"Merge" (2013). 40” x 40”. Layered, hand cut Tyvek & acrylic ink. Image courtesy of the artist.
Susan Knight lives and works in Omaha, Nebraska. Knight creates work which plays with the boundary between 2D and 3D, inspired by the physical behavior of water, and various ecological issues in the U.S.
SciArt: In much of your work, your pieces are informed by naturally occurring shapes and patterns in nature, especially water. Can you describe why you were initially drawn to water as a subject matter, and continue to be?
Susan Knight: Prior to 2002 I was a realist, figurative oil painter. That year I wanted to participate in a show about rivers, a memorial show for a dear friend. Having just seen "Architectural Origami," an elegant show of paper engineering at New York’s Museum of Art and Design I was inspired to cut a map of the river that divided the town in which I grew up. I thought it was a onetime project. But in the midst of cutting an 80” long paper map of the Grand River a slew of ideas and memories rushed into my brain. For the first time I drew from my personal experiences to express myself and I was free from the restraint of photographic references. The physicality of cutting into paper made me feel like Zorro. It was exhilarating to take away from the surface instead of adding to it. My first two series were narratives about the Great Lakes that included catching a vicious snapping turtle on Spring Lake, the mountains of dead fish from the alewife die off along the shores of Lake Michigan one summer and the predator lamprey eel. The last piece in this first series is set on Tahquamenon Falls in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where the river ran yellow one summer from the hemlock tree roots bleeding into it. Color was added to it at a later date. From research to clarify my memories I learned about alien species invasions. I obsessed about two species that are changing the eco-system of the Great Lakes, Zebra mussels from the Caspian Sea and the Spiny Tail Water Flea. I delighted in repeating the wacky striped zebra mussel patterns and the arc of the flea’s long tail. I discovered my predilection and patience for repetition and the love of the nuance it reveals. I was on a mission to look for more patterns in and about water and water habitats that ultimately morph the narratives into abstract work.
"Contours and Thickness"
(2012). 138” x 60” triptych.
Hand cut reflective Tyvek on
paper & Mylar dots. Image courtesy of the artist.
dots. Image courtesy of the artist.
As my concepts grew larger I began cutting designs in groups of 40”x50” components which are manageable for me to manipulate without an assistant and which will store and ship between two pieces of large foam core. The added benefit to these practical considerations is that when I randomly layer components one on top of another, new design complexities pop out in infinitely different ways.
SciArt: I would love to hear a little about your artistic process - what does researching each piece generally involve?
SK: Some of the early work directly interprets headlines about water ecology. Because water is a strategic geopolitical issue there is plenty of research available. Sensitive Chaos: The Creation of Flowing Forms in Water and Air, my bible, provides me physical documentation of water behavior and shapes like the vortex and the fat triangle and egg shape that water repeatedly makes under its surface. What is most gratifying is that each issue, each problem, drives me to dig deeper to understand the science and at the same time my engagement with the visual forms is sustained and heightened. As an artist I never expected this confluence of subject matter and process. I just didn’t know it was possible. I still feel like I’m flying by the seat of my pants in a good, intuitive way. Only two things are constant for both two and three dimensional pieces, I draw on the surface what I want to cut and during the cutting process I engineer the cuts by editing the length or size of some so that the remaining paper supports the areas that are removed.
SciArt: You use hand-cut Mylar and paper for the majority of your work. What draws you to this material?
SK: I cut, fold, tie and stretch paper, plastic, Mylar, Tyvek and tape. The ease with which I can draw the exacto knife through a material is important to me. However, Mylar is difficult to hand cut. I use it because of its translucence and its ability to withstand weather. Texture is why I’ve experimented with different types of Tyvek. I also like engaging in an ancient technique common to many different countries, with a contemporary product that reflects my contemporary approach.
(2008). 40” x
ink & colored
pencil. Image courtesy of the artist.
SciArt: In making work surrounding nature, conservancy and the world’s ecosystem at large, what do you hope your viewers gain from your work?
SK: Once a work is complete it belongs to the viewer who often gives me wonderful feedback about what I’ve just created. As an artist based in the middle of the U.S. I chose to examine ecological problems in my local creek system for an installation at the Museum of Nebraska Art. After that I collaborated with a Connecticut colleague to create a large installation based on groundwater in northeastern Nebraska. Marian Maas, PhD, who founded the Papillion Creek Watershed Project and Susan Lackey, a hydro-geologist with University of Nebraska, were tremendously helpful to me each time. I was able to go into the field to observe wells being tested and look under the microscope at soil samples. The groundwater show in particular engaged a variety of professionals. Farmers walked through an interactive, human scale, precipitation chart from the last 40 years in Nebraska and told me how it correlated to their largest corn harvests. Scientists who worked with the area’s Nebraska Resource District marveled that we visually expressed the properties of groundwater. They never expected an art installation to translate and elevate their own work.
SciArt: Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to share a bit about?
SK: In September I will be on the Wampa River in Hayden, Colorado for a “land/water” residency sponsored by the Colorado Art Ranch and The Nature Conservancy. The Wampa one of the last free flowing rivers in the country. I’ve been reading about the history and ecology of the area in order to make decisions about projects I might tackle.
paper components. Image courtesy of the artist.
cut Mylar &
trees in a rain
forest in Gibsons,
Columbia. Image courtesy of the artist.