san francisco art magazine

Jennifer Ewing: Spirit Boats

Developing Environments
San Francisco, CA
Jan. 15th - Feb. 16, 2007

reviewed by DeWitt Cheng
No Horizon - Jennifer Ewing

No Horizon

     But here the voyager ... descends into a light canoe of ivory ... [, its] general form ... that of an irregular crescent. It lies on the surface of the bay with the proud grace of a swan. On its ermined floor reposes a single feathery paddle of satinwood; but no oarsman or attendant is to be seen ... . While [the guest] considers what course to pursue, however, he becomes aware of a gentle movement in the fairy bark. It slowly swings itself around until its prow points toward the sun. It advances with a gentle but gradually accelerated velocity, while the slight ripples it creates seem to break about the ivory side in divinest melody. ...

--Edgar Allan Poe, The Domain of Arnheim

     The enchanted landscape in Poe's story is the creation of one Arnheim, "a poet ... having very unusual pecuniary resources" whose work of art, "a landscape whose combined vastness and definitiveness--whose united beauty, magnificence, and strangeness ... convey[s] the idea of care, or culture, or superintendence, on the part of beings superior, yet akin to humanity." Poe's art-landscape is a narrative version of the contemporaneous Romantic images of Kaspar David Friedrich and other 19th century painters; they continued, according to art historian Robert Rosenblum, to see causation, purpose and sublime beauty in the natural world even when they could no longer descry God amid the clouds in an increasingly secular world. The story ends enigmatically as the boat glides into Arnheim's Paradise, "the phantom handiwork, conjointly, of the Sylphs, of the Fairies, of the Genii, and of the Gnomes."

Sandy Game - Jennifer Ewing

Sandy Game

     A similar fairy-tale enchantment suffuses Jennifer Ewing's Spirit Boat paintings. In these luminous mixed-media (acrylic, pastel, collage, and oil) works, we see small boats, canoes, and rowboats, from various angles--from the passenger's and from an observer's. They ride, empty of passengers, becalmed in still waters, or forge determinedly through rolling waves beneath skies glowing with light and fire. Ewing's previous work explored a classical, arcadian Italy, as did the artists of the renaissance. These works, however, which commemorate her late father, jettison marmoreal decorum in order to take on a heavier freight of emotion. Building on the artist's cultural immersion, they plunge into healing and catharsis and a more contemporary notion of humanity by, paradoxically, salvaging a sunken metaphor from the shoals of mythology and art history.

Swimming - Jennifer Ewing


     Boats, of course, have a long history as symbolic vehicles to the underworld or afterlife in myth, religion, and folklore. In Ewing's work they generally take on a simplified pod or fish shape that the viewer effortlessly accepts as a human surrogate. The spirit boats unite life and death, secular and sacred (the mandorla, or full-body nimbus of Christian art has its Freudian as well as its nautical interpretations); they become images of spiritual transformation, albeit seen in painterly modernist terms combining impressionist prismatic color, expressionist spiritual aspiration, and abstractionist painterly bravura. The resulting image is an energized field that keeps the viewer's eye and mind in constant motion between figure and background, and between the literal and the metaphorical. The prismatic colors flicker and waver, overlapping object boundaries, so that boat, water, sand, and sky all seem made of the same living stuff: trees are made of flame, and sky and water sometimes merge. By day the light sparkles like stars on the surface of the water, and by night it rises, like will-o'-the-wisps, to envelop the boats, which glow yellow and white as if ignited. When Ewing collages her father's mathematical writings or chess diagrams into the water and sky, it is as if the secret foundations of the universe had become magically evident, the veneer of the visible world momentarily lifted; when she locates the papers within the boats, they become a legacy to be borne into the future.

Breathing Patterns - Jennifer Ewing

Breathing Patterns

     Despite their visual allure, intellectual challenge, and emotional pull, however, these images remain elusive, indeterminate and unprogrammatic--they're subjective and modern. Unlike earlier symbolic seascapes by Ryder and Bocklin, these paintings feature no heroes or gods and are based on no pre-existing narratives by Shakespeare or Wagner. The viewer becomes protagonist and audience alike in this psychic theater, as well as pilgrim and "wayfarer" (Ewing's term), and the painting serves as the vehicle of his or her imaginative transformation and spiritual quest. In religious mystical rapture (unio mystica), the boundaries of the self fall away, and the ecstatic and the world resolve into one undifferentiated entity; in these boats we drift on the river of time toward absorption into oceanic infinity, but the mood is, despite their origins in feelings of loss, hopeful. These paintings radiate, as Robert Storr (2004) said of Rothenberg's work, "the feeling ... that the painting was not executed but arrived at." The life force that emanates from these images did not derive from some invisible omnipotent designer; it was visibly and passionately earned and won.

-- DeWitt Cheng 2007
     DeWitt Cheng, a Bay Area artist and freelance art writer, is a contributing editor to SFAM.

Additional Reference:
Storr, R. (2004). Disparities & Deformations: Our Grotesque, SITE Santa Fe '04. Retrieved March 27, 2007, from

Jennifer Ewing
Developing Environments
540 Alabama Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

Images appear courtesy of Jennifer Ewing.
Photos by Leo Germano.