Cynthia Brinich-Langlois • Water sheds
March 3 – April 19, 2018
The lithographic prints that comprise Water Sheds present a variety of landscapes altered by drought, with small figures moving through panoramic compositions. The environments depicted are drawn from places I have lived, from deserts and boulder formations that evoke regions of the Southwest, to references to agriculture and livestock that speak to uses of the Midwestern landscape. The story begins on the tundra, with the drying up of rivers and ponds, but as the series continues and expands to include diverse habitats, the land itself begins to disintegrate.
Through my exploration of the landscape genre, I emphasize the effects of human intervention and manipulation in terms of altered topographies, cartographic systems of ordering space, and metaphorical interpretations of ecological systems. My narrative prints respond to changes observed in the natural world and acknowledge the essential relationship between people and the land they inhabit.
This recent work presents a variety of landscapes altered by drought, with small figures moving through panoramic compositions. This project draws loosely on autobiographical experiences, from both my childhood in rural Alaska and my periodic relocations throughout my adult life. I grew up on the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta, an environment defined by water. The rivers and sloughs meander across the tundra, with countless small ponds and oxbow lakes sustained through snowmelt. The ground is soggy, with a permafrost barrier holding water at the surface. The river often floods in the spring, as melt water from upstream pushes against an ice dam that has yet to drift into the sea. As wet as the region appears, though, it receives little precipitation; the ecosystem depends on flooding and permafrost to sustain life.
The river is a thoroughfare, with boats and barges moving from community to community, and ultimately out to sea. This network of water literally connects people with each other and the outside world. The rivers provide sustenance, commerce, education, and recreation, but without water, the system disappears. Since leaving Alaska, I have lived in many different places, each with distinct conditions regarding resource allocation. In the deserts of New Mexico, water rights are established generations in the past, while in Georgia and Florida, long-term drought coupled with disputes over watersheds and the rights of communities downstream influence the discourse. In Wisconsin, the abundance of water in the Great Lakes benefits only those communities directly adjacent, while in Iowa, communities suffer the seemingly contradictory scourges of flooding and drought. The landscapes I draw refer to these disparate locales, from deserts and boulder formations that evoke regions of the Southwest to references to agriculture and livestock that speak to uses of the Midwestern landscape. The story begins on the tundra, with the drying up of rivers and ponds, but as the series continues and expands to include diverse habitats, the land itself begins to disintegrate. The figures’ journey echoes the changing environments they traverse, with surreal geographies suggesting a tranquility of dreams and an unsettled future.
CYNTHIA BRINICH-LANGLOIS grew up in Bethel, Alaska—a small town on the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta. She attended Kenyon College, where she studied Studio Art and Environmental Biology. While completing an MFA in Printmaking from the University of New Mexico, she participated in Land Arts of the American West and the Tamarind Institute’s Collaborative Lithography program.
Brinich-Langlois has been an artist in residence at Elsewhere Artists Collaborative, RedLine Milwaukee, Iowa Lakeside Laboratory, and the Ucross Foundation, where she collaborated with other artists and scientists to create a multifaceted portrait of place. She has exhibited her prints, books, and video animations in solo and group shows throughout the United States and abroad, including at the Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Minnesota Center for Book Arts, Awagami Factory, Yoshinogawa City, Japan, A1LabArts in Knoxville, Tennessee, Dairy Arts Center in Boulder, Colorado, Harwood Art Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Firehouse Gallery in Louisville, Georgia, Atelier 6000 in Bend, Oregon, WORK Ann Arbor, Artspace in Richmond, Virginia, Purdue University Galleries, Creative Research Laboratory in Austin, Texas, and Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend, Wisconsin, among others. Her work is included in the Iowa Print Group archive at the University of Iowa, as well as the Center for Art + Environment collection at the Nevada Museum of Art, Reno.
Brinich-Langlois is the Print & Narrative Forms area technician and teaches printmaking and digital art as an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Art and Design at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she continues to make work that explores the intricacies of the natural world.
The following questions are intended to provide insight into the artist's process, how they got started and what inspires them.
Was there a person or event that got you started creating your art? Does that person or event continue to influence the work that you do?
I can’t remember when I started making art, but when I was young, a Yup’ik woman named Linda Watson resided across the street from us in Anchorage, Alaska. She was a schoolteacher, and she would invite my sister and me over to her house during the day in the summertime. She taught me how to do bead embroidery with tiny glass seed beads sewn onto scraps of felt with patterns drawn in intricate designs. My family ultimately moved to Bethel, Alaska where the woman had grown up. Supplies for traditional bead embroidery were plentiful there, and certainly easier to come by than other art supplies, so I did bead embroidery in my spare time and took art classes at school. While I focus more on drawing and printmaking now, I notice similarities to the process of decorative beading in my drawing, with tiny circles accumulating to form entire landscapes, and metallic and pearlescent foils adding a surface sheen to the work.
