Susan Knight is aÂ painter and installation artist based in Omaha, Nebraska, who has focused sinceÂ 2002 on the aesthetic and scientific qualities of water. What sets her apartÂ from other visual artists with the same interests, though, is the presentationÂ of her subject matter. Using an X-Acto blade as her implement of choice, KnightÂ hand-cuts her interpretations of water out of Tyvek, paper, plastic and Mylar, concentratingÂ on the negative spaces that the cutting process creates.
The resulting pieces contain intricate patterns, many of which reflect waterâ€™s archetypical movements, such as the â€œvortex actionâ€ and the â€œfat triangle and egg shape,â€ that take place under the surface of all rivers and in ocean currents. Knight admitted to me in our recent conversation that she will never understand the molecular science behind these movements but that they do guide the shapes she makes.
Origins of Cutting Water
Knight did not always use the X-Acto blade to hand-cut worksÂ of art, nor did she always consider water to be her chosen subject matter. In fact,Â prior to 2002, she was a realistic figurative painter who had been dependent onÂ photographic references to guide her work. That year, however, she was
determined to participate in an exhibition on rivers that had been organized toÂ honor a friend who had recently died.
Initially unsure how to proceed, Knight was eventually inspired by a show at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City, which had been comprised entirely of hand-cut paper imagery. She decided to hand-cut a representation of the Grand River in Grand Rapids, Michigan as her contribution to the river exhibition. She had grown up alongside the Grand River and knew its contours. Although Knight had originally thought of this project as a one-time effort, she soon realized that the process of hand-cutting and the subject of water were artistically liberating to her and offered endless imaginative possibilities.
Wanting to learn more about the science of water and whatÂ was beneath the surface, Knight began studying the bodies of water near whereÂ she has lived. She gathered information on the breakdown of the ecosystem inÂ the Great Lakes as well as the quality of groundwater in Nebraska and then
translated the research data into visual patterns that reflected theseÂ environmental conditions, most of which had been impacted by climate change. HerÂ earliest work focused on the visual patterns found in Zebra mussels and SpinyÂ Tail Water Fleas, two species that have invaded the Great Lakes through theÂ ballast water that was illegally discharged from ocean-going vessels travelingÂ through the St. Lawrence River. As the water of the Great Lakes has warmed, theÂ Zebra mussel (and other alien species) has found a habitat suited to breeding. TheÂ proliferation of the species has contributed to the decimation of the localÂ fishing industry, and the spread of its shell fragments has transformed theÂ sand on local beaches.
Since 2002, Knight has also examined the riparian habitats (the wetlands adjacent to rivers and streams) of the Yampa River in Colorado, mixed-use issues in the Hudson River in New York and preservation efforts in the Amazon. For all of her projects, Knight used the book, Sensitive Chaos: The Creation of Flowing Forms in Water and Air Â by Theodore Schwenk, as her go-to reference guide on â€œthe laws apparent in the subtle patterns in water movement.â€
Materials and Method
Knightâ€™s earliest pieces were cut entirely out of paper.Â Over time, she began to experiment with Mylar, a polyester film, for itsÂ translucent, ethereal qualities. In a 2014 interview in Sci Art in America, Knight admittedÂ that â€œI like engaging in an ancient technique common in many countries with aÂ contemporary product that reflects my contemporary approach.â€
Eventually, when she wanted to apply color to her cuttings,Â Knight incorporated Tyvek, a material made from high-density polyethylene
fibers that is stronger than paper and is commonly used as a protective sheetÂ underneath the finished exterior of buildings. She discovered that the materialÂ absorbs acrylic ink beautifully and being water-resistant, remains flat whenÂ exposed to the paint.
As part of her working process, Knight draws on the surface of her designated material before she cuts but edits as the piece progresses.
Knightâ€™s most recent installations are entitled, Lucky Links and Water Bank, Boogie.
Knightâ€™s intention with the 2019 installation Lucky Links was to â€œlinkâ€ the opposingÂ and divisive forces in our society today with the opposing forces existing inÂ nature that have led to positive outcomes. The example of positive naturalÂ forces she uses in the installation is the formation of crystal, which occursÂ when the dissimilar elements of water and rock are combined over time. As sheÂ states on her website,
Over millenniums (sic) opposing forces and cycles in nature cooperated to support continual growth and creation. Is this unique phenomenon of cooperation in nature a link to our own cultureâ€™s successful survival?
Lucky Links visually represents my reflections on our polarized American culture, and the natural world. Suspended, hand-cut, Tyvek crystal patterns represent early interactions between water and rock that produced crystal. Camouflage components are hand-cut with faces and painted with the colors of human skin and portray our culture.
Water Bank, Boogie
Knight is currently working on a sixth iteration of herÂ installation, Water Bank, Boogie. PreviousÂ versions have been installed in The Nordstrom Gallery, Wayne State College,Â Wayne Nebraska; The Kaneko, Omaha, Nebraska; the Garrison Art Center, Garrison,Â New York; Mid-America
Arts Alliance, Kansas City, Missouri; and Artprize, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The installations are based on Knightâ€™s 2012 experience inÂ the field with Nebraskan hydro geologists who were testing the ground water inÂ soil samples to determine the health of the water. The red, yellow, gray and
green in the installations are the same colors used by the geologists to color
code the samples according to the categorization of clay, gravel, sand and
silt. The highly porous nature of the hand-cuts components alludes to the wideÂ buffer zones, soil remediation and water bank erosion and remediation.
When I asked Knight to describe the reaction of theÂ scientists to her large-scale installations based on their work, she respondedÂ that they were struck by how people outside of their discipline cared aboutÂ what they were doing. She added that they were also delighted to see aÂ super-sized, artistâ€™s interpretation of the science.
Knightâ€™s hand-cut works and installations are remarkable forÂ their aesthetic beauty, for their inventive presentation of an age-old artisticÂ discipline using contemporary materials and for their allusions to theÂ scientific nature of water in our current, precarious world.Â As she readily admits, Knight feels as if â€œsheÂ has no choiceâ€ in focusing all of her work on water, that â€œit is directingÂ her,â€ rather than the other way around.
(Top image: Water Pods, hand-cut paper components, Tyvek and acrylic ink. Gallery 72, Omaha, Nebraska, 2016. All photos courtesy of the artist.)
ThisÂ article is part ofÂ Imagining Water,Â a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climateÂ change a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions,Â performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums,Â galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.
SusanÂ Hoffman FishmanÂ is a painter, publicÂ artist, writer, and educator whose work has been exhibited in numerous museumsÂ and galleries throughout the U.S.Â Her latest bodies of work focus on the threatÂ of rising tides, our new plastic seas and the wars that are predicted to occurÂ in the future over access to clean water. She is also the co-creator of twoÂ interactive public art projects:Â The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on waterÂ andÂ Home, which calls attention to homelessness and the lack of affordableÂ housing in our cities and towns.
Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.
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