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An Intimate Relationship with Water: Revealing the Artistic Process

Thu, 03/12/2015 - 4:16pm -- Rachel Bruya

Several weeks ago a colleague asked me, “Can a person have an intimate relationship with water?” The question took me by surprise. “Well, of course a person can!” was my reply.

This exchange has been in the back of my mind ever since.  Do some people not have a relationship with water, I wondered? Is there something special about an artist that enables them to develop relationships with objects, places, or in this case, a natural element? 

On March 1, the James Watrous Gallery began installing a new exhibition called “Waterways,” which includes works by Sarah FitzSimons, Marsha McDonald, and John Miller. In preparation for the exhibit, and to better understand the questions above, I interviewed each of the artists. Their answers, along with some images of the exhibit (courtesy the James Watrous Gallery), are below.



Rachel Bruya (RB): Please describe your relationship to water, and how it relates to and informs the artwork exhibited in Waterways.

Sarah FitzSimons (SF):  I was born and grew up in Euclid, Ohio, with Lake Erie a short walk down the street. Later in life, I lived (among other places) in Los Angeles and Lisbon, Portugal, where the Pacific or Atlantic Ocean was also a short walk from my apartment. As an undergraduate and graduate student I studied geomorphology in addition to art, and became fascinated with all the different ways water moves (in rivers, oceans, lakes, and glaciers) and the processes by which water sculpts the land. 

My interest in water included its potential for metaphor in addition to learning about its physical, scientific characteristics. C. G. Jung wrote about water as the most common symbol for the unconscious. This particular metaphor, and the comparison of being above water (conscious/aware/awake) and underwater (unconscious/unaware/asleep) inspired a number of pieces related to the ocean with its regularly shifting tidal levels, including “Pacific Quilt” and the research and models exhibited in “Waterways.”

Detail of Sarah FitzSimons' “Notes and Research from Studio Wall”

Detail of Sarah FitzSimons “Notes and Research from Studio Wall”

RB: Sculptors often work in several types of media. How do the materials you use relate to your concept, and how does that relationship evolve as you are working on the piece or body of work?

SF: It’s true, I tend to shift materials and media for different projects. The continuity in my work as a visual artist doesn’t come from a concentration in one specific material, but from a series of related questions I ask over time… a sustained trajectory of research into the overlapping and interpenetrating categories of “nature and culture.”

Different pieces require distinct materials. Sometimes this is due to technical requirements, such as the need to build a structure as strong, flexible, and lightweight as possible, while using a material that will take up a minimal amount of space, and constructing the work in modular fragments that can be used over and over again without degrading (Aluminum poles and brackets work best for this, as opposed to wood or plastic).

In other cases, I’m interested in a metaphoric connection, and look to a particular material to highlight this. For example, with the Pacific Quilt, there’s a linking of water and fabric. We refer to water as both “flowing” and “covering” (the tide flowed inland and covered the coastal rocks) and fabric as “flowing” and “covering,” even though they are very different substances. 

But I have to say, I don’t view “material” and “concept” as discrete items in visual art that can be separated. They’re interrelated, and typically an idea for a piece develops in connection with the experience of working with a particular material.



Rachel Bruya (RB): Please describe your relationship with water, and how it relates to and informs the artwork exhibited in Waterways.

John Miller (JM): I grew up loving water. My family camped together along the shores of Lake Superior in summers up until my parents’ deaths in adulthood just a few years back. I couldn’t help but absorb my parents’ love and appreciation for the restorative properties of unpolluted, beautiful expanses of water. I attended summer camps as a child, became a canoe camp counselor, and learned to love paddling and wilderness canoe trips and this recreation pursuit remains a pinnacle experience for me to this day. I was a competitive swimmer in high school, a canoe racer as a younger adult, and an avid cross-country ski racer. I’ve been intrigued by water in all of its forms for as long as I can remember.

As a canoeist I read water to find the fastest, safest, or most exciting route. As water takes on the energy of the atmosphere or is affected by gravity, it expresses this energy by actively changing surface shape. As the surface changes, light bends or reflects allowing us to see messages that tell us something about the world above and below the surface. I explore these messages in search of information. It feels to me like I’m working to understand a mysterious and beautiful ally. It is an ally that doesn’t care about me, yet can help me so much if I work with it instead of against it. Much of my art focuses on what feels like a symbiotic relationship with water. I am mostly water after all.

John Miller’s sketches

John Miller’s sketches

RB:  You have included your sketchbooks as well as several sketches on small scraps of paper.  Can you talk about how they inform your artwork?

JM: I’m a busy guy and juggle many things.  The problem is in holding onto ideas as my brain creates them. I give myself permission to make a quick visual note when an image impulse hits me and I’ve gotten pretty good at quickly scribbling out a thumbnail image that captures my thought. I save the thumbnails and sometimes empty my pockets to find a slew of ideas that I recorded but could easily have otherwise forgotten. Over time I find I repeat myself and am exploring a theme or an image over and over, and then I know I should work it into something.

Sometimes I’m working on an image and reach a stuck point and this often kicks off a thumbnail series as I find I’m trying to solve a visual problem. I also look at the world and can be hit by a solution or direction in something as mundane as an advertisement photo where a section addresses something I’m thinking about. I study the image, might sketch the section to learn from it or let my mind wander, and out comes more little thumbnail sketches inspired in part by the reference image. These little thumbnail tidbits go into a loose-leaf binder and I occasionally review and reorganize to consolidate my visual thoughts. This process is vital to my expanding ideas.

