A work of art may speak in many tongues, changing its message according to the viewer, but the work of Hendersonville artist Costanza Knight seems especially suited to the task. Inhabiting the fluid ground between representational and abstract, her watercolors, acrylics and drawings may invite multiple interpretations but share a deep understanding of our need for emotionally textured narrative. Her rich palette dominated by velvety blues and greens in the acrylics, more delicate shadings in her watercolors, invoke peacefulness, contemplation, a pause from the restlessness of daily life.
Two wellsprings combined over the years to inform the 64-year-old artist’s impressive body of work. One source was an early exposure to art thanks to her father, a graphic designer who studied at New York’s Parsons School of Design and who was a respected painter of Post-Impressionist oils and watercolors. Family summers were spent in Saluda, where daily painting and drawing lessons were organized around the picnic table in the backyard. “We would either paint mountainscapes, or a still life, or use our dog as a live model,” Connie remembers. “My father made it look so simple, and I followed suit. Those sessions definitely put me in touch with a strong desire to draw and paint the world.”
Further opportunity to do just that came with six months spent studying amid the Renaissance splendors of Florence thanks to a program offered by Florida State University, where Connie was a student. “It was a life-changing experience,” Connie says. “It imparted a classical foundation to my drawing style and gave me a profound understanding of three-dimensional representation on a flat surface,” particularly evident in Connie’s figurative work, like her “Wings” series depicting delicately modeled bodies and objects floating in a deeply rendered picture plane.
A second source for Connie’s development lay, oddly enough, in her fifteen years working as speech and language pathologist, the field in which she earned a Masters degree after returning from her art studies in Italy. That decade-and-a-half of helping patients to communicate more clearly became an important framework for putting paint to canvas. “There came a time when I knew I had to go back to art, but I know working with people all those years and helping them to communicate more effectively gave me a sensitivity to human interactions that shows up in my work.” One example is another of Connie’s themed series, “The People Could Fly” — twelve figurative watercolors based on an African-American parable of survival in slavery times, and which are now part of the permanent collection of the Department of African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
But that series, in its overt storytelling, is an exception to Connie’s other works and the more elusive meanings they carry. They emerge from a less rigidly defined state of mind, what Connie calls a “liminal state, a space in-between.” Meditative practices and an abiding affinity with the natural world help nurture the indistinct but fertile terrain between waking and sleeping, allowing viewers to draw from their own dreams and fantasies to interpret what Connie has put before them. “I do have a definite point of view when I begin painting, and even often name my paintings in the early stages to remind me of the direction I’m taking,” Connie explains. “But there are many ways paintings can be interpreted. I don’t give obvious clues to the meaning, so there’s room for the observer to come to their own conclusions about the images and symbols.” The semi-mystical glimmer that inhabits Connie’s work — what some observers have described as an Asian quality — is so distinctive that gallery patrons can more often than not spot a Costanza Knight work from a distance. Her landscapes, with their gently undulating mountains and sinuous rivers, are particular examples of her lyricism with shapes and colors.
Along with her studio work, Connie’s other abiding passion is teaching, especially working with children in her year-round series of “Juicy Art” classes, incorporating basic drawing skills followed by exposure to a wide variety of media, from acrylics to printmaking to watercolor. “Watercolor is wonderfully loose and flowing, and teaching art to kids is also loose and flowing,” Connie says. “Children are receptive and open to experimentation, and I feel teaching art allows me to put to use the skills I learned working with people as a speech and language pathologist. There’s a side of me that wants people interaction, and I find teaching allows me to strike a perfect balance with my studio time.”
Back in her studio, Connie is in the midst of a new landscape series she calls “Mother Earth Quilts,” complementing her previous work depicting mountains and rivers with valley views. And an example of a second new series, a group of smaller, figurative works also derived from nature themes, appeared in last month’s “Bring Us Your Best” annual show organized by the Hendersonville Arts Council. “I enjoy watching people entering my pieces, and perhaps telling me what they have found there,” Connie says. “They may find something different than I intended.” And that’s perfectly fine with her.