Color Pop

Consider artwork as unique home décor



Local New Hampshire artist Wendy Briggs Powell creates vibrant watercolors, which she calls watermarks, that can liven up your home's décor. Photo by Wendy Briggs Powell

Hopkinton artist Wendy Briggs Powell is a watercolorist unlike any I’ve ever seen. She creates her dynamic “watermarks” by using a unique dip-dye process she has developed, which involves submerging sheets of paper into color baths.

The results are full of movement and life. Her art makes me feel similarly to the way I did when I first saw Georgia O’Keeffe’s early expressionist work — except that it’s hard to believe that Powell can achieve such intensity of color, sense of motion and joy using watercolors.

I first became acquainted with Powell’s work while decorating for a local client who had collaborated with Powell on commission. My client’s family wanted to gather water from their beloved Lake Winnipesaukee in order for Powell to create two very personal watermarks for them. Now they have pieces in their home that have been “marked” by those cherished waters, just as their lives have been.

Powell’s road to fine art wasn’t direct. She began her artistic life in the commercial realm as a graphic designer for US Lacrosse’s magazine and print marketing materials. As they do to many a young person, marriage and babies came along, prompting her and her young family to move to New Hampshire.

Here, she continued doing graphic design independently — logos for small businesses, birth announcements, etc. However, as computer design programs became more and more sophisticated, she found graphic design to be increasingly restricting, rather than freeing.

“I found the whole trajectory toward being able to be more and more exact — How tight can I make this? How many pixels? — the whole process seemed to reinforce parts of my personality that I didn’t like,” says Powell. “In a strange way, design got stressful. I purposely started to back away from the commercial aspect of it, but I didn’t yet see myself as an artist.”

Eventually, Powell decided she wanted to get her MFA in graphic design, and enrolled at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, selecting its program, in particular, because of its self-directed nature.

Powell uses a dip-dye process to create her colorful watermarks. At times, she allows the paper to saturate for up to five days. The inspiration for her method came on an Easter Sunday as she was dyeing eggs. Photo by Wendy Briggs Powell

“It was there that I found the freedom to explore working with my hands while engaging with the fundamentals of design,” she says.

“My watermarks evolved as a reaction against the sterile environment of the computer screen and the expectations of perfection that are a part of creating with today’s technology. I needed a more sensual process of working — one that connected my heart, head and hands, while also serving as a method for expressing my lived experience.”

But how in the world did she stumble upon her particular process for self-reflection and discovery?

“Prior to beginning my MFA, I had begun a process of self-study I call SHWUF (show what u feel) — a visual language to help us connect with ourselves and with others by showing what we feel in a new way,” Powell says.  “It began as a way for me to become more familiar and comfortable with myself and my emotions and to ‘see’ my patterns of behavior so that I could understand them better.”

Then, she adds, one Easter Sunday as she was dipping eggs, she began putting strips of paper into the dye.  

“Then I tried more paper, bigger paper,” she says. “I explored stitching thread through the designs. It was a very unpredictable process, which was very appealing. That’s how my watermarks were born.

“For me, they are a more loose, less literal interpretation of that earlier SHWUF language. For example, I might pull one piece out of the container of water (I sometimes allow them to saturate up to five days) and think, ‘How do I now respond to this? What does this need?’”

"Edinburgh Summer" by Wendy Briggs Powell. Photo by Wendy Briggs Powell

Powell elaborates, “But isn’t that how we have to move through life? Lines that are left on the paper are due to saturation and the effect of the water over a space of time — hard lines, soft lines, deep and dark colors, vibrant or dull, shallow or dynamic. You can’t always force things ... my hand is guiding and allowing, but it’s the water that leaves the mark.”

Powell completed her MFA in 2015 at the “ripe” age of 48.

Until recently, most of Powell’s pieces have been small to medium in size, restricted by the size of her water containers. When we spoke, I joked with her that she needed a kiddie pool. I must be psychic, because she laughed and sent me an image of a new, larger piece.  

She had, in fact, just begun using a splash pool to create large-form watermarks.

Powell’s work is sold by Libby Silvia Artstyle in the Boston area and by Kristen Coates in Rhode Island. Some pieces are available online via chairish.com as a part of its curated Artist Collective.

Anne West, longtime Rhode Island School of Design professor and author, says, “Wendy is our custodian of openness. The saturated, whole body vibrance of her watercolors teach us the power of another logic — a poetic water logic that requires receptivity to unintended results. Through sweeping fields of color, often with intricate shifts among layering, we become soaked in surprise. As a designer of the expanded expressive filed, Wendy bleeds her fields of color into our world, awakening us to the dynamic emotional intelligence that lives just below the surface of our awareness. We need color to feel our fullness.”

Well, I’m not an artist or art critic. But I like happy, character-filled homes full of color, vibrancy, harmony and individuality ... art not as an afterthought, but a natural part of any well-considered space. A few parting thoughts:

  • Art can serve as the springboard for the color palette of a room ... or an entire house.
  • When used in a neutral setting, art can bring color into a room without the commitment of colorful (and expensive) upholstery or window treatments. Just add toss pillows!
  • Abstract art can shake up an otherwise traditional interior design style, infusing it with youth and freshness.
  • Traditional art like portraits, still lifes and landscapes can add soul and patina to a more modern décor aesthetic.

Decorator and color consultant Amy Mitchell is the owner of Home Glow Design. Each week, she writes for Home Glow’s “Saturday Blog,” focusing on fresh twists on classic style, American craftsmanship and value and quality for dollars spent. The blog also features more photos from this story. She lives in Hopkinton with her husband and two boys.

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