Water world 

Getting current with Kristi Hager

It isn’t every day a person invites you to read her diary. And it isn’t every day that that diary consists of images, not words. In her exhibition “Birdbath,” on display at the Missoula Art Museum, artist Kristi Hager offers two distinct bodies of work that both give day-by-day glimpses into her world. One is a series of 10 etchings of the birdbath in the backyard of the San Antonio house she stayed in while teaching a semester of painting at the University of Texas in 1989. The other is a selection of gouache—opaque watercolor—paintings based on Hager’s observations of water in our area’s rivers, each titled with the name of the river and the date Hager painted it.

Museum Curator Stephen Glueckert had seen both bodies of work separately and thought they should come together: The river paintings capturing the movement of free-flowing water, the birdbaths capturing water.

While both exhibits read, as Hager intended, like pages from a book about a single subject as seen by an artist over a period of time, the similarities end there. The river paintings are bold in color—red, green, yellow, blue—to reflect the vitality or life-blood of water, says Hager; the birdbath etchings are black and white. The river paintings are “not necessarily optically the way water looks,” says Hager, but rather a “kind of a pattern and rhythm of water.” By contrast, the birdbath etchings each show an “archetypal” birdbath, she says, with its surroundings changing to illustrate titles such as “Mottled Light,” “Rain/Sun,” “Half Dark/Half Light” and “Night.”

The processes by which these works were created are virtual opposites as well: Hager completed each of the river paintings while on the banks of the river in question; the birdbath etchings are the end result of a labor-intensive etching process that took place over the course of many months.

First, the birdbath. Hager says this study was inspired by her painting mentor Gordon Cook and his single-object study (one of which is on display with Hager’s exhibit) of a San Francisco Bay oil tank in different lights, weathers, moods. Looking at a group of his drawings, Hager thought “this is like a diary, his state of mind is present in each one of these drawings…and I thought I would draw this birdbath every day for a month.”

What she found was that “after day four, you understand the birdbath, you understand what it looks like, so then you’re bored, so then you have to make the drawing become the variable…because you know the form.”

After Hager had completed 30 sketches, she chose 10 to work into etchings. She engraved each image into a copper plate using acid and etching needles. Then she wiped thick, shoe-polish-like ink over each plate and laid it on a printing bed with a piece of damp paper and ran the plate and paper through the press. The result: a limited edition of 15 books of the 10 etchings, boxed and numbered by Hare and Hound Press in San Antonio. Number 11/15 hangs in the Missoula Art Museum.

The meticulous etching process makes Hager’s river-painting routine sound luxurious. Because she didn’t have a painting studio in the summer of 2003, she says, “I decided I was going to go and paint water and spend at least three or four mornings a week by some local river or creek. To me the feeling of doing those was to do each one on site and make each brushstroke deliberate but not overworked.”

She had a copy shop bind good watercolor paper into a notebook she could carry from river to river, and the night before each outing she would paint five or six pages of the notebook with solid squares of color on which to paint the water’s current the next morning. The volume of water, the number of rocks and the width of the river all dictated her brushstrokes.“What I liked was getting a real appreciation for the character of each body of water,” she says. She describes the difference between painting Rattlesnake Creek and the Blackfoot River as going from a two-lane cattle trail to a superhighway: “I don’t think I would have noticed the personality of the rivers [if not for] sitting there and seeing how the patterns of waves vary because of the volume and speed of the water.” Hager says her river paintings were inspired by clean-water activists and writers in the Missoula community whose work has highlighted the significance—even sacredness—of our local rivers. Another body of water Hager (who moved from Butte to Missoula in 1997) has come to see as sacred is Butte’s Berkeley Pit. Hager, a hula enthusiast, has taught the dance in Butte, Missoula, Helena and Bozeman, and in 2000 she drummed up 150-some dancers to hula on the pit’s rim, imparting a sense of fun to the serious matter of a badly needed cleanup. Out of that event grew Hager’s documentary, Cool Water Hula, named after the Sons of the Pioneers song to which the dancers danced.

The 37-minute film was screened last week as part of Hager’s “Birdbath” exhibit. Water or no water, though, Hager considers herself an artist, not an activist. The experience was “kind of a blip” on her artistic screen, she says. “It was one of those things.”

“Birdbath” runs through Nov. 20 at the Missoula Art Museum, 111 N. Higgins Ave. On Saturday, Nov. 13, Hager will hold a workshop, “Jump In—The Water’s Fine,” at the museum from 10:30 AM to noon. $5 per person. Call 728-0447.


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