Visual Symbols for Water

The Purpose of Symbols

According to the Webster-Merriam Dictionary, a symbol is “something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental resemblance.” The word, ‘symbol,’derives from the Greek word, symbolon, meaning “throwing things together,” so as to create an imaginative association between them.  For a symbol to hold significance within a culture or community, its meaning must be clear and easily understood. A country’s flag, for example, is a symbol of its national identity and is recognized with pride by its citizenry. Similarly, the red or yellow octagonal shape located on a street corner is known throughout the world as a directive to STOP, regardless of the language.

 French Stop Sign


French Stop Sign

Symbols in Art

A visual symbol is a mark, a design or an image used to convey an idea or physical entity. In art, symbols are the oldest form of communication. They appeared on the walls of caves, on ceremonial objects, on clothing, on jewelry, on sculpture and on tools and were a visual language used to appease or praise the gods, petition for food or rain, give thanks or tell stories.

Water Symbols Throughout History

Since water represents life to a community and is a requirement for human survival, symbols for water were especially common throughout history.  In researching these images of water from ancient cultures all over the world up to the present time, I was amazed at how little they have changed. The earliest Egyptians represented water with the following symbol of parallel, wavy lines:

A detail from a side panel of the outer coffin of Ti of Saqqara, (c. 2450 BCE) entitled, Cattle Fording a River, shows the River Nile as a series of parallel, zig-zag lines at the bottom of the image, a slight variation from the symbol above.  Egyptians tombs were filled with the images and objects that the deceased would need in his/her eternal life and the vital waters of the Nile would certainly have been included in this one.

 Cattle Fording a River Tomb of Ti of Saqqara, c. 2450 BCE


Cattle Fording a River
Tomb of Ti of Saqqara, c. 2450 BCE

The artist who created The Uruk Vase from Uruk, Iraq, (c. 3500 – 300 BCE), at a significant distance of time and geography from the creator of the Saqqara tomb scene, depicted a somewhat similar image of cattle on the banks of a river, illustrated by parallel, wavy lines, from which plants and reeds are growing.

 Uruk Vase From Uruk, Iraq c. 3500 - 300 BCE


Uruk Vase From Uruk, Iraq
c. 3500 – 300 BCE

Half a world and 1300 centuries later, a detail from the Bayeux Tapestry, entitled, “Norman Fleet Sailing for England (1070 – 1088) shows the vessel upon a sea of (yes, you guessed it) parallel, wavy lines.

 Norman Fleet Sailing For England 1070 - 1088


Norman Fleet Sailing For England
1070 – 1088

There are certainly some variations in visual symbols for water in other cultures.  The earliest Chinese symbols for water appeared as a central, wavy, vertical line, representing a river, with shorter lines signifying drops of water on the side.  But, really, don’t you think they’re still parallel, wavy lines?

 Earliest Chinese Symbols For Water


Earliest Chinese Symbols For Water

Eventually the symbol for water in Chinese evolved into an image that is a central, bold stroke with two angular marks on its left and right.

 Chinese Symbol for Water


Chinese Symbol for Water

The Navahos, Hopi, Pueblo and Zuni tribal artists used (and still use) spiral, wavy lines as symbols for water, cycles of life, renewal and springtime.

 Navaho, Hopi, Pueblo and Zuni Symbols For Water, Cycles of Life, Renewal and Springtime


Navaho, Hopi, Pueblo and Zuni Symbols For Water, Cycles of Life, Renewal and Springtime

Check out how the zodiac sign for Aquarius was and is represented – the parallel, zig-zag lines again.

 The Twelve Zodiac Signs Including The Sign For Aquarius (Water)


The Twelve Zodiac Signs Including The Sign For Aquarius (Water)

Contemporary Symbols For Water

Trademarks and logos for corporations that are associated with the water industry as well as icons for Twitter and Facebook accounts representing water organizations  abound with symbols for water.  The Water-Sea icon shown below should look familiar by now:

 Water-Sea Icon


Water-Sea Icon

The American Rivers Association Twitter Account uses a symbol of a wavy, blue line representing the river, a brown field of color below the line to symbolize earth and a yellow sky.

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Finally, there’s a radically different image for water that has emerged in recent years to reflect the water conservation movement: the tap water icon.

tap-water-icon

This compilation of water symbols is by no means an exhaustive one but it does show how the importance of water has been emphasized by every culture in every time period.  What symbols of water can you find?  We’d love to post them.

