Painter Cynthia Knott has had a love affair with the sea for her entire professional career. Her oceanic oeuvre is suffused with mystery and reverie that reveals itself gradually whenever you stand in front of one of her large-scale works and let the horizon line play tricks with your eyes while it seductively draws you in.
“I have the philosophy that creativity is the closest thing to divinity,” says Knott.
Her fascination with the sea began in earnest when she moved to Eastern Long Island, N.Y., in 1989. So many of the artists living there at the time were doing landscapes and she asked herself, “What am I going to offer them? What do I have that's different?” She had a master’s degree from New York University and found herself on the beach looking out on the horizon one day.
“I got this glow on the horizon and it's turning gold and it's turning white and it's getting bigger and then it's going away,” explains Knott. Then she had her eureka moment. “It's a horizon line, but no, it's a Dan Flavin fluorescent light bulb! It's a horizontal, illuminated thing. I thought, where am I going to take this? What it was was a Cartwright shoal. It was a piece of land that I didn't know was there. It was coming up in low tide and going down in high tide, but I saw it as a horizon line and I saw it as a contemporary construct like Dan Flavin's fluorescent bulbs.”
Knott's education at NYU was steeped in contemporary art traditions, with teachers like the famed performance artist RoseLee Goldberg and many other professors who were active artists showing work in all the important New York galleries at the time, so she was coming at her work from a decidedly modern perspective. Though her work is not without its classical antecedents — the technique she uses is what she calls a reverse axial shift.
“This is a composition device,” explains Knott. “It's what I use in my paintings to get the composition. It's about a one-point perspective at the bottom, flipping itself out at the top and coming back out at you. A really good example of it is Caravaggio.
“Because I'm not putting any real landmarks in there, there's no way to measure where the horizon is because it's nowhere and everywhere at once. So, in order to get a type of back door to go into it, I have to use this device and I can make it have perspective and have it be a place. So it's kind of that invisible and sacred geometry that I'm using to go through.”
'Turbulent and evocative'
For this reason, Knott seems like the perfect, though perhaps unorthodox, choice for the upcoming exhibition at Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum. “Crossing Horizons,” which opens Jan. 15, is one of the many events the museum is hosting to celebrate both the 200th anniversary of the William Scarbrough House, a National Historic Landmark that houses the museum, and the 200th anniversary of the historic trans-Atlantic crossing of the hybrid sailing ship and sidewheel steamer, the SS Savannah.
“I don't really do a place that's recognizable,” says Knott. “I do places that you can feel and you can go to to meditate and pray. It's going to be more quiet, but also turbulent and evocative. So I'm not going to put a ship in there, but I have to get its essence.”
Knott explains that the SS Savannah arrived in the Savannah port on an early spring morning in 1819, which she imagines as morning on the water, with fog that's beginning to burn off. Her painting of the event is not meant to be literal, but rather to evoke the feeling of waiting on the shore to see this great ship in all its regalia, paddlewheel, steam engine, sails and all.
Not long after its arrival in the Savannah port, President James Monroe took a brief excursion on the SS Savannah to Tybee Island with the ship's principal owner William Scarbrough. And though the vessel did successfully cross the Atlantic that year, and has the distinction of being the first steam-powered ship to do so, it also had the unfortunate fate of sinking off the cost of Long Island less than three years after its maiden voyage.
That odd trajectory also parallels with Knott's own in reverse, providing connections both seen and unseen. “Crossing Horizons” provides a fantastic opportunity to witness Knott's particular brand of artistic alchemy up close and personal and also serves to highlight one of the more exceptional artists who has chosen to call Savannah home.
Knott's paintings are owned by notable personalities like Sir Patrick Stewart, Mercedes Ruehl and Candice Bergen, who are also close personal friends. She's twice been the recipient of the prestigious Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant. And her work has appeared in over 70 national and international exhibits over the 30 years of her professional career.
Asked why she chose to live in Savannah, Knott describes an indirect path by way of Hilton Head, but ultimately she says there was an almost spiritual draw that brought her to the region. She mentions her deep affinity for the Gullah Geechee community and her friendship that blossomed while living in Hilton Head with performance artist and activist Queen Quet. But ultimately it's the sea that drew her here and the near infinity it contains. And even though Knott has had her share of success, the life of an artist isn't always as charmed as it sometimes seems.
“It happens with the enigma of an artist, when you get to know them, somehow you think it's easy,” says Knott. “But it's so hard. It's so much work, so much work. But it's wonderful work because you're working for yourself. You’re working and all of the context of art history is available to you. And you have four dimensions you can travel through, so it's really a magical world.”
Kristopher Monroe is a writer documenting the intersection of art and community. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @savartscene.
IF YOU GO
What: “Crossing Horizons” by Cynthia Knott
When: Jan. 15-March 16; opening reception 6-8 p.m. Jan. 18
Where: Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum, 41 Martin Luther King Blvd.
Cost: Reception is free