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Water works

A Tulsa Artist Fellow explores a global phenomenon

Rena Detrixhe

Melissa Likenbaugh

It appears to be raining inside Rena Detrixhe’s fourth floor Hardesty Arts Center studio. Small, clear “sketches” of water droplets on clear plastic film line her floor-to-ceiling windows.

Detrixhe (pronounced dee-tree), who is from Kansas, is currently preoccupied with depicting water in various mediums and credits her studio space and Tulsa’s spring storms for the inspiration.

“I just started doing this and I got so obsessed with it,” she said. “I have these great windows and in the spring it was raining a lot here, so I had a lot to study.”

Using a syringe, Dextrixhe applies a gel medium to clear acetate to create an image that looks like condensation, or raindrops on a surface. 

“I’m taking water out of a specific context. I’m focusing on the form and the material … [thinking] about how I, as an artist, can manipulate this material and create poetry with it in a way that can’t be captured otherwise.”

Dextrixhe’s work is often based in the natural world, creating intricate objects from found natural items like berries, seedpods or crabapples, and discarded, ephemeral items like tea bags and dryer sheets. For example, her piece “Heirloom,” was tablecloth made from thousands of Ash seedpods, collected in the Lawrence, KS, area. 

Using something other than the actual material she is manipulating—in this case, the gel representing water—has been a strange and new experience. 

“A lot of time I’ll collect or start with a material, and then based on the situation that it was collected in and in interpreting that material, I’ll make a piece based on that,” she said. “It always has to do with this sort of repetitive process and an intricate representation of the material.”

The “intricate representation” involved thinking about the inherited property of seeds as treasured possessions passed down through generations. She brought the concept to life by making the seeds into a lace tablecloth—an heirloom of another sort. 

Detrixhe’s foray into water art is no less intricate. 

“I’m trying to make a permanent or static image of something that is really fleeting. That’s part of what makes it interesting to me, especially with where we are today with climate change and water scarcity. On one hand, [water] is something that we take for granted. But on the other, it’s not so secure.”

Used to responding to place in her work, Detrixhe has found thinking about how and where to display the works more tricky. 

“I’ve moved away from thinking about a specific space and sort of thinking about it more generally, like, as a common, universal experience. Water is constant, but also elusive, and ever-changing.”

Using the gel sketches, Detrixhe created embossed prints, made by using a high-pressured press and squeezing the sketch between plexiglass and paper, resulting in small grooves embedded in the paper that are visible because of shadows in their negative space.

“The light has to be just right,” she said as I peered at the embossed prints from above, below, and at each side. “If you don’t have enough light, they look totally white.”

She’s also created plaster casts of the water sketches that are similar to the embossed prints, droplets of water on tulle fabric, which look like a sort of water tapestry (at left), and cyanotypes—essentially camera-less photographs.

To make a cyanotype, Detrixhe coats paper in a light-sensitive solution, places the sketch on top, and then exposes it to light. The places where the light can’t get through the gel—which in this case she has dyed—remain white, while the rest of the paper turns dark blue and an image is created.

“This is another play on materials—you’re taking a photograph, which is a scientific process that makes you think you’re getting a somewhat accurate representation of something real. But these are … manufactured.”

In other words, real photographs of fake water.

“The cyanotype process was often used for scientific record … so, not so mysterious. But these, I feel, have a very mysterious quality.”

For more from Liz, read her article on Tulsa Artist Fellow Alice Leora Briggs.

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