Madelaine Corbin’s Mobile Color Lab

Sometimes art, especially fine art, is not what you would imagine. What if I told you there was a talented artist at OSU, right now, that is turning our preconceived notions of viewing color on its head?

Madelaine Corbin is an artist that definitely dabbles in the intersection of art, science, and the realm of community. Currently she is working at an inspiring pace to complete her newest project and thesis capstone, The Mobile Color Lab.

Aimed at confronting issues of space, perception, and accessibility, The Mobile Color Lab is an expression of finding solutions where there are none – or none that are easy to see. Tied intimately to the community and a desire to spread knowledge and color, Corbin and her project have reached out to the community both for support and to offer involvement.

Primary Colors
Corbin is a sixth-generation Corvallisite – the current endcap on two long lines of business people, builders, horse racers, and cabinet makers. She explained this while navigating me through the trees, blobs of students, and up and down an Escher-esque staircase on the way to her OSU studio.

She said her family has been here so long, she would like to get out and see more of the world eventually. To me, this was a telling statement.

You see, her Bachelor of Fine Arts thesis work revolves around The Mobile Color Lab. In the current iteration, the Color Lab is a bicycle trailer, hand-built by Corbin, designed to carry a stock of pigment-producing plants and minerals for educational demonstrations. The project includes two field guides, also developed by Corbin, and a coloring book of sorts for children; it is largely blank so that kids can test the color properties of things they find while playing outside.

Two questions come to mind: why put pigments on a bike trailer, and how is this fine art?

Corbin retorted, “Where does color come from? We think of green, we get it from yellow and blue, right? But where does blue come from?”

A simple answer comes from solid-state chemist Mas Subramanian at OSU. In 2009, Subramanian created what is known as Mas Blue – and boy is it blue. Corbin, fascinated with color, began working with Subramanian in 2015 where her own perspective on color became a little clearer.

“I am interested in organic color verses the inorganic they are making, so some of this is a response to my experience there, which was wonderful, but got me thinking about the other side of color,” she explained.

Out of this realization came collaboration with new people – one of them an artist named Abigail Losli. The two teamed up and last year together created Earth & Color: The Pigment Project, a downloadable book for intrepid Oregonian adventurers. The project allows people to collect pigment samples within their book, along with the location it was found, and share it with the community.

Corbin also worked on a floating food forest in 2016 with Mary Mattingly, a New York-based artist. Known as the SWALE project, Mattingly converted a barge into a floating food and medicine garden which she took around New York, inviting people on board, discussing the pros of food as a free public service, and avoiding New York’s strict food production regulations.

As Corbin put it, these experiences helped informed her work on The Mobile Color Lab. “It has been a huge learning curve for me,” she said. “I didn’t know a lot of this stuff before I started, and I’m having to get into it which is what I love about it.”

Color and Funding
On the studio wall were perspective drawings of the Color Lab and a number of colored wool, cloth, and silk strips labeled with their respective dye treatments. An enormous binder stuffed with dyed material and notes sat on a nearby table. Hexagonal wooden ID tags reminiscent of honeycomb were etched with plant names, pleasantly stained, and organized neatly near a collection of reflectors and buckles.

The trailer itself is sturdy and black with drainage holes drilled through the bottom and back wall. A small space on the back receives runoff and will house a separate grouping of moisture-tolerant plants. In the center will be interchangeable planting troughs packed with different vegetative and mineral groupings. Lightweight aluminum rods support a removable greenhouse tarp, and simply fold down to allow full access within.

“So I look at the history of art and craft, that space between, and why there is that space between,” explained Corbin. “I think I used to have a different idea of what art versus craft were, and I had to sort of confront that.”

“The idea of a museum or white box display space… it doesn’t want to be in there and it doesn’t have to be – art doesn’t have to be viewed there,” she said. “Part of it is turning art into an experience that you can interact with and you don’t feel watched like you do in a gallery.”

Really, it wouldn’t work as well in a gallery because the process of taking say, a lavender flower, and making purple dye is much more than simply rubbing it on your shirt. Corbin explained that first, one must mordant the material in alum, iron, or oak galls – the later she has yet to try. Then you must create the dye bath by simmering the color ingredients, being careful not to boil them, before soaking your fabric for up to a day.

“If you mix mint with lavender, you will get a better purple than if you do lavender alone because of the chemical properties,” she said. “Red onion is an interesting example because the skin makes this lime green with alum, and then with iron it turns pink.”

However, in its current form, it would take The Mobile Color Lab all summer of growing one color to get a decent dye bath.

“I am planning to try lots of different little plants, a wide variety of plants, but less to use them as the samples and more as the example garden,” said Corbin. “So this would be more like the accompaniment or the example… the inspiration to hopefully get other people to make their own color gardens so they don’t have to keep buying this stuff in stores.”

Reaching the community is central to this stage of the project. Corbin has big plans of taking the Color Lab to educational venues around town. From school art classes and summer programs to events that adults would be excited about, Corbin is pumped to get the Color Lab on the road and bring it to you.

“I think the biggest reason why I am so adamant about the way that this is all happening is because of wanting to encourage accessibility,” she said. “Doing this as a community project, where the community helps to fund this and build this, is really important to me.”

Speaking of funding, Corbin has been engaged in a GoFundMe campaign since Jan. 15, raising over $1,000 in just over a month, and surpassing the first of two goals. While the first was the bike trailer, the ultimate goal is $3,500 to fund a 4×8 truck trailer. Every $500 beyond that will fund a complete workshop. So when she said this is more of an example… that is part of what she meant. You can visit her funding effort at

Future of Color
Corbin’s art can been seen right here in Corvallis next week at multiple venues. Fairbanks Gallery on 26th Street will be hosting the Way Beyond the Rainbow exhibition where you can find The Mobile Color Lab along with artwork from other Plinkiewisch Scholarship recipients. In the West Gallery within Fairbanks Hall, Corbin will also have a solo exhibition titled Essay/Edit – “based on submissions gathered by OSU and Corvallis community members who contributed questions they feel they need to ask of themselves, each other, and our world right now.”

Might I just add that Corbin has accomplished all this in six weeks? Dang, Corbin. But to be fair, a multitude of people have contributed. From money, time, and space to insight and advice, Corbin’s artistic dream has pervaded the community and honed in on an idea we can all get hip to: accessibility.

“So I like that it is re-creatable and that I don’t feel the need to be the only author of this,” Corbin humbly remarked. “But what I am most interested in is this as an example that other people can do themselves.”

Find out how to build your own at the Corvallis Arts Walk. Both exhibitions will have a reception on Thursday, March 16 from 4 to 8 p.m. during the CAW, which is a great time to view the gambit of OSU’s art culture. Check out Way Beyond the Rainbow between March 13 and March 31 and Essay/Edit from March 13 through March 17, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

As requested, here’s a shoutout to other gracious supporters: Garland Nursery, Al Shay and the OSU Hort Department, Charles Robinson and SPARK, and any other donors, advisors, or supporters – Corbin says thank you.

By Anthony Vitale