Spring Water

Water as a Marker of Seasonal Change

Although March 20 marks the first official day of spring on the calendar, the temperature here in Hartford, Connecticut is still hovering around 40 degrees fahrenheit during the day and dropping into the 20s and 30s at night. There are many signs, however, that the seasons are indeed changing. In Stamford, CT, where Elena lives, the ice that has melted in the pond on her property and the growing translucent quality of light reflected in the water clearly reveal the transition from winter to spring. The images below remind us of the inherent beauty of water and its capacity to reflect and enhance the environment in which it resides.

 Trees Reflected in the Winter Pond Photograph Courtesy of Elena Kalman


Trees Reflected in the Winter Pond
Photograph Courtesy of Elena Kalman

 Winter Pond With Ice Photograph Courtesy of Elena Kalman


Winter Pond With Ice
Photograph Courtesy of Elena Kalman

 Pond in Spring Photograph Courtesy of Elena Kalman


Pond in Spring
Photograph Courtesy of Elena Kalman

Homage to the Square (Wave)

The Appealing Square

There’s something about the square, the elegant geometric shape with four equal sides and four equal angles, that has always fascinated artists as a simple but challenging format for two dimensional works of art.

Joseph Albers (1888 – 1976), a German-born, American abstract painter and educator, is probably the one artist whose body of work is most commonly associated with the square. Starting in 1949, Albers devoted decades to exploring the interaction of solid planes of color and the optical effects of color in his series of square paintings, entitled, Homage to the Square. A professor of art at Yale University from 1950 – 1958, Albers published a book in 1963 entitled, Interaction of Color, which documented his ground-breaking theory of color. Joseph Albers completed hundreds of Homage to the Square paintings and prints in his lifetime.

 Joseph Albers, Homage to the Square, 1965


Joseph Albers, Homage to the Square, 1965

The Square Wave

Elena and I have long been ‘into’ the square format.  In 2010, we worked separately but concurrently on a large series of square, mixed media paintings on paper that we called Sea Squares.  The give and take of completing these 18″ x 18″ paintings as we sat side by side was most likely the determining experience that propelled us to collaborate on future projects and, ultimately, on The Wave.

 Red Rocks by Elena Kalman, Mixed Media on Paper, 2010 Courtesy of Elena Kalman


“Red Rocks” by Elena Kalman, Mixed Media on Paper, 18″ x 18,” 2010
©Elena Kalman

 Sea Square by Susan Hoffman Fishman, 2008 ©Susan Hoffman Fishman


“Sand and Waves” by Susan Hoffman Fishman, Mixed Media on Paper, 18″ x 18,” 2010
©Susan Hoffman Fishman

It was only a matter of time before we would eventually experiment with using the square format in some way with The Wave. The fact that the whole concept of a square wave is an oxymoron was all the more appealing to us. What is the best way to confine the undulating pieces of The Wave within a rigid geometric square so that the final image actually reads square wave? Here are a few samples of what we came up with.


“Blue Square Wave”
Photograph courtesy of Susan Hoffman Fishman

 Square Wave Courtesy of Susan Hoffman Fishman


“2 Square Waves”
Photograph courtesy of Susan Hoffman Fishman

 "Square Wave Corners" Courtesy of Susan Hoffman Fishman


“Square Wave Corners”
Photograph courtesy of Susan Hoffman Fishman

 Blue Square Wave and Colored Square Wave Courtesy of Susan Hoffman Fishman


“Blue Square Wave and Multi-Colored Square Wave”
Photograph courtesy of Susan Hoffman Fishman

 'Multi-Colored Square Wave" Courtesy of Susan Hoffman Fishman


‘Multi-Colored Square Wave”
Photograph courtesy of Susan Hoffman Fishman

 

The Art of Water

Water as a Theme or Metaphor in the Arts

Visual artists, poets, novelists, composers, playwrights, filmmakers and choreographers have long been inspired by the inherent beauty, movement and sound of water.  The list of well-known paintings, prints, poems, novels, plays, songs, musical compositions and dances that incorporate water as a literal image, as a theme or as a metaphor is immense.

Gene Kelly in the 1952 film, Singing in the Rain


Gene Kelly in the 1952 film, Singing in the Rain

Here are just a few examples:

Who doesn’t feel the pure joy and playfulness exuding from Gene Kelly in love when he dances, sings, leaps and stomps to Singing in the Rain in spite of the gloomy downpour and wet puddles? Or the power and force of nature portrayed in Frederick Church’s magnificent 1867 painting, Niagra Falls? In describing what he was trying to accomplish with his Water Lily paintings, Claude Monet wrote that they were “the illusion of an endless whole, of water without horizon or bank.” Handel’s 1717 commission to compose a concert for King George and his party as they sailed on the River Thames became his Water Music, a ‘flood’ of melodies, fittingly majestic and spectacular. And in his last play, The TempestWilliam Shakespeare uses the violent storm as a catalyst that dramatically affects the lives and actions of all his characters.