My sketchbooks are a more conscious exploration of something—often a composition that I hope will become a painting or print. Sometimes my sketches are just a visual workout, as I hope to improve my ultimate ability to perform as an artist and this requires a sort of creative fitness. I’m so far ahead of myself in generating this stuff that I could spend years developing the ideas that were aesthetic impulses in either my sketchbooks or my thumbnails. It’s great to be able to mine my own material for solutions to visual problems and having a sketchbook history can help tremendously.



RB: Please describe your relationship with water, and how it relates to and informs the artwork exhibited in “Waterways.”

Marsha McDonald (MM): On a very elemental level, water is who we are, what the other is, where one meets the other, and also what in-forms (constitutes our physical nature) and surrounds us.

Poetically, as a kind of landscape narrative that has interested me for years, water is the thing observed, the thing that can be recognized, and also a most mysterious element.

I was born near Lake Erie; can remember occasionally hearing ship’s horns as I drifted to sleep as a child, can remember the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald...I spent time with my father and uncles along Erie’s shore, time with my grandmother on the edge of the Great Black Swamp, time with my sisters and mother along rivers and lakes, “criks,” and streams. Except for an unhappy few months, I have always lived near water. This common fact links me to most of humanity.

For this exhibit, I have films (36 short films edited as a piece for this show), and paintings inspired by the Milwaukee River. I walk along [the Milwaukee River] nearly every day I am in Wisconsin. The language of the river is a freshwater language, and quite colorful; [it is] a dialect of water, one might say. That idea informs the videos. The black-and-white paintings are inspired by photos I have been taking of small rapids (dark winter rapids) found under the North Avenue bridge in Milwaukee.

Copper on the copper paintings and origami boats refers to the gold of the Midwest: native copper. It is a watery metal. I was inspired to fold the boats after seeing 100 small gold boats in the Denmark National Museum. The canoe shape is from a Korean origami guy, a Mr. Ahn, a pattern he shared online. My husband and I lived and taught in Seoul off and on for some years. 1000 is a number of remembrance—my husband died in 2014. The boat is water, isn’t it, and very, very old.  Archeologists keep finding older boats—they are our watery link to our ancestors.

The small moon-viewing boxes, filled with Wisconsin spring water, are meant to give a small, intimate feeling of water. They are also a pun on clarity. How many times have we looked down into water only to see the sky?

Detail of Marsha McDonald’s 1000 canoes installation

Detail of Marsha McDonald’s 1000 canoes installation

RB: You work in several different types of media—paint, paper, video, and photography. Can you discuss how and why you choose your materials and how it changes your artistic approach?

MM: The materials often choose me. I think in words about water. I keep blogs and notebooks. I also need to hear/listen to things, experience things… it’s one of the ways I learn best. So visual projects grow out of this. Sometimes I want the experience stilled. Then painting, photography, or printmaking may tell me that they can still actions—you follow them, but you are moving in real time, imagining their history of marks and thoughts. In real time, they remain still. Sometimes I want to make a thing you walk around, or look up or down at, like a rock, or a bird that you see immersed in air. Then I may think about words and sounds as heaviness and lightness, as weight, like in a poem, and remember the resilient light strength of paper or the dense earthiness of bronze, or the spirit-like radiance of gold, silver, copper. Choosing a material can stretch what I know, require me to struggle a bit, make mistakes, change. So the material an artist uses issues a challenge to the thoughts and words an artist has. They keep an artist present and pragmatic.



“Waterways” is on view at the James Watrous Gallery until Sunday, May 10, 2015. Special events, including talks by the artists, are listed below. Additional information can be found at


James Watrous Gallery

Overture Center for the Arts, 3rd Floor

201 State Street

Madison, WI



Tues, Wed, Thurs: 11am-5pm

Fri, Sat: 11am-9pm

Sun: 1pm-5pm

Closed Mondays


In The Gallery: Marsha McDonald and John Miller

Sunday, March 15, 2015 – 1:30pm – 3pm

Informal gallery talks by two of the artists of Waterways, Marsha McDonald and John Miller.


World Water Day Celebration

Sunday, March 22, 2015, 1-5pm

Artists Sarah FitzSimons, Marsha McDonald, and John Miller will delve into the process and meaning behind the artwork showcased in the Waterways exhibition. Executive Director Jane Elder will discuss water’s important role in Wisconsin.    Members of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will perform Handel’s Water Music.

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Rachel Bruya is an artist who also writes.

Sarah FitzSimons combines sculpture, photography and video to create pieces that range from temporary interventions to permanently placed work. Her projects often involve oceans, deserts, rivers, or mountain ranges, and explore collisions of the physical and metaphoric.

Marsha McDonald was born in Toledo, Ohio. As a child, she attended art classes, first at a convent, then at the Toledo Museum of Art. In high school, she was awarded a National Honorable Mention by the Scholastic Writing Awards, as well as an Ohio Governor’s Art Award. She received her BFA from Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

John Miller lives with his wife Faith and their dog Callie a short portage from the water in Madison, Wisconsin. Much of his professional time is spent helping clients to explain ideas with images.

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James Watrous Gallery 
3rd Floor, Overture Center for the Arts
201 State Street
Madison, WI 53703
Phone: 608.733.6633 x25