I have been dreaming about water snakes for quite some time. Drawing them, trying to urge them to life with watercolours and collage, imagining them. When I began, little did I know that 2013 would be Year of the Water Snake! What a happy coincidence!
I am working on a series entitled “Creatures I Swim With” – which depicts some of the creatures I share the waters with at Christie Lake near Perth, Ontario. This is the lake of my childhood, the lake I have returned to from Saskatchewan with our family every second summer, the lake that calls me still. “Creatures I Swim With” has a cast of two so far: Loon (Deep Diver) and Northern Map Turtle. Water Snake is the third creature.
Deep Diver and Northern Map Turtle involved some preparation and a few preliminary sketches, but I very quickly got to the final products – both are a mix of watercolour and paper collage.
Water Snake has been a different matter. I have worked on 5 versions, trying to get it right, feeling my way as I go. From a recent journal: “I am loving the struggle. I am learning what the struggle is about by playing with each of these versions. Loon is identifiable as a Common Loon, turtle is Northern Map Turtle, but this snake – although definitely a snake does not look like a Northern Water Snake. It is the feeling of Water Snake that I want. I seldom see Water Snake. Mostly, I imagine I see Water Snake. I saw one once, swimming across the water and I could not believe my eyes. I was terrified. After that, it seemed, every dark stick lying on the sand and lent motion by the water above it was a snake lying deep in the water. Or every dark ripple on the surface of the water was a snake. Every brush of seaweed along my thigh felt like a water snake. They are seldom seen. Often imagined. Not dangerous. But, I think they are!”
My heart always skips a beat when I see this tiny snake!
One day, early in my relationship with Water Snake, my friend Dolores found a little Smooth Green Snake. Something had very recently killed it. Other than a small wound part way down its body, this little snake was perfect… a most beautiful vivid lime green, with tiny scales, an irridescent gleam… something I could study for hours. You can see it in the photo above (top right) with a watercolour sketch beside its now wizened body.
The day before starting to paint Water Snake #1, I found a perfect (garter) snake skin on a coulee hill…laying there like a gift. A gift indeed.
What is the feeling of Water Snake that I hoped to capture? Here are some of the words I wrote down:
coiled power mystery sheen depths glitter sparkle surprise danger beauty fierce fear terror ominous flexibility agility shifting elegance power hidden dark revealed
Over a period of months, I worked on four versions of Water Snake.
Then, other projects took precedence. I knew that Water Snake was not done with me, but there was something holding me back from continuing to explore.
My friend Mary called. You should check out The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, she said. So I looked up Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s book, and just as Mary said, the water snakes play a pivotal role. In this ballad, the ancient mariner undertakes a sea journey and mistakenly kills an albatross, usually a symbol of good luck for sailors. He hangs the corpse of the albatross around his neck. Things go from bad to worse, from worse to desperate – even his crew dies, and rather than rotting, they stare reproachfully at him. He is so distraught that he cannot even pray. And then,
Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.
Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green and velvet black,
They coiled and swarm; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.
The sight of the beautiful water snakes lifted his heart so much (“Oh happy living things, no tongue their beauty might declare”), that he blessed them and was able to pray. At that moment, the albatross falls from his neck to the sea.
Of course, we know that snakes are an ancient (and current) symbol of healing. Asclepius was the god of healing and medicine and could restore the dead to life. The two snakes intertwined on a rod are carried by Hermes, who was not a healer but who was a messenger of the gods with a strong connection to the underworld. This symbol is associated with both pharmacy and alchemy. But this reminder of snakes as beautiful, as agents of healing, transformation and rebirth was what I needed to get me started on the fifth version of Water Snake. Joy, play, movement were added to my list of words.
I was further encouraged when I learned that 2013 was the Year of the Snake. Something loosened in me and out came the scissors, glue, papers, paintbrushes, yogurt container of water (!)and tubes of colour. Water Snake #5 is a little bigger than the others.
Because Water Snake #5 is so precise, I felt a great wiggle and desire to move inside, so began a more fluid watercolour piece which I called Water Snake Wiggler. Some images of the process of creating these two pieces can be found in the gallery entitled “A Close Look at Water Snake #5”
Water Snake #1
Water Snake #2
Water Snake #3
Water Snake #4
Water Snake #5 – detail
Water Snake Wiggler, watercolour, January 2013