Wednesday, May 21, 2008

June Artists: Water Worlds

Many of us, it seems, have a strong connection to water but one that’s constantly in flux. We’re drawn to water, inspired by it, rejuvenated by it, sometimes frightened by it. 

So it’s not surprising that artists are attracted to it—and that their depictions of water are greatly diverse. 

The James Watrous Gallery at the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters plays with this idea in an exhibition opening in June. Works by two artists are shown alongside one another to show how each observes and interprets the water and its surrounding landscape.

The Things We Know (formerly Verismo/Verita) by Lake Mills artist Amy Arntson is a series of hypnotic, crisply realistic watercolors. Most of her paintings include no land as reference; the viewer is left only to focus on the waves and their colors, textures, patterns and rhythms.

In Lake Superior Blues, Madison architectural-model builder Bruce Severson showcases pastel drawings and acrylic paintings that express the moods and feelings he encounters in the landscape of Lake Superior.

Taking a cue from the side-by-side format of the exhibition, I’m posing together Arntson and Severson’s individual responses to a shared set of questions.

Why take on water as your subject matter?

Amy Arntson: Growing up in the Great Lakes region, water has always been a powerful symbol for me. It is intimately connected with the passage of time … of stability and change. It is both fragile and seemingly eternal. Most of my current paintings do not reference the surrounding land. Instead, they focus on light, texture, shape and movement of water. There is no place to stand, only a place to be. Without a horizon line, the implied physical presence of the viewer diminishes. Viewers are encouraged to meditate on the water, projecting themselves into the painting.

Bruce Severson: I lived by Lake Superior a couple years in the late seventies and was really quite taken by the whole lake and its large features—the large boats, the large bluffs. It was quite a magical thing.

In what kind of style do you choose to represent water—and why this style?

Amy Arntson: Influences on my work range from wash drawings of the seventeenth
-century illuminists who addressed the relationship between landscape and the expression of feeling, to an array of twentieth century abstract artwork. Abstract color, shape and texture are an underpinning to all my realistic paintings, as are a sense of place and time and related emotions. The work is created from sketches and photographs of locations I visit in the Great Lakes and other areas.

Bruce Severson: I think it’s probably some sort of impressionistic style but I do think I go back and forth between abstract and realistic. Sometimes it’s both things: Sometimes the details are quite abstract but when you back up its hyper-realistic.

How is your medium of choice suited to rendering water?

Amy Arntson: Throughout my career, I’ve found it 
important to be familiar with a variety of media, so that any choice made comes from a strong knowledge base. I’ve examined a wide variety of concepts in painting, photography and electronic art. Consistently line and wash and watercolor seem most beautiful to my eye, and this is the medium used in my current paintings.

Bruce Severson: I can capture the nuances of colors easier with pastels. However, in a large way, paintings allow another kind of looseness I try to work with. I use quite a range of application techniques; not just brushes, but I make certain implements for applying paint.

What do you hope to express in your work?

Amy Arntson: The title of this exhibition at the Watrous is taken from Aldo Leopold’s statement that “We only mourn the things we know.” I have started to think of my water paintings in the context of global change and potential loss.

Bruce Severson: I try to capture atmosphere as much as the objects. There’s an ethereal quality to a lot of my work. And I also like to work with colors. My show I’m calling Lake Superior Blues, partly because I miss the lake and partly because whenever I observe the water it seems to be a different shade of blue.

What do you hope people get from seeing your work—and side by side with that of another artist?

Amy Arntson: I don't know the other artist or his work but I look forward to seeing his paintings. It is always good to see another artist with a similar interest. Viewers will benefit from two viewpoints.

Bruce Severson: It’s my own landscape, my own eye on it. To me, it’s sort of a language that words can’t describe … Each person will come away with their own feeling. It’s more about that, about sharing a feeling, than anything else.

Verismo/Verita and Lake Superior Blues run June 20 to July 27. For more information, visit

Photos from top to bottom are: Arntson’s Fall Wind, Severson’s Ice Waves, Arntson’s Under Tom’s Pier and Severson’s Thin Ice.

COMING UP: A few events and performances to check out this week.

Some major events take place this week—and long Memorial Day weekend—around Madison.

Get a jump start the holiday weekend this evening at Tunes at Monona Terrace with music by The Reptile Palace Orchestra Balkan Dance Groove.

Friday through Monday, take your pick—or, better yet, check out both—of the World’s Largest Brat Fest at the Alliant Energy Center and the WisCon Feminist Science Fiction Convention at the Concourse Hotel.

On Saturday, Girls and Company: Feminist Works from MMoCA’s Permanent Collection, a collection of feminist art from the 1960s to ’90s, opens at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

And on Sunday, join or cheer on runners in the Madison Marathon.

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