At what point did you consider yourself an artist?
According to my parents, I have always considered myself to be an artist. They did warn me that artists don’t usually make a lot of money, but money wasn’t something I was worried about in elementary school. At the end of high school, I did briefly entertain the idea of becoming a writer and chose to attend Kenyon College, but after one English class, I decided to turn my attention toward Art and Biology.
Who or what inspires you and why?
I find inspiration in the natural world, sometimes through direct observation of specific sites or specimens, and other times through metaphorical visual narratives. I travel to different parts of the country to experience a variety of landscapes and research different ecological systems in support of my artistic practice. I grew up in a place where the environment was a dominant force in everyday life to a greater degree than in any place I have lived since. People relied on subsistence fishing and hunting to feed their families, and while modern conveniences like outboard motors and snow machines made travel a little easier, the climate is still severe. Rural Alaska is currently a land in flux; as the land warms and the permafrost melts, large swathes of tundra habitat are transforming into something else.
What was the first piece of art you made? Do you remember why you made it? What materials did you use and why?
I cannot properly identify the first piece of art I made, as I’ve been telling stories since I could talk, sometimes in my own made-up language, and drawing pictures long before I could read or write. The first piece of art that I had published, though, was a linocut print that I made during a class at the art museum in Anchorage when I was eight years old, at a time when children were still permitted to handle very sharp objects in the pursuit of artwork (during another class at the museum, I made a stained glass window with actual glass and actual soldering). Each child carved their linoleum block with a large single letter (reversed) in the shape of an animal or other identifiable thing, and our prints were included in the literature for the museum’s exhibition of medieval culture as decorated initials at the start of each section of the brochure. Mine was a letter “C” and I was adamant that the animal was a cougar, not a cat. The language in the publication associated with my letter “C” read, “Castles were big and cold...” and then went on to discuss tapestries and other methods used to make stone buildings more habitable in cool damp climates.
Are there any programs or learning opportunities that you wish you had as a young artist?
This is a difficult question to answer. I grew up in rural Alaska and was immersed in various artistic programs through my school and community, like participating in a traditional Yup-ik dance group at Camai Festival, contributing to the annual dumpster-painting competition run through the city Parks & Rec department, creating a mural based on the six seasons recognized in native Alaskan culture for the school district’s daycare, acting in school theatrical productions, etc. While I certainly felt isolated from the outside world, I took advantage of the many opportunities within my community to build a foundation in the arts. I struggle to identify specific learning opportunities that were absent; the experiences that I had were distinct and formative, and I expect that similar programs to enrich the collective experiences of both young and old members of the community are at least possible, if not already in place, in most areas.
What would you say to a young person to encourage their study and practice of art?
Be effective in whatever situation arises. While it may not always be practical to create works of art using familiar methodologies (access to facilities/materials/quiet space may not be consistently available), unusual circumstances may inspire new practices or lead to development of ideas that can be completed in the future. These inevitable challenges keep one’s creative practice active and responsive. It is important to continue making—perhaps not always in precisely the same manner—but in a way that reinforces a ritual of innovation adaptable to the diversity of conditions encountered throughout a lifetime of production.
The following questions are intended to create insight into the artist’s practice and why they think art is important.
Is this your first and only career? If not, what other jobs have you had and how have they influenced your artistic practice?
My work as an artist/educator has been the focus of my career, but I have held a variety of other jobs in support of this pursuit. Many of these appointments did not directly relate to my occupational goals; however, my favorite job was during the summer before I started graduate school, when I was fortunate to be hired as my hometown’s city gardener. I was responsible for maintaining the flowerbeds and hanging baskets outside the city buildings, as well as a greenhouse and vegetable garden associated with the youth center. I concurrently collected data on flower and vegetable growth in gardens in Western Alaska for UAF Cooperative Extension, and I drove a four-wheeler with a trailer full of plants in the Fourth of July parade. I had completed field studies as part of my Environmental Biology minor in college, but my job as city gardener demanded a more sustained and immersive examination of a diverse collection of specimens. I have continued to gravitate toward botanical content in my artwork, and I appreciate the role of direct observation to capture the nuance and distinctiveness of a subject.
Do you like people to see your work/comment on it while it is still in process? Why?
