Visual Vernacular: Dianne K Webb
Dianne K Webb, “Coral Oasis” (detail). From the Oyster and Pearl series.
Words, movement, actions, and color all meld and dance in the life of Dianne K Webb. As a writer, actress, instructor, and visual artist, she has shown forth beauty and thought in every realm, nestled in the heart of Winter Street Studios. Conceptual paintings radiating color translate her mixture of ideas, conjectures, and inspirations allowing for open movement. Webb has been exhibited across the U.S. and Canada and continues to expand her visual reach with each new series. In addition to her painterly craft, Webb is also a theater director and founder of Houston’s Next Iteration Theater Company. We asked her about her connections to theater and art along with some of her most memorable art series.
Free Press Houston: Your introduction and evolution into art isn’t a traditional one. How did you become familiar with this form of expression?
Dianne K Webb: I have a somewhat nontraditional art background. My mother was an artist, but I was not raised with her for most of my childhood, though in my earliest years the smell of turpentine pervaded our home and her artwork was everywhere. I was never encouraged by my father to pursue visual art, but to focus on my writing. Consequently, I never studied art in college, but through museums in Paris, Athens, Aix-en-Provence, NYC, Portland, Boston, Baltimore, D. C., and in every city I visited, I have pursued my self-education. I have always been fascinated with how artists apply paint to canvas. My first degree was in the Behavioral Sciences and then I earned an MFA in writing, although I also completed an interdisciplinary component in visual art where I created my Vive la Cuba series.
What I remember most about art with my mother — probably my first real painting experience, I was probably 4 — was painting with oil on Masonite outside in the yard on a summer day. When I was done, she took the painting, which of course was taking way too long to dry, and put it in the oven to hurry the process. Besides the horrid and probably noxious smell, rather than drying the painting, it bubbled all over and hardened. Maybe that is why I feel so much permission to try many of my less than traditional ideas.
FPH: In visual art, there is a plethora of materials to use to convey your concept. What type of materials have you worked with over the years and what is your current favorite?
Webb: I love oil paint. But beyond that, I love to play in texture — using fabric, mesh, plaster, paper, encaustics and more. Over the years I have worked in calligraphy, fabric, printing, dyes, community sculpture, wearable art (really creative hat projects), paper maché, and clay — both hand-building and thrown.
Most recently I have been using charcoal, pen, pencil, oil pastel, ink, acrylic, encaustic, and oils. But I always come back to oils and again and again. I take great pleasure in how they glide across the canvas, allow to cut into them, the body of the paint and the luxury of the oil medium.
FPH: What are some of the philosophical and conceptual ties in your work?
Webb: This is a great question. I am someone who thinks a lot about ideas and am inspired by them. I am inspired by visual thinking, words, poetry, music, colors and the very nature of life itself. I have noticed recently that there seems to be an underlying concept that supports all of the particular ideas of my series and my work — the idea of transformation. Life, biology, understanding, nature, the self — all transform — we are constantly engaged in a dynamic expression of ourselves. I think I revisit this basic concept again and again in my work. From the Oyster series (how an oyster transforms a bacterial infection into a gem) to ideas of revolution and dancing, to the transformations over a lifetime.
Dianne K Webb, “This is Everything.” From The Insensible Light series.
FPH: Tell me about your pieces inspired by the Maine Coast on paper. How do you achieve such an ethereal quality about them?
Webb: In Maine, where I was born and lived most of my life, my favorite place is the ocean. Walking along the beach, climbing the rocky shoreline, casting my gaze across the expanse of the ocean, playing in a tidal pool — it has always been my refuge. It is probably what I miss most about my home state. Considering the microcosm of the tidal pool brought the idea of the oyster series to me. I love how light refracts through the water and changes with every movement of wind or sea. I am mesmerized by how ethereal it all appears. And I love pearls. The idea of how they are made and why in secret underwater depths.
As an abstract artist, when I began painting the Oyster and Pearl series, I wanted to capture the feeling of the moving water, the translucence of the sea, the magical transformative quality of the ocean. I worked in acrylic inks and lots of water over a resist method to achieve the various layers, drying each layer before moving forward until I finally added the unshelled inner life of the oyster with its embryonic pearls. The blues and greens of the Maine coastline inspired the colors and bring me back there again and again.
FPH: In your series Insensible Light, you examine color and response through a journey tied to poetry. Tell me about this body of work.
Webb: The poet, Mary Oliver wrote a poem, “Everything,”* that inspired this work. The storyline of the poem is ostensibly the life of Van Gogh. It begins, “No doubt in Holland, when Van Gogh was a boy…” and moves through the journey of his living — through the leaving of childhood’s simple joys toward the desire that propels us into the world and often casts us into darkness and confusion, where he, “studied tenderness” until “he finally remembered everything” and we find we are not “finished” “by the gloom, which is only terrible,” but instead by the beauty, “the insensible light.”
I have contemplated this poem for years, deeply moved by the ideas expressed within it that are universal to our individual humanity, and the simple, devastating beauty and truth of the insensible light, whether it be love, or art, or beauty, or nature, or kindness, and how it breaks the heart, breaks us open.
When I decided to paint it, to express visually the emotional movement of the poem, I studied the color palate of Van Gogh (my ode to Oliver’s subject). I considered the ideas of nature, the natural world, the sky and earth, the journey of the human soul into light and dark and light. I settled on the shape of a milkweed pod, closed and tight as it incubates itself, dried and split open, then bursting with airy light seeds, that take flight. By abstracting these elements, I began to paint. Layer upon layer, writing lines of the poem into each work, moving into light and darkness, until The Insensible Light was complete.
FPH: You have spent a significant amount of time both in art and theater. How have the two overlapped for you or made an impact on each other?
Webb: I am a visual and tactile thinker. Directing theater, now as the Artistic Director for Next Iteration Theater Company here in Houston, is as natural to me as painting. I approach both in a similar way. I believe that theater is a cumulative art conspired by writers, actors, designers, directors, and audience members. Visual art, for me is a collaboration between media (pushing and accepting its attributes and limitations), ideas, the artist, and the viewer. With this in mind, the process of each feeds the other. Listening, watching, seeing, thinking, reacting, questioning, playing, exploring, problem-solving. These are constant in both.
Dianne K Webb, “If I Can’t Dance”
FPH: Your series If I Can’t Dance… is quite relevant to today’s culture. What are some of the resonating messages for a viewer?
Webb: The quote — oft attributed to Emma Goldman, but really coined by an editor — “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution” is a phrase that has also banged around in my head and heart for a long time. I love to dance. I love to facilitate change. I love to work toward deeper understanding between this human species and how we live together on this planet. Maybe if we danced more, we might have more success in our revolutions of change and growth. As I meandered through this thought process, I began working in oils on a large 46 x 92 inch canvas. What emerged were these dancing figures. Then I thought about setting these abstractions into a more realistic setting — the streets of NYC (the first one was actually projected on a building in Times Square), a vacant lot in Houston, and the present piece I have just begun, leaving the city. Where will they go? Keep watch. We seem to have a lot of revolution going on and, for my part, a very serious need to dance.
FPH: Do you have any upcoming shows or projects you would like to mention?
Webb: I was invited to participate, and will have three pieces from Insensible Light, in the abstract show, Untitled, at Hardy Nance on the August 20, 5 to 10 pm. Of course my studio, C6, is open the second Saturday of every month at Winter Street Studios. There you can see where I work and check out what I have on hand. Finally, I am developing a new series of twelve pieces. I am not quite ready to share the inspiration for these, but I will be scheduling an opening somewhere as soon as the series is complete. Stay tuned.