Water as Inevitable Change

My work imaginatively conceives of earth, air, and water and asks questions about natural phenomenon such as, how is the earth formed? What forces shape the strange and beautiful features that I see on the micro to macro scale? What do physics concepts, like geography, geology, evolutionary change, and astronomical and gravitational processes, look like? And, finally, what can result from pondering the power of a seedling, and the corrosive weathering effects of the most powerful acid—water—drop by drop over eons? I gather phenomenon by applying a pseudo-scientific lens on everyday, newsworthy stories. I link them to my studio practice, similarly directing visual choices and setting up attractions. Unexpected and evolutionary processes turn humble materials such as wood, ink, and paper into complex color prints.

The theme of water is a signature issue for the Great Plains, as we know of its scarcity in drought. We are also aware of its prehistoric legacy as a resource stored in the aquifer treasure, and as a force of our desire and potential destruction in myriad forms. It is such a universal metaphor, and works on multiple levels for me—poetically, symbolically, conceptually—as I consider a broad range of works in which water has played a part over my many years of making art.

“Braided Waters” follows the multi-streamed path of a vulnerable river, where waters are collected into a broad flow then filtered away, leaving a single drop. “Welling Rain” questions the weight of water in the atmosphere, and the moment where humidity transforms into droplets. “Watery Realm” considers the eternal flow along the Nile, with patterns of reeds, eddies, and whirlpools. “Water & Smoke” is of two opposite flowing forces, the cascade of falling water and an unseen fire from which pulses of steam arise.

I have seen water on a greater scale than is usual at my Nebraska home while living in residency in Venice, the Pacific Northwest, and the riverine world of Bangladesh. What resulted were large-scale prints: “Whelming Waters,” which suggests the refractory nature of water molecules held together under attraction, surface tensions, or depth. “The Immeasurable” considers endless wave actions and interlocking patterns that bound and recoil. “Bell’ Aqua” looks through crystalline waters to rocks formed by eons of wave actions. “Spindrift” captures a panorama of debris and seaweed in motion at the water’s edge. “Aqua Regia” suggests the concentrations of dependent life forms immersed in potential nutrient-rich or toxic inundations. And “Red Tide” is of incremental water flows and the myriad life forms that flourish, or devolve, in a newly imagined future.

Water for me is a potent metaphor for inevitable change, a life force that echoes my creative process. I make prints through an evolutionary reduction woodcut process in which successive carving destroys the blocks. As I work through the layers, colors and details emerge between printing stages. This process suits my nature—to let spontaneous decisions flow into me as the image develops. I begin from a strong composition of an image, and then the composition evolves as I discover the colors, visual tensions, and patterns of carved marks. My dependence on another life force, the wood itself, has always emphasized my awareness of natural phenomenon and ties into the question of how nature—and we—are shaped.

A photo of Karen Kunc

About the Author

Karen Kunc explores inventive color abstractions of the natural and human-fashioned world in her prints and artist books, creating ideas of “strange beauty.” Kunc is a Cather Professor of Art at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she has taught since 1983. Her awards include Fulbright Scholar Awards to Finland and Bangladesh, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Nebraska Arts Council Fellowship, and an Ohio Arts Council Fellowship. Her works have been shown in exhibitions nationally and internationally and are held in numerous private, public, and university collections. She has taught workshops in Egypt, Italy, Finland, Bangladesh, Poland, Japan, France, Mexico, and Iceland, and she has lectured as a visiting artist to more than 200 institutions.