Liz Ward: Aqueous
By James Housefield
Catalogue Essay, Solo Exhibition
Women and Their Work, Austin, 2006

Water and its traces course through the art of Liz Ward.
Water’s fluidity recurs throughout the content and form of her
work. At first glance, the drawings and paintings gathered within this
exhibit may appear to be diverse examples of biomorphic
abstraction. Beyond this relation to traditions of modern art,
however, the works in Aqueous cohere as a clearly unified series of
meditations on the nature of water, and on water’s presence in and
around us.
Ours is a watery landscape in which omnipresent fluids often
remain undetected. Ward’s art reminds us of the presence of water
beneath the surface of living things, be they plant and animal bodies
or the Earth itself. Water’s presence marks the series of silverpoint
drawings Tree Cell Studies (2004) and Cellular Seasons (2005). Each
drawing freely recalls the complex cellular structures found within
trees and other plants. As their stomata respond to the variable
presence of water in the environment, plants mark the changing
seasons at cellular levels. Seasonal changes in fluid flow mark growth
patterns, leaving visible traces (such as tree rings) in a plant’s physical
structure.
These cellular studies expand Ward’s long-standing
investigation of tree rings and other art forms in nature. Throughout
Ward’s art of the past decade, water’s presence is surpassed only by
her subtle attention to temporal issues. Whether examining the
immensity of geologic time, the rapidity of biological cycles, or the
slow processes of fossilization, these works sensitize us to the evervarying
pace of life. By focusing our attention upon cellular activity,
these series renew Ward’s long-standing investigation of deep
structures.
Nature’s forms often remain hidden beneath the surfaces of
living things. Deep below the crust of the earth flow streams and
pools of fossil waters that sustain life. These aquifers appear in a
series of recent watercolors. Evangeline Aquifer (2004) and Chicot
Aquifer (2005) refer to these bodies of subterranean water that
flow from eastern Louisiana to Galveston, Texas. Ward’s own ties to
this region run as deep as these aquifers. Born in Louisiana, she lived
for a significant period in Houston, leaving to work and study in
California, New Mexico, and France before returning. Ward
completed her MFA at the University of Houston, subsequently
teaching there, at Rice University, and at the Glassell School of Art
before moving to the San Antonio region to teach art at Trinity
University. Ward’s attention to the apparently impersonal forms of
nature may harbor deeply personal elements beneath its surface, as
the geography of these aquifers indicates.
Though unseen, aquifers affect us all. Without their ancient
water, much of North America could not support the dense
populations that inhabit it today. Aquifers offer a ready point of
reference through which to evaluate environmental health. Because
of the intense tapping of these fossil waters for our personal and
industrial needs, we are increasingly dependent upon their recharge
through rainfall. In transit to the aquifer, recharge waters pass
through strata of silt and clay which were long believed to filter out
pollutants. Yet, shifting layers of clay allow inadequately filtered
waters to contaminate the aquifer today. Evangeline and Chicot
aquifers run parallel to one another, overlapping as they stretch
across the Louisiana coast, past Houston’s ports and the “Golden
Triangle” (of Orange - Beaumont – Port Arthur) to Galveston.1 This
zone’s severe industrial pollution may contaminate the water that
millions use daily. A newspaper photograph reporting on the health
of these water supplies inspired Ward to create the first works in
the Aquifer series. Like her installations The Mesquite Line
(2002-2003) and Angangueo (2004), the Aquifers relate “a colordriven
narrative [that] expands over a vast geographic space.”2 In
the Aquifers, what we experience above ground has unseen effects
below.Dramatic geologies of riverbeds and canyons mark water’s
slow transformation of the landscape. Aquifers carve out similarly
incremental geometries in their underground expansion. Concentric
lines mark the processes of their slow and steady formation. These
sculpted forms of nature give solidity and mass to the transient
lapping action one experiences at the water’s edge. The geometric
expansion characteristic of an aquifer links these bodies of water
and the artworks in Aqueous to Ward’s broad address of
incremental growth patterns throughout her art. Lapping waters of
aquifers, pools, and waves; flowing cascades; the concentric growth
rings upon a mollusk, and those marking the life of a tree; all are
linked.Ward’s choice of watercolor and silverpoint mean that her
creative process is necessarily labor-intensive, but not excessively so.
