisfaction with city life, but you don’t have to go out into nature to fulfill that need to connect with your surroundings. There are ways to do that right down your street.

An ink identification card sampling a wild grape purple mixed with copper oxide and lye water
   Photo: The Toronto Ink Company

ER What can you tell us about The Colour of Ink?

JL This fall I will be travelling to London to meet an amazing Islamic calligrapher, and there will probably be a trip to Japan, too. The next five or six trips I go on will be for the documentary. What's amazing about it is that it's essentially a camera following my curiosities, experiments and fascinations with the world of ink. If we get it right, I think the audience will feel not that it's about me but that they are me. I'm sort of the eyes of the audience, and the things that I'm curious about in the world of ink will hopefully draw the audience forward.