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The Water Bears Witness - Niap’s Watercolour Landscapes

Dec 07, 2020
by Emily Henderson

Working from her studio in Montreal, QC, artist Niap (Nancy Saunders) connects to her home community of Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, QC, while unable to visit during the coronavirus pandemic. Creating a variety of work with materials sourced from Nunavik, her current focus has been on a series of landscapes created with water sourced directly from rivers and bodies of water in the territory. In this interview, the artist talks about materiality, her plans for the future and what she sees when she dreams of home.

Emily Henderson: What inspired you to use waters from specific places in this series of paintings?

Niap: The idea first came when I was home in Kuujjuaq checking my fishing nets with my brothers. We were in two boats on the river and I realized I wanted to take a piece of that time spent at home back with me, like when you go to a nice beach and collect shells and rocks. I had the idea to bring back water. I gathered some in a mason jar and brought it home and put it on the table, but I didn't know what I was going to do with it right away. I dated it and everything and at the end I started thinking about what I was going to do with it. It just so happened that I had my watercolors out on the table and I thought oh wow cool, I'll just try to paint a scene with it. 

The piece came out so nice, the colors were more saturated. I immediately saw there was a huge difference but I thought it was my mind playing tricks. So I tried again with tap water and there was a clear difference. It moved differently on the page, so I decided to keep exploring it. Recently, I had to do a small online workshop demonstration and I didn't have any river water for the participants so we just used Montreal tap water. That's when I saw a big difference. The colors fade out faster. I'm thinking it's like maybe the products and minerals in the water. I've done a few so far, I think it’s the longest series I've made at this point.

EH: Possibly the way the water gets treated in the city. Are you sourcing water only from Kuujjuaq, or from other communities across Nunavik?

N: Most of what I have done is using water from Kuujjuaq, simply because I have family there and when I go home I can pick it up. Recently, I also received water from Quaqtuq and from Salluit. 

I also got some from a researcher who saw my post online asking for water so she gathered some from Pingualuit National Park. She told me that she had leftover water from her trip during the winter and asked if I would like some of it. I have used it since then and it’s wild! There is no desaturation at all. The colour was so dense and it dried and it’s exactly the colour it was when it was wet. 


Composition (2020) Watercolour 17.75 x 11.75 in

EH: Do you find that, especially during COVID, you have encountered barriers to accessing the water?

N: I have experienced barriers for everything during COVID, especially because I was supposed to be in a residency this year. I also haven’t been able to get back home to access raw material and inspiration from being there, which I usually do every year. However, I can usually go online or ask friends to send me something. Even with the restrictions I have been able to get some water.

EH: Why is it important for you to be able to continue to create with these materials from Nunavik, especially while you are unable to visit home?

N: It’s very nostalgic. When I'm doing these landscapes, I'm dreaming of being back home. I go through multiple motions and I let the water move on the page and I wait to see what it comes up with, what shapes and scenery comes of it. Each one is a process and I go through so many emotions, like sadness or homesickness. But then there's this beautiful thing at the end of it all. I’m always happy with whatever comes out of it and I'm happy that people feel so strongly about it and connect to it. 

EH: How do you begin to prepare to create one of these landscapes?

N: In some ways, it is all by chance. It is based on a very free technique I saw online and from watching other artists do their work. I choose my paper, tape it to a board, pour some water on the center of the page and then add the watercolours. I apply the water because I like that composition. It looks like a memory, you know? Like when you close your eyes and vaguely remember a landscape that you've seen. 

I'll choose the complementary or multiple colours from my pallette and I scrape them with something like a polymer card across the paper and just see what sticks. I think it's so magical because sometimes I'll add red and not one drop of red will transfer to the page. Other times, like one I just did yesterday, I added a lot of green, but no green came out. The water picks and chooses what colors it wants, like it is bearing witness to where it had been before being scooped up, creating its own landscape on the paper. 


Composition (2020) Watercolour 29.75 x 11 in

EH: So in some ways you’re facilitating or letting the water decide for itself?

N: Yes, but I want to make sure that composition and balance is present. For example, there might be just one area that becomes very dark. l can add pure water to it just to get a bit more movement in the colour, or I can bend or manipulate the page. I'll do some intervention, but very little, because I’ve noticed that if I work at it too much then the piece becomes muddy. I need to manipulate the composition, but very minimally.

EH: You often add layers to the work in ink after the watercolour is dry. How do you make those decisions in your next stage of the process?

N: I add markings with a pen to break up and create tension in a very organic and soft landscape. I do triangles or lines, dots or other geometric shapes to bring contrast to the piece. Often, people will ask me what the tiny triangles are or will interpret them as birds. I think I like my niece's interpretation the best, where she sees the shapes representing the wind! So it can be the wind or bird or berries or whatever people see. 

EH: Do you plan to continue this series? Do you have any direction you want to take it?

N: I want to go bigger. So far, the paper that I found works best is not made in a larger scale. I've never really done large-scale landscape before, but I'd like to test out different media like oil paint or acrylic. What I find fun is that so many people don’t realize how tiny these landscapes are and that they’re sometimes as small as nine inches wide. They're super tiny, and they represent something so vast. I find that contrast fun, but I'd like to see what it looks like if I could make them on a bigger scale.

I'm just really grateful for everybody's positive reactions. The earliest in the series I did, I was adding a lot of detail, like the outlines of trees and mountains and I thought it might be a risk to go more minimal with just a few suggestive elements. I didn’t want it to look like this could be just any kind of landscape and that was worrying to me. But then I just went with my feeling and I'm happy with how they’ve turned out and that people have reacted well to it. The line is fine between misunderstood artists and successful artists, but I’m happy I went with the more natural feel. This is the longest series I’ve done and I don’t know how long this will last, but I will continue until the feeling is gone.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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