Mario Reis sits quietly along the banks of the Salmon River near Sunbeam.
It is October of 2000. A square wooden stretcher, covered by a cotton canvas and tethered to the bank, floats and bobs in the chilly water. The German-based painter has spent many hours reading the river to determine the placement of the canvas and whether it should be weighted down or tied off. Ironically, the painter carries no implements of his craft like paints or brushes. Reis paints with water.
Reis preserves global waterways in hauntingly beautiful, telling works of art—from a jungle stream in Cameroon to a creek in Reykholt, Iceland, across North America and many European countries. This unique documentation spans more than 30 years and is destined to include a host of countries on almost every continent. Reis uses the water, and all it carries, in the evolution of each artwork. Buoyed on the waterways’ ebb and flow, the canvas becomes “painted on” as sediment, silt, algae, sand and all other manner of material passes through and becomes lodged in the cotton fibers of the canvas. Gradually, a textural surface builds up. Eventually, Reis extracts the stretcher from the water and another of “Nature’s Watercolors” is complete.
Reis began working with water and canvas in the late 1970s in Paris on the River Seine. The environmental art movement of the ’60s had been pushing artists out of their studios and into nature. Likewise, nature had been brought into the studio through the use of organic matter and natural materials. From this fertile ground, Reis emerged with a radical departure from the traditional landscape painting. Rather than painting what he saw along the Seine, like the water flowing beneath the bridge with Paris in surround, Reis sought to paint the reality of how these elements interacted.
What happened in Paris was also happening in the water. While not overly concerned with the environmental associations of the work at the time, he was definitely fascinated with the natural force and expression found in water. And so began his continuing pursuit of collaborating on a work of art with rivers and streams in every corner of the globe, documenting their stories and sharing them by way of a canvas. The energy and excitement remains with the artist to this day. “When I see a river, stream, a creek, often it is enough when I hear the sound, I am immediately electrified. I want to open new dimensions on seeing a river and landscape, to sense them through a piece of art and reflect on them,” Reis explains.
Exhibiting locally with the Gail Severn Gallery for more than 15 years, Reis’ “Nature Watercolors” elicit a variety of responses. Tranquil and unassuming at first glance, upon closer examination, these canvases are rich and intriguing. Pieces of pine needle and gold-flecked sand are clearly visible in the atmospheric surface of “Daisy Creek, Cook City, Montana.” The muddy yellow of sulphur merges with a clay-like greenish gray in “Salmon River, Idaho.” “The Prairie Dog Town Fork of Red River, Texas” is a swirling of deep burnt sienna.
Some works are dense with ridges of sediment and clay; others are awash in faint color. Each waterway tells its own story through its singular imprint of color, consistency, reflection of light and presence of life. The glittering black volcanic sediment of “Hawaii, Pacific Ocean” rearranges itself after a few moments of observation in the manner of a Rorschach blot—open areas move forward as darker ones recede almost allowing definite shapes to form. This play of light, space and texture exquisitely defines each individual waterway. With a surface like cracked plaster, the “West Sculpture Creek, California” canvas emanates a yellow-green glow despite the tangible sediment and rough texture. As with nature, there can be no replication or duplication; no canvas can ever be exactly the same.
Reading a river the way a fisherman or rafter would, Reis has spent many an hour watching waters flow. Careful selection of the site and a thorough understanding of the water’s speed and current is difficult and time consuming. The interaction between artist and nature is challenging and physically demanding. Without Reis’ thoughtful knowledge and preparation, water as paintbrush might not yield such remarkable painterly results. He persists in attaining the necessary position of the canvas, despite frigid waters and abundant snow. Waist-deep in the River Rhine in his hometown of Düsseldorf, Reis carefully situates the canvas with his hands. He then employs rocks, tree branches and natural eddies as he would rope, twine or stakes. Reis arranges for a desired outcome, while fully aware his control is limited. >>>
“Each stream has a specific character,” says the artist. “In this way, each painting, influenced by the interaction between myself and the river, is a kind of self portrait of that specific river.”
While Reis typically chooses the more remote stretches of a stream or river to lay his canvas, he is careful to clearly identify the place or area. There is an immediate connection established between viewer and painting when a place or name is recognized and rendered “personal.” For many collectors in the Wood River Valley, paintings from Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Oregon rivers are most popular.
