We’re all water-starers here, I’m sure. We look out at the water and let it pull at our hearts and minds in ways that most of us can’t describe. Fortunately, though, there are water-starers out there who can take this soggy mess of feelings, find some inspiration, and make something beautiful. A life without these muses would be dry and lonely.
Kristin Eckstein is a painterly water-starer. She was born and raised in Harahan, Louisiana, on a street that ended at the Mississippi River levee. “I remember nightly walking down there with my dad,” she says, “hanging out on the other side. That’s where I went instead of the park. We’d go look at the river.”
“There was this one pond that would always form … and my dad would take me and my sisters there and we would go fishing. We called it Enchanted Lake. And as little girls we truly believed that this was a magical lake set in a forest. It was just this little pond created from…the river behind the levee, but it was very special to us. Going to Enchanted Lake was my favorite place. Without a doubt.”
Asked what immediately runs through her head when she closes her eyes and places herself at the river batture, Kristin immediately says, “tranquility and power.” When you think of how separate those two concepts can be, it’s no wonder she finds such freedom in the abstract. There are no birds, no trees, no water. The washy paintings instead capture the elusive feelings of simply being on a riverbank, most vibrantly through their colors. Muddy sepia, raw umber, and, her favorite, yellow ochre.
A faint meandering, though, can usually be traced through some of her work. That, she says, comes from the crescent embrace of the Mississippi River around New Orleans: a relationship that fascinates her. “When I think about the River as a whole, I think about that beautiful lifegiving pattern that infiltrates land to bring life wherever it goes.”
She saw it in the batture as a child, looking for tadpoles in ponds left behind by the high water. She sees it in the mud beneath her home. And she sees the pattern repeated in herself. Her family has lived off the river for generations. Her grandfather built a barge line in Cassville, Wisconson. Her uncle did the same in Peducah, Kentucky. And her father did the same in New Orleans. Marquette Towing is now one of the largest transport companies in the valley, and most of their boats bear the Eckstein name.
So the river has fed the family as well as the imagination of the young artist. Over the levee, father and daughters would explore the big rusty towboats, “They had this magical feel. And meeting the captains was really neat, because they had that real cajun accent and I could never really understand them. So it was always amazing to hear my dad communicate with them,” she says.
Kristin didn’t start painting the river until she left New Orleans to study art at Colorado College. As she was hiking on a trail one evening, she found herself pulling dead undergrowth up by the stems. And then she was stunned. “I couldn’t help but notice their physical connection – their visible connection – to that of a river tributary, an aerial view of a river, and it inspired me because the roots are what give life to these plants and pull things together. And that’s how I’ve always felt about the river in my life and my family, with our deep history intertwined with it.”
After this revelation in the Cheyenne Mountains, she returned her art to the lowlands. She began enshrining various roots in welded boxes, and for her final exhibition, she hung them together in an installation. “It just transitioned so well into painting, and i just used those emotions that I discovered while making these sculptures into my oil paintings and it’s been the main, everpresent theme since.”
The magic of Enchanted Lake did not exist in those little girls’ heads alone. It’s in the water, and we see it everyday. With a small rise in the river, what was once bare ground can become a metropolis. With just one inch, what was once stillness can erupt into one million births and deaths. What is not magical about that?
The genesis of River to paint in Kristin’s art breathes the same magic.
In the fall, Kristin will begin an MA program in art therapy at New York University. You can find more information about her and her art at kristineckstein.com