When visual artists Jolene Brink and Linds Sanders first teamed up to create a collaborative show, they weren’t quite sure where their common ground was. Sanders laughs when recalling the conversation: “Jolene said, ‘I like working with maps, historic documents and the history of Montana’ and I said, ‘Cool, I like painting whales and jellyfish.’” Despite the apparent lack of overlap, the duo knew they were on the right track. By latching onto Glacial Lake Missoula as a loose reference point, they let their imaginations run.

It seems appropriate, then, that their collaborative show, titled Water Maps, is a kaleidoscope of imagery in a wide variety of media including paper-based collage, encaustic, painting, ceramics and found object micro-installations. And while such an array of formats might initially sound disjointed or cluttered, the reality is the opposite: The show, at E3 Convergence Gallery, features historical maps, faint text, transparencies of images, washes of color and, yes, beautifully rendered sea creatures. It depicts a coherent if dreamlike world in which time and narrative are blurred.

This is where it becomes clear that Sanders’ and Brink’s styles are not so different after all: both traffic in a kind of art that isn’t tethered to one version of reality, but instead asks “What was here before us?” and also “What might we imagine here before?”

Brink, who had previously created installations using historical maps, is fascinated by what maps tell us about the past and ourselves. “This show is a lot like how I want to approach history,” she says. “You have all these layers you can dig through, and we often see what we want to see. Living in Missoula, there’s this glacial lake in our very, very distant collective memory, and it was fun to see what materials we could use to illustrate that.” Many of Brink’s pieces are encaustic collages that overlay transparent layers of maps, texts and images to create compelling juxtapositions, and to draw attention to familiar local terrain in its historic context.

water maps

A detail from a piece in Water Maps, an exhibit currently showing at E3 Convergence Gallery by artists Jolene Brink and Linds Sanders.

“I found the USGS map of Missoula in the 1920s,” she says, “and I was mesmerized by all these hand-drawn lines depicting places we know—Mount Jumbo, Hellgate Canyon.” By printing these maps as large as she could and then displaying portions of them, she allows the viewer to get lost in that same topography.

Sanders also works with collage, but she incorporates painted figures into her pieces as well, such as whales and rays, which, of course, might raise the eyebrows of the historically accurate among us. But it’s that level of fantasy and imagination that makes the images so intriguing.

“I just decided to take it a step further,” Sanders says, “and say, yes, it’s a lake, but what if? What if there were freshwater whales?” Certain pieces, such as Sanders’ “Fossil Song” really play with the ideas of geologic time, the sense of mystery and wonder we feel at what and who inhabited this valley before us, and what artifacts remain.

The addition of more current artifacts—old journals and notebooks that belonged to Sanders’ engineer grandfather, tiny glass bottles, ancient receipts, bits of copper wire—bring that sense of wonder and mystery up to the modern era. They augment the viewer’s sense that history is nothing more than layer upon layer of reality, each one shifting and evolving with the passage of time, which is just like the shifting and accumulating layers of sediment on the floor of a glacial lake.

Water Maps shows at E3 Convergence through December.

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