In the Beginning There Was Only Water

By Joan Sullivan

While some of us taught ourselves to bake sourdough bread or to mend socks during the pandemic, the American painter and arts writer Susan Hoffman Fishman plunged herself into her studio and emerged, a year later, with a revised creation story.

In the Beginning There Was Only Water: Panels 19-22, each panel 30″ x 15″, acrylic, oil pigment stick and mixed media on paper, 2021

The result: a magnificent, nearly 50-foot (15 meters) opus entitled In The Beginning There Was Only Water

Currently on exhibit at the Five Points Gallery in Torrington, Connecticut through December 19, 2021, In The Beginning There Was Only Water reframes the biblical creation myth – in which “man” was granted “dominion” over all the Earth’s plants and animals – into a new, non-human-centric story.

Installation photograph of In the Beginning There Was Only Water at Five Points Gallery, Torrington, CT, 2021

Comprised of 39 mixed media paintings on paper, each 30 in. x 15 in., the work is hung without any space between the panels. The extended horizontal format of the piece creates a dramatic running narrative that begins approximately 3.8 billion years ago, when our fiery planet started to cool and the rains began to fall, and fall continuously, for centuries – filling up the basins that eventually became the primeval ocean.

In the beginning, there was only water. Not a human being or apple tree in sight.

According to Fishman, the narrative is “an abstract and liberal interpretation of what scientists have determined really happened at the creation of the planet and for the billions of years that followed.” 

In the Beginning There Was Only Water: Panels 1-6, each panel 30″ x 15″, acrylic and oil pigment stick on paper, 2021

In the Beginning There Was Only Water grew out of Fishman’s providential participation in a group of eight female eco-artists who met virtually on a regular basis during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. They assembled to read and discuss the newly published book All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson. The group’s enthusiastic reaction to this seminal eco-anthology was a collective decision to create individual paintings, sculptures, installations, and new media that responded to specific essays in the book. 

While reading All We Can Save, Fishman was “viscerally struck” by Kendra Pierre-Louis‘ essay, ‘Wakanda Doesn’t Have Suburbs.’ In particular, Pierre-Louis’ cri de cœur for new stories galvanized her – new stories to replace the biblical creation myth that cast humans as separate from and, worse, superior to nature. Such a colonialist worldview justified – no, condoned – our species’ relentless appetite to use and abuse the Earth’s resources in any way we choose, without regard to the impact of our actions on non-human beings – including the rivers, oceans, forests, land, and atmosphere – upon whom we depend for our own survival. 

According to Pierre-Louis, this creation myth set humans on an inherently destructive path that evolved, over millennia, into our “innate tendency to destroy the environment” ever since “Eve, allegedly, took a bite of that damn apple.”

Fishman spent the majority of 2021 working on In The Beginning There Was Only Water. Prior to developing the framework for the series, she conducted extensive research about the origins of the earth itself, including the geological formation of land, volcanoes, mountains and bodies of water; the emergence of single-cell organisms; the appearance of algae that eventually led to the creation of the first plants and the birth of animal life.

In the Beginning There Was Only Water: Panels 7 and 8, each panel 30″ x 15″, acrylic and oil pigment stick on paper, 2021
In the Beginning There Was Only Water: Panels 15-18, each panel 30″ x 15″, oil pigment stick and mixed media on paper, 2021

Meanwhile, as Fishman worked to complete her narrative, the reading group developed plans to create a traveling exhibition of their work, entitled Climate Conversations: All We Can Save, which was curated by member artists Leslie Sobel and Laura Earle. For her contribution to the group exhibition, Fishman created two large-scale (5 ft. x 5 ft.) mixed-media paintings on paper and the first six panels of what was to become her opus. These paintings served as a warm-up for her 39-panel narrative, a massive project that would soon outgrow her Connecticut studio. 

During the summer of 2021, Climate Conversations was installed at the 22 North Gallery in Ypsilanti, Michigan (July-August 2021). In early 2022, it will travel to the Janice Charach Gallery in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan (January-March 2022) and then to the Nurture / Nature Center in Easton, Pennsylvania (April-May 2022). 

In the Beginning There Was Only Water II, 5 ft. x 5 ft., acrylic and mixed media on paper, 2020
On the 3 Billionth Day Algae Made Plants, 5 ft. x 5 ft., acrylic, oil pigment sticks and mixed media on paper, 2021

The images accompanying this text, as engaging and seductive as they are, do not do full justice to Fishman’s extraordinary creation. In the Beginning There Was Only Water is a work of art that demands to be seen up close, in person. Walking the full length of this nearly 50-foot piece in the Five Points Gallery, visitors sense the primal energy associated with the violent origins of our blue planet and the teeming life forms created in its aftermath.

In this story, the entire world is Eden.

While Fishman chose to execute the first six panels as monochromatic interpretations of the primordial rains, she introduces color gradually as the narrative unfolds, beginning with blue and sepia and concluding with a full color palette. To mark the passage of time, each panel carries over at least one color from the previous one, an artistic sleight of hand that reminds us that all living organisms are related; they are, as Darwin pointed out, “descended from a common ancestor with striking anatomical similarities between species.” 

Fishman admits that she completed the paintings for In The Beginning There Was Only Water in multiples of two, four and six. But in ordering the narrative, she often reversed the sequence of the panels or, in many cases, turned the finished ones upside-down to enforce the abstract nature of the narrative. 

Incorporating collage materials such as gauze and hand-made papers to the surface of the panels, her paintings are highly textured. Her use of line and linear forms are especially effective in emphasizing movement and invites the viewer to travel along physically and intellectually with the story across time from panel to panel.

In the Beginning There Was Only Water: Panels 29-32, each panel 30″ x 15″, acrylic, oil pigment stick and mixed media on paper, 2021

Because water is essential for all living beings on Earth, Fishman made a conscious decision to include visible references to it throughout the series, using brilliant cobalt blue starting in panel 7. In fact, the topic of water is central to Fishman’s artistic practice. Since 2011, her work has focused almost exclusively on water and the climate crisis: rising tides, plastic oceans, the threat of water wars, and rampikes – dead trees along our shores whose roots have been exposed to salt water from rising tides. 

Although all of Fishman’s previous works present a narrative relating to the nature of water in our time, they are in no way didactic. Instead, her paintings are scenes on paper that she creates using bold, vivid colors, abstract shapes contrasting with recognizable images, often with skewed perspective.

In addition to being a painter and public artist, Fishman is a prolific arts writer who pens the popular monthly column, Imaging Water, for this international blog. Her monthly articles highlight artists, projects, and exhibitions that address the increasingly critical issue of water in the context of climate disruption. 

While the planet continues to warm and the seas to rise as a result of misguided decisions and actions that human beings have made since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, it is powerful artwork like Fishman’s In the Beginning There Was Only Waterthat reminds us of the innate beauty of our world and what we stand to lose.

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer and writer focused on the energy transition. She is a member of Women Photograph. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan explores the intersection of art, artists and the energy transition. For the first time this month, Joan is a guest writer for the monthly series, Imagining Water. You can find Joan on Twitter and Visura.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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