 The Tempest by John William Waterhouse, 1916


The Tempest by John William Waterhouse, 1916
Based on William Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest

Water Across the Academic Disciplines

When we go to elementary, middle or high schools to work with students on a Wave installation, Elena and I encourage teachers to incorporate The Wave and its theme of water across academic disciplines, to tap into the poetry, novels, plays, music and dances that have already been created by singing songs, reading books, writing new stories and choreographing new dances in conjunction with The Wave installation. We also suggest that they conduct a water conservation awareness project in their local community, monitor their own water usage or research global water issues, etc.  To promote interdisciplinary learning on water, we are posting lessons on our website that teachers we have worked with have developed. We have also included a page of links on the website highlighting major national and international organizations that have created curricula on water, water conservation, water shortage around the world, water purification, water desalination and many other topics.

Poetry on Water

Relating to the topic of creative outpourings on water, I came across a poem recently that beautifully describes how water has no real shape of its own and, therefore, adapts efficiently to its environment.  The poem, “Be Like Water” was written by wellness advocate, Jason Wachob to Bruce Lee, the Chinese American martial artist.  Here it is:

Bruce Lee: Be Like Water

Be like water making its way through cracks.  Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.

Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.

“Be Like Water” instigated a delightful discussion between Elena and me on our favorite poems related to water in all of its iterations (ice, snow, ocean, brook, river, lake, stream, storm, rain, sleet, pool, well, etc.,etc.).  I’ll start with Elena’s favorite, called “Marina” written by the Russian/Soviet poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892 – 1941) and translated by Elena herself.

Marina 
by Marina Tsvetaeva

Some people are fashioned
Of clay and of ashes,
But I am all glittering freedom!
My name is Marina.
I act on my passions.
I’m ocean froth destined to perish.

 The Waves 'Frothing' Philbin Beach, Martha's Vineyard Courtesy of Susan Hoffman Fishman


The Waves ‘Frothing’
Philbin Beach, Martha’s Vineyard, 2008
Photograph Courtesy of Susan Hoffman Fishman

I have many favorite poems with a water theme: Water by Ralph Waldo Emerson; Going For Water by Robert Frost; Water is Taught by Thirst by Emily Dickinson; All Day I Hear the Noise of Waters by James Joyce and a special favorite from my childhood, Spring Morning by A.A. Milne. The Frost and Milne poems are included below.

Going for Water
by Robert Frost

The well was dry beside the door,
And so we went with pail and can
Across the fields behind the house
To seek the brook if still it ran;

Not loth to have excuse to go,
Because the autumn eve was fair
(Though chill), because the fields were ours,
And by the brook our woods were there.

We ran as if to meet the moon
That slowly dawned behind the trees,
The barren boughs without the leaves,
Without the birds, without the breeze.

But once within the wood, we paused
Like gnomes that hid us from the moon,
Ready to run to hiding new
With laughter when she found us soon.

Each laid on other a staying hand
To listen ere we dared to look,
And in the hush we joined to make
We heard, we knew we heard the brook.

A note as from a single place,
A slender tinkling fall that made
Now drops that floated on the pool
Like pearls, and now a silver blade.

 Brook, 2012 Photograph Courtesy of Susan Hoffman Fishman


Brook, 2012
Photograph Courtesy of Susan Hoffman Fishman

Spring Morning
by A.A. Milne

Where am I going? I don’t quite know.
Down to the stream where the king-cups grow-
Up on the hill where the pine-trees blow-
Anywhere, anywhere. I don’t know.

Where am I going? The clouds sail by,
Little ones, baby ones, over the sky.
Where am I going? The shadows pass,
Little ones, baby ones, over the grass.

If you were a cloud, and sailed up there,
You’d sail on water as blue as air,
And you’d see me here in the fields and say:
“Doesn’t the sky look green today?”

Where am I going? The high rooks call:
“It’s awful fun to be born at all.”
Where am I going? The ring-doves coo:
“We do have beautiful things to do.”

If you were a bird, and lived on high,
You’d lean on the wind when the wind came by,
You’d say to the wind when it took you away:
“That’s where I wanted to go today!”

Where am I going? I don’t quite know.
What does it matter where people go?
Down to the wood where the blue-bells grow-
Anywhere, anywhere. I don’t know.

What are your favorite poems on water, snow, the ocean, etc? Or, for that matter, do you have favorite paintings, songs, films, operas, ballets, etc. that incorporate the theme of water? We’d love to hear about them.