Pandemic teaches artist lessons

A place can speak in a single moment, or whisper comfort across a lifetime, as can most any spot of green within Kansas if we approach it with reverence and listen to it.



July 21, 2021 - 7:36 AM

Topeka artist Barbara Waterman-Peters, pictured at Kaw River State Park, was the lead artist for the See Topeka project. (BILL STEPHENS/TOPEKA MAGAZINE)

Early this spring, I visited one of the state’s newest state parks, Kaw River State Park in northwest Topeka. Growing up in Topeka, I was long familiar with this area along the banks of the Kaw (or Kansas) River, as well as the land around it that contained tree-lined trails and the governor’s residence. But I had never closely studied this landscape as an artist … and that was what I came to do on this day.

I had arrived at the state park to contemplate how I would transform this scene of natural beauty, with its myriad vistas and rich visual tones, into one iconic image with a limited palette of color. That was the task I had been given a few months prior when I was asked to serve as the lead artist for the Topeka portion of an art project that reimagines Kansas parks and green spaces in the style of the iconic 1930s Works Progress Administration National Parks posters. 

I suspect you are familiar with these posters, or something inspired by them. Artists — many of them little-known at the time — created these images as part of a federally funded program during the height of the Great Depression. Working with limited printing capabilities, the artists relied on only a few colors, bold strokes and an ability to capture the essence of a location in one simple frame. Their creations spoke to the majesty of the natural world and to our pride as a nation that we could share and enjoy these public spaces. They are images that stirred something in the generations before us, and they still resonate to this day.

As I was walking toward the river and thinking of all of this, I lost my husband — or at least I lost track of him. A fellow artist, my husband perhaps had also been inspired by the scenery and had wandered ahead of me at the base of the trails. We had arrived when the Kaw River was running low, and it was possible to walk out past what was usually the edge of the river. Standing at the end of the trail, I looked up ahead into a scene thrown into sharp contrast by the sunlight and the covering of trees. I saw sandbars drenched in the sun, framed between the shoreline and the branches hanging down toward me. Off in the distance as a small, dark speck in the scenery was my husband.

I had found my image.

Returning to the studio, I kept this scene in my mind. It guided me as I stood in front of my canvas and realized I was unlearning most everything that has defined my career as an artist. My works, primarily in oils, are often defined by luminosity, volume, layering and details. For a floral series I am creating now, I am spending hours and hours creating a layer of subtle green undertones that will provide a reference, a richness and an inner illumination to everything that is layered on top of it. 

But here I was trying to emulate the 1930 artists — just me, one primary focal point, 5 to 6 colors … and nothing else.

And these limitations — in turn — allowed me to realize what precisely spoke to me about the land I chose to illustrate. Coming to the canvas, I realized how essential nature and green spaces had become to us once again during the pandemic — a refuge of safety, as well as a reminder of the vulnerability of the natural world and our obligation toward protecting it. I realized how being given the task of defining an iconic image of the Kansas River allowed me to appreciate this winding, eternal river that always has been a part of my life, a landmark that I encountered endlessly as I grew up and that I continue to cross and observe each day as I drive from my home in Topeka to my studio on the other side of the river in North Topeka, and then as I drive back again. So, I was approaching the river with a dual awareness that it was something that both spoke to me at the moment and had whispered comfort to me throughout my life, as can most any spot of green or protected natural space within Kansas if we approach it with reverence and listen to it.