Christina Watka’s Installations at Soapbox Arts Dazzle the Eye and Mind | Art Review | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Christina Watka’s Installations at Soapbox Arts Dazzle the Eye and Mind


Published November 1, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

From left: "Iridian Mist I," "II" and "III" - COURTESY OF SOAPBOX ARTS
  • Courtesy Of Soapbox Arts
  • From left: "Iridian Mist I," "II" and "III"

Soapbox Arts is twinkling, and not with an early display of holiday lights. Rather, the Burlington gallery's current exhibition, titled "Listening to the World," features suspended, kinetic sculptures that gently wink at visitors. The artist, Christina Watka, is in love with light; her work literally reflects that.

In a series she calls "Iridian Mist," overlapping layers of acrylic and mica, cut in irregular shapes, dangle like earrings from wall-mounted dowels. The colors are mostly soft — lavender, pink, peach — with splashes of bright turquoise or earthy brown. Watka's "Light Totems," nearly five feet long, are similar strands of iridescent mica chips and delicate, gold-plated chains hung from brass hooks.

The largest work, "Dichotomous Air in Color," is an arrangement of acrylic and mica shapes suspended from a horizontal brass rod 144 inches wide. The piece subtly shimmies in place with ambient whiffs of air.

All these sculptures are like jewelry for rooms. On her website, Watka suggests they are best hung near a window, where their mirrorlike surfaces are most energized. But these are materials for which reflection is a mission; they glimmer with the slightest encouragement. Shadows cast against the wall give the sculptures additional vitality.

In a phone call from her home in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, Watka said she began to fully appreciate the impact of light when she had a studio alongside the Hudson River in New York. "It had floor-to-ceiling windows facing west, with incredible light," she said.

During that time, while pregnant with her now-6-year-old son, Watka got a commission to create a sculpture for the Etsy headquarters in Brooklyn. "I had always wanted to use this acrylic that is in Soapbox, but they didn't want plastic," she said of the e-commerce company. So she asked her sister, a biologist, about "a safe, green material. She's the one that thought of mica."

  • Courtesy Of Soapbox Arts
  • "Ode to Goldenrod"

Sheet mica is used primarily in electrical industries for its insulation capacity; as dust, the mineral is commonly employed in cement, asphalt, even makeup foundation.

"I'm not using it for its technical specs," Watka clarified, "but for its beauty, for how it reflects light on water, things like that." She primarily sources the material in India but noted that mica mines once existed throughout the U.S. "Even in the backyard in Maine, we can dig it up," she said.

In 2019, after living for "seven or eight years" in New York, Watka, her musician husband and toddler son relocated to Maine; three years ago, the family grew by two with twin girls.

"Welcoming children into my life made me more playful," Watka said. "There's definitely been a shift in my experience of time and wonder — for example, watching a caterpillar with my son for 35 minutes. I've tried to hang on to that playfulness in the studio."

Her "airy, natural work" feels truest to her now, Watka said. "At a gut level, I feel this is what I should be making."

Yet she also creates installations with hand-cut pieces of glazed porcelain, eight of which are on view at Soapbox. And "playful" is an operative word — the pieces are even adhered to children's blocks, which in turn are screwed into the wall.

"Moss Grows Tall Near the Cosmos" - COURTESY OF SOAPBOX ARTS
  • Courtesy Of Soapbox Arts
  • "Moss Grows Tall Near the Cosmos"

Watka's "Kaleidoscope" series comprises arrangements of stoneware in flattened, curvilinear shapes, glazed with saturated solid colors or speckles. The shapes are intuitive, she said. "Basically, I roll out clay, take a tool and draw these shapes. They just sort of come out of me," Watka explained. "I usually glaze a bunch of them, fire them and see what happens. Then I have all these little pieces to play with."

She composes the pieces on a table and maps out a template that can be reproduced on a gallery wall. "Once I sort of unlocked this mica work," Watka said, "I felt like [the ceramic pieces] referenced petals, bodies of water, leaves — things I'd held on to for my 37 years of life.

"Even with 'Kaleidoscope,' I'm still thinking about light and reflection — for example, glossy versus matte glazes," she continued. "Light is my most inspiring experience in the world."

Four years of living in Maine have only heightened Watka's attention to the natural environment. As she puts it in her artist statement, her sculptures "reference light and color inspired by my time listening to the land. Oftentimes," she adds, "my children are nearby listening in their own ways and teaching me what they know."

Christina Watka, "Listening to the World," through November 25 at Soapbox Arts in Burlington.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Listening With Light | Christina Watka's sculptural installations at Soapbox Arts dazzle the eye and mind"

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