“People respond well to his work,” says Beth Baker, sales associate at Gail Severn Gallery. “They like the idea that they get to take this little piece of the river home with them. It immortalizes the beauty of a specific space or moment.”
Reis’ first visit to Idaho in 1992 resulted in works from the Priest and Kootenai rivers. Eleven years later, Reis has traversed the state, documenting the stories and reflecting the voices of Trail Creek, Rock Creek and Wildhorse Creek. His singular vision and nature’s cooperation offer us intimate vignettes of the Salmon, Coeur d’Alene, Big Wood and Big Lost rivers.
For Ketchum-based fine art consultant and private collector, Julie Gallagher, “As we examined many pieces, we realized how very personal each one is . . . and that each interpretation varies according to the experiences each of us has with the landscape and nature that surrounds us.”
The artist’s personal reverence for nature is clearly evident in both the locations selected for each painting and the very process by which the works are created.
Perhaps there is truth in the famous quote by Albert Einstein, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” As deeply as Reis has communed with nature and brought its voice to the visual world of painting, there is much to be learned from his canvases.
Referred to in his native German as “Naturaquarell,” these paintings are organic in every meaning of the word—the medium, the process, the richly tactile result. A collection of works created in Germany titled, “Fleuth, Winnekendonk,” are more reminiscent of a satellite view of Earth than a river. The depth of sediment and vibrant coloration are almost hypnotic. This is clear evidence of the painting’s origins of dirt, mud, water. It looks like earth and sky and water. In contrast, an image titled “Niagara, New York” is ethereal, almost transparent, more of the heavens than of Earth. The artist comments, “As my watercolors are literally saturated with nature, they also document the state of nature.” In capturing the idiosyncracies of the global waterways, his paintings are utterly unique to themselves and their particular, peculiar, beautiful and even polluted environments.
“While it was never my intent to refer with them to environmental issues,” says Reis, it is, nonetheless, an indirect result. The work instinctively brings forth the question of environmentalism. Writer John Grande remarks, “It (Reis’ work) displays a respect for our integral connectedness to the environment.” Grande writes in an essay on Reis, “As we enhance our understanding of nature’s place in our society, our civilization, our personal lives, so we better understand that our society’s future inevitably involves understanding and respecting nature’s processes.”
Time is also a concept that Reis’ paintings evoke. He has frozen a moment in time and immortalized on canvas a moment in the life of a given waterway. The continuation of time is another perspective introduced through the examination and exploration of these canvases. With this intimate glimpse of life beneath the water’s surface, one is reminded of the continuity of water flowing locally, regionally, globally. In the words of writer Hal Boyle, “What makes a river so restful to people is that it doesn’t have any doubt—it is sure to get where it is going, and it doesn’t want to go anywhere else.” Time for humans has limitations and expectations, but for the Earth’s lifeblood, time is irrelevant; the water will continue to flow.
True to his nature, the artist does not reference “Conceptual Art” theories, much the same way he stays away from “Environmental Art” labels. “When looking at an installation,” Reis says, “one can understand why I am totally fascinated by my project and why I will never stop. It is the same tension and freshness for me, like in 1977 when I started.”
The installation is clearly a part of the process. With frayed rough edges of canvas visible, bits of stream stuck in holes left behind by stretcher staples or nails, Reis leaves no part of the painting unrevealed.
Reis continues to follow rivers and streams as they meander through mountain ranges and across meadows, amidst heavy jungle foliage and past endless desert. His sights are set on Australia, New Zealand, and the creeks of the European Alps. Whether or not he is planning a return to Idaho anytime soon is unknown, but the artist professes a personal affinity for the area, especially the hiking around Pioneer Cabin.
One can always find one of “Nature’s Watercolors” at the Gail Severn Gallery in Ketchum. This summer the gallery expects to introduce new works from this remarkable ongoing series. While internationally known for the watercolors, Reis also explores painting and drawings through a variety of other mediums, traditional and otherwise.
Meagan Ryan Stasz combines her love of writing and passion for art with occasional contributions about artists and their work. Working with Mario Reis via email from Germany reinforces for this writer the global scope and appeal of art and its power to touch and inform people here in our community and society worldwide.