As a printmaker, I work in a communal shop with other faculty, staff, and students sharing the same equipment. By virtue of this shared work environment, my in-progress projects are often on display for others to see. In my role as an educator, I appreciate the opportunity students have to see my projects develop alongside their own work, using the same facilities and tools to produce professional quality editions. The fact that my process is essentially on display encourages me to work in a more careful manner, which may limit wild experimentation, although that was never a big part of my practice. I tend to map out different printing options in the privacy of my own computer, and I seek feedback throughout my creative process, but when I am in the shop printing, I am pretty committed to the outcome.
Do you have a daily artistic ritual or routine? If so, how does this help you?
I would not characterize my practice in general as having a daily artistic ritual, as individual projects require their own approaches. In the creation of Water Sheds, I drew rough compositions as I was falling asleep each night. I would let my mind wander through various terrains, find the right space, and work out the composition within a panoramic format in my sketchbook. The cloud faces, too, came to me as I was drifting off to sleep. I combined these surreal sketches with more tangible references—freshwater fishes of the Midwest, constellations of the northern and southern skies, etc.—to create the finished compositions.
What inspiration/research led you to your current body of work?
I grew up in rural Alaska in a place that is currently undergoing dramatic ecological transformation due to climate change. The prints in Water Sheds follow a loosely autobiographical trajectory, beginning along a river that winds through the tundra, then shifting to drier scenery as the water disappears. Some prints reference the landscapes of the Southwest, with scraggly trees clinging to bare boulders and sand dunes stretching into the distance. Others allude to the agricultural economy of the Midwest, with cows floating in clouds of methane and cornfields planted in shallow soils. This is not a particularly optimistic narrative, and while shifts in temperature are most obvious in polar regions like Alaska, the consequences of climate change will ultimately affect the entire world.
What caused you to gravitate toward the materials and processes you are currently using?
Lithographic prints begin as drawings on limestone; each stone is different, with shades of gray/buff/cream and veins of mineral impurities or even fossils alluding to its sedimentary formation. The image on the stone is transient, so that with each new drawing, the stone gets thinner and thinner as more material is abraded away to remove old imagery. Lithography captures the drawn mark with subtlety; it is difficult to erase, so each addition of grease crayon or tusche wash must be integrated into the composition. These delicate greasy drawings are stabilized in the surface of the stone through a sequence of chemical processes, then printed with oil-based inks from a dampened stone. I appreciate the challenge of the lithographic process, and specifically the act of getting to know both stone and image through a methodology that spans science and art. I produced the prints that comprise Water Sheds when I was working as the Virginia A. Myers Visiting Artist in Printmaking at the University of Iowa. As part of my fellowship, I learned and taught the technique of hot stamped foiling that Virginia Myers adapted from commercial processes for use in the individual artist’s studio. The layering of foils augments the lithographic prints, adding metallic elements and textures that suggest rippling water, shining stars, and weathered stones.
The following questions are intended to offer insight into the artist’s current work and what they intend their audience to understand.
What role does process have in your work?
The time spent producing detailed drawings on stone is labor toward reconstructing a world, necessarily incomplete, largely from memory. The textures and forms rendered in lithographic prints show a place that is changing, so my own recollection of it differs from its present incarnation. I cannot go back to see the landscape I grew up in, as it is already transformed, and so I rely on my memories of place for my source material.
How do you know when a piece is complete?
When drawing on a stone, it is very difficult to erase unwanted marks, so identifying an effective stopping point is critical. I struggle with knowing when to stop working on a composition when I am drawing on paper (although not with watercolor . . . again, another medium that is not amenable to overworking). I tend to gravitate toward processes that force me to be determinate. The material itself precludes further additions because, at some point, there is no more to add and I cannot effectively change what is already there. In other words, the piece is complete when the process makes me stop.
What is the one idea/thought you hope people will have/take away with them after viewing your work?
I hope that viewers consider the world we inhabit with care for precarious environmental conditions that are changing faster than we can adapt.
Why do you create art?
I am drawn to both intricate details and larger progressions within the natural world, and I translate this imagery into loosely narrative formats. I enjoy telling stories that capture the exquisite complexity and transience of the environment, and I hope to instill in others an appreciation for their surroundings by emphasizing the moments that make a place unique.
What role does the artist have in society? Why do you think art is important to society?
Artists are responsible for noticing, and then inspiring others to see, as well.
Why do you think it’s important to support the arts?
Society’s encouragement of diverse aesthetic experiences cultivates varied perspectives and internalizes an appreciation for exploring content and/or formats that are unfamiliar. Support for the arts helps to foster a population of curious individuals who remain engaged with a changing world throughout their lifetimes.