Painting with Claude Debussy

Friday, September 16

The connection between art and music is undeniable. Visual artists and musicians work for lifetimes perfecting their craft, art and music often inspire one another, the same language is used to speak about the two mediums, and in so many ways, one could not exist without the other. However, for whatever reason, art and music are not frequently experienced together. Music can be heard while walking through an art gallery and art can be seen on music-filled streets but it’s rare to experience a collaboration between the two in which the process of creation is happening simultaneously and harmoniously.

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This is exactly what inspired us to pursue a collaboration with visual artist Christina Narwicz. During our season opener on September 23-24, Narwicz will take the stage alongside the orchestra as they perform Debussy’s La Mer (the Sea) to craft a painting in real time. This work will not only reflect Narwicz’s years of experience and interpretation of Debussy’s musical language, but it will also be a representation of that one precise moment in time on the Holland stage.

We spoke with Christina Narwicz at her studio about her work, her process, and her experience with this project.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Christina: “I grew up on Long Island and also lived on a sailboat for ten years, so I’ve been around water my whole life. I came to Omaha in 1985 as a resident at the Bemis (Center for Contemporary Art) and have been painting for 35 years. I have come to love Omaha and to watch it grow culturally into the cool city that it is today has been a gift. Even though I left at one point, I knew I wanted to come back because I built such amazing friendships here and it’s such an easy place to live.”

What were your first thoughts upon listening to La Mer?

Christina: “The first time I listened to it I was struck by how many layers there are to this work. I grew up with Chopin because I come from Polish background, we had Mozart and Bach in our home, and I got a taste of Bartok at my art teacher’s house, but the presence of Classical music wasn’t consistent for me so in many ways this experience is completely new.”

What are your thoughts about Debussy as an Impressionist?

Christina: “He (Claude Debussy) was not happy about being associated with the impressionists and people tend to associate MY work with impressionism, but just like Debussy, I don’t like the label. The one thing that I like about the impressionists is that they were rebels and went against traditional ways of thinking about visual art, so I like that part conceptually. However, impressionism has become so mainstream that when people see it, they see a linear idea when in fact, Claude Debussy (and impressionism as a whole) was not linear.”

How has the addition of music affected your art?

Christina: “I don’t usually work with music but since taking on this project, I feel that the addition of music has created not only a challenge for me but a shift in how I work. I’m so honored. As a painter, learning more about music and its language has shown me that there are so many similarities in the way that music and art are created. In terms of the actual act of painting with the music - I’m feeling like I’m having this relationship with someone (Claude). The best way I can describe it is the sound is going into my ears and coming out of my eyes and hands. The process is completely different because I’m making decisions in accordance with my mood and the palette, but also with the musical expression that’s happening in that moment. I’m still in my own zone but it feels like Claude (and the musicians) have joined me.”

How are you rehearsing for this?

Christina: Motioning to the stretch canvases on the wall, “these are my rehearsals. I set my paints up on my worktable and I turn the music on, and I paint right through the whole piece. I’ve done this several times already. Now that me and Claude (Debussy) are here working together, I’m so looking forward to hearing the rehearsals in-person and rehearsing with the orchestra.”

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How are you feeling about painting in front of people?

Christina: “This is challenging for me because the only being that watches me paint is my dog and now, I will essentially be part of the orchestra in front of an audience. But in performing in front of an audience, we bring with us our years of experience. And when you lean on that, you know you’re going to be ok. Another beautiful aspect of this project that makes me feel at ease is the energy that I feel from others – like group meditation, there is a sense of belonging when you’re creating something together. Even as a solo person, when you start doing things with other people, there is an incredible power and energy from this.

“It’s funny because people have been asking me, ‘what are you going to wear?’ ‘What are you going to do with your hair?’ For me, the most important thing is to be comfortable so that the focus isn’t on me at all but on my art. My art is having its premiere with the orchestra. I’m most excited about seeing the culmination of the music and the art and to me, that means taking my ego out of it to let the work shine for itself.”

Talk to us a little bit about your process and inspiration as an artist:

Christina: “I don’t sketch work out beforehand…most of my work comes from the memory of growing up on Long Island and living on a sailboat for 10 years. I’ve been inspired by water my whole life, so this project really captures my experiences and inspiration. Those experiences are embedded in who I am so when I’m painting, I always feel that pull to the ocean or a body of water. And even though I’m living in a landlocked state and have for a long time, I find that my happy place is by the river or Lake Manawa. Crewing on sale boats this past summer has been great because as soon as I’m connected to the water, that’s where my serenity comes. Being in nature of any kind, fills the human spirit and in my case, it’s always been the water. But, even when I’m working on a waterfall, to someone else it can become an entryway or threshold and that’s the beauty of abstraction. My work can become anything in someone else’s eyes.”

Talk to us about your growth as an artist living in Omaha:

Christina: “As an artist, we’re always trying to find our voice and we’re always in the process of experimentation. Even now, I’m still evolving but the evolution has just become more refined over the years. It was so great to be part of the Bemis community because there were so many kinds of artists coming in and being around them has really shaped me. Those connections have always made me want to come back to Omaha. And now, my work is at UNMC and at the Children’s Hospital and I’m so glad that people can start to enjoy my work out in the community.”

How has this project changed your relationship to music or even to your own craft?

Christina: “At first, I thought this could be really cliché but then I listened to the piece and found that it has incredible depth. I already know I want to do this again and in a lot of ways, I hope that this becomes my thing. In a short period of time, this project opened my mind to the relationship of music and visual art and not only that but has changed the way that I listen to music. I go to the Jewell a lot because I love blues and jazz and I noticed that when I went the other night, I had a completely new experience while listening to a guitarist play. I’m experiencing music in a whole new way so I’m excited to see how this can continue to evolve. It hasn’t been explored as much as it should, and I could not be more enthusiastic about this opportunity. I’m also incredibly flattered and humbled by all the attention. It proves that my work is valid and valuable, and I look forward to sharing it with you all on stage.”

Join us on September 23-24 at the Holland Center to experience this unique collaboration as well as a world premiere and a visiting guest artist debut!

Can't make it for this experience? We have you covered - On March 17 and 18, the Omaha Symphony is premiering a new work by composer Andy Akiho in honor of Omaha's iconic Jun Kaneko. Art and music will be reunited again on the Holland Stage!

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