She experiments with watercolor’s uniquely aqueous properties in
works such as Flow Mix (2003) and Fluid Exchange (2003).3 In
Minor Aquifers (Pthalo Blue) (2005) and Minor Aquifers (Deep
Blue) (2005), the concentric forms characteristic of aquifers glow
with such intensity that these watercolors recall the banded colors
of agates. With silverpoint, a medium popular with the Old Masters
but used rarely today, Ward introduces subtle color into her
drawings.4 Using watercolor, Ward tints gesso to prepare the ground
that silverpoint requires. As she draws with the silverpoint stylus, the
precision of her mark-making is matched by its intuitive freedom. It
is as if she feels each new line into existence, generated by the lines
that have come before but also by an external force from nature
itself. Drawing, for Ward, is an active engagement with the natural
world: through the silverpoint stylus she puts empathy into action.
Because the uniform quality of the silverpoint line is
unresponsive to changes in pressure or inflection, Ward likens it to
the etched lines of intaglio printmaking. “This somewhat mechanical
line quality gives a reserved, distant feeling to the drawings. … the
lightness and delicacy of silverpoint suggest a ghostly quality in which
images hover in an ambiguous relationship to ground. Straining to
see the drawing, the viewer becomes aware of the act of visual
perception itself. ”5 Although Ward chooses to revitalize media
rarely embraced today, her investigation of vision and aesthetic
experience as linked processes connects these works with a diverse
range of contemporary artists. Her intimately-scaled paintings and
drawings engage goals similar to those earth artist James Turrell
pursues in molding the landscape on a large scale. Turrell’s
ruminations on light, the eye, and the brain apply as readily to a
consideration of Ward’s work in Aqueous as to his own Roden
Crater: We were really made for the twilight. It’s that light that
allows us to then have the eye open, and since I feel the
eye is the most exposed part of the brain… we don’t
really start to feel with the eyes until that iris opens. The
light has to be greatly reduced before the eye opens. This
idea of the clean, well-lighted space, where we could
trash paintings and things with thousands of watts of light,
is not where we see best. It isn't until this light is greatly
reduced and the eye is allowed to open that feeling
moves out from the eye. That is the level of light that I
make my work for, and that’s where we begin to see light
… with its existence as material as something you can
physically feel beginning to occur.6
Ward’s use of line, color, and subtly prepared ground, guides the
viewer’s optical experience so that one might learn to “feel with the
eyes” and, in so doing, be aware of the processes of vision as they
occur.
Without water, vision as we know it would not be possible.
The aqueous humor of the eye (the thin layer of watery fluid
between cornea and iris) shapes the eye while nourishing lens and
cornea. As the title Aqueous indicates, these works together offer a
meditation upon water that, ultimately, addresses the processes of
seeing and the act of vision.
Over the past few years, Ward’s art has ranged from the
treatment of fossils to cells to fossil water, encompassing vast
stretches of deep time and brief moments of contemporary
experience. Her art recalls the poetic investigations into natural
history by author and scientist Loren Eiseley. In The Immense
Journey, Eiseley observed, "we are all potential fossils still carrying
within our bodies the crudities of former existence, the marks of a
world in which living creatures flow with little more consistency than
clouds from age to age." Ward’s art 7 is a sustained meditation upon
the conjoined beauty of such transience and continuity across the
long history of life on Earth.
James Housefield
University of California, Davis

1 The Chicot aquifer (in Holocene- and Pleistocene-age sediments) is more recent than the Evangeline
aquifer (in Pliocene- and Miocene-age sediments); strictly speaking, “fossil” waters are more likely to
appear in the Evangeline. Unlike recent recharge waters, fossil waters, like the traces of living forms that
constitute petroleum deposits, constitute non-renewable resources.
2 Liz Ward, Public Lecture, The Arts and Culture Lecture Series, Texas State University–San Marcos, 13
October 2005.
3Ward restores a creative sense of seriousness to a medium too often ignored today because of its embrace
by amateur painters.
4Ward was inspired to work in silverpoint after seeing an exhibition of old master drawings at the Kimbell
Museum. Silverpoint permits no erasures and thus allows for no mistakes.
5 Liz Ward, Personal Communication, 12 November 2005.
6 James Turrell, “On Roden Crater,” in Chinati Foundation, Art in the Landscape (Marfa: Chinati
Foundation, 2000), 79.
7 Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey (New York: Random House Vintage Paperbacks, 1957), 6.