It begins with the deckled edge. Deckle: the frayed edge, the natural edge, the feathered edge of watercolor paper. I find myself collecting them. Slicing the ragged landscapes into strips. Running my fingers along their mountainous terrain. I imagine a rocky vista held by snow, a memory of mist, the taste of whipped milk. I feel a shift in strength as the paper thins and dissolves and ultimately vanishes between my fingertips. This ragged line informs my journey, leads me in the direction of water.
* * *
I am hiking along an unnamed stream at the Lockport Nature Trail. Even though I am walking my dog I am really paying attention to what the water is doing. Every day it is different. Every day the water speaks to me in another language and I must listen very deeply if I have any hope of understanding it. Today the light is helping me translate. I take photographs of the stream’s icy edges. Later I will sit with the images and make a list of words and phrases that come to mind: collapse, prolapse, fluttering, volatile, pocket frost, depressions, spicules. I study the language of ice and relearn how the earth grows crystals. I think about air bubbles suspended in sheets of ice because that is what my thoughts feel like at this point in my creative process; they are present but they have yet to be released into a form that flows.
* * *
I enroll in watercolor classes at the Burchfield Penney International Center for Watercolor: Watercolor 101 and 102. I might as well begin there.
101: With Joe Whalen and Jeff Watkins
I decide right away that I prefer the Canadian/European spelling of the word colour. The word needs the U to hold the water in its cup. The American spelling makes me feel as if something is missing. Joe speaks to us of the Niagara River, tells us to be the master of our brush, speaks of temperature and mud, and the three textures in nature (soft, smooth, and rough). He teaches with humor and we students appreciate this by showering him with smiles. Jeff adds the focal point, the sweet spot, says that “if you can draw you can paint, it doesn’t work in reverse.” Under his direction we choose a pencil and then “pick an angle for our clouds.” We then wet our paper with a large brush. I am having fun painting the page with water before we add a speck of pigment. Later with “a thirsty brush” in hand we “pull out a little light.” We learn to let the water go.
As we work we ponder a Charles Burchfield quote: “What is seen cannot be unseen.” Was it Joe or Jeff who introduced the question of whether abstracts lie? I feel myself pushing back against this idea. I am a poet. I don’t think I could believe that abstraction lies and still call myself a poet.
We continue to practice by painting edges. Joe says that “Eighty percent of any painting has smooth edges.” I realize with a start that the deckled edges are speaking to me of marriage. I jot down in my notebook “A marriage of edges.” Maybe that is what my poem will be about. Maybe that is my focal point, my sweet spot.
* * *
In between classes I draw the icicles from the Lockport stream. I write the word edge in Vaseline on glass. Leave it out overnight next to the creek. Realize in the morning that to grow crystals I would have had to etch the word into the glass. Even though I consider the experiment a failure I am thinking more deeply about the texture of edges. They can be both soft and harsh. Joe’s comments about warm and cool colors are swirling around in my head like water rushing over mud.
* * *
102: With Rita Augen Auerbach
We are back in second grade playing with color. Rita asks us to create the basics. We push primary color onto our 140 pound cold pressed paper, then we move on to the blending of secondaries. I amuse myself with the movement of the water. I let my colors drip. I introduce rivulets of orange into yellow, let the paint settle into channels of shadow and perspective. This play is soothing, meditative. Next we are invited to place our feet into Burchfield’s shoes, to try to match his colors, to mirror his techniques. I work on extending a small square of “The Moth and the Thunderclap.” I am familiar with Burchfield’s practice of reworking an older image. I used this additive process to compose my new chapbook based on his painting “Solitude.” I set to work on extending his Cecropia moth. All of a sudden the work changes. I have shifted from warm to cool. I have never had a problem creating the color brown before, in fact I have previously thought that all my painterly efforts were made of mud but this time I can’t make the right brown. I don’t like that I have to turn my head to see the image I need to copy. Something is getting lost in the time it takes for my eyes to travel from the wall to my paper. Rita tells us it is okay to paint standing up. Instantly I feel a sense of relief. I resolve to try this at home. To paint while standing. Maybe my visual sensibility requires more verticality?
* * *
At home the poem I am writing is beginning to make itself known to me. The mental mists clear, and the suspension gives way to a more grounded feeling. The phrases in my free writing are becoming more distinct. I still find myself traveling down a few dead end trails, but at least I know what direction I am trying to go. I can feel Alfred Steiglitz’s “Equivalents” on the horizon. Now I understand what the ice is trying to tell me.
* * *
Suspended Motion: Ellen Stienfeld, A Teacher Workshop with Kathy Gaye Shiroki
It is in this exhibition that I feel the final shaping of my poem. I become crystal clear that my poem is about a marriage of human form. The falling, the lifting, the mosaic of relationship, the wellspring of lifeblood that must run through it, the unseen spheres that encircle it. Kathy asks us to select a sculpture and assign it a character. I am working with Ellen’s sculpture “3 Steps” and I come to see its silver circles as my grandparents. It seems to trace their journey across the Atlantic, their steps toward each other across the boundaries of time and space. I write the lines “I have no memory of my grandmother dancing” and later I add “of her balancing her left hand in the right hand of my grandfather/ and yet I believe we are sewn together like they were.” The sculpture brings me full circle back to the water, to a union of complements, to my own marriage. I feel able to go home and finish writing. I title my piece “The Hand that Rakes the Water”. It has become a hybrid form that marries poetry and prose. I have written a love poem that dances along the water’s edge.
Karen Lee Lewis
Karen Lee Lewis is a poet, photographer, Teaching Artist and Teacher Consultant for the Western New York Writing Project. Her work has been widely published. She teaches creative writing workshops for children and adults throughout Western New York. She has been involved in arts education for over a decade and recently participated in the first national workshop for Teaching Artists at the J.F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Her full-length poetry collection is entitled “What I Would Not Unravel”. Her new chapbook “Solitude” is based on a Charles Burchfield painting of the same name. It is a ten-part poem that is paired with her original photographs. To learn more about her work please visit www.karenleelewis.com