The Delicate Tension of Nissa Kauppila’s Paintings

Wu Ti 13, 33 x 21 unframed, 42 x 30 framed copy

Wú Tí 13, Chinese Watercolor & Pigment on Mounted Rice Paper, 33″ x 20″ (Unframed)

Ink wash painting has ancient roots in China. Beginning in the 5th century, this discipline was considered an art form that strove to capture the essence of its subject, rather than trying to duplicate its outward form perfectly. By varying the density of the ink with water, along with the pressure of the brush, Chinese artists captured the spirit of their subjects.

Nissa Kauppila, originally from Monkton, Vermont, has been exploring this way of painting for the last five years. Recently, Nissa participated in an artist-in-residency program in China. During her time abroad, Nissa furthered her study of ink painting by working on traditional rice paper with Chinese black ink. Chinese ink has a different viscosity than Western ink, with a consistency that is more like charcoal; liquid tar. “I love seeing how rice paper reacts to this kind of ink,” Nissa said. “Rice paper absorbs ink differently. By adding more or less water, I can get different shades of grey.”

Wu Ti 10, 31 x 20 unframed, 40 x 29 framed copy

Wú Tí 10, Chinese Watercolor & Pigment on Mounted Rice Paper, 31″ x 20″ (Unframed)

Investigating the natural world has always been a strong curiosity for Nissa. “I can’t control nature and that appeals to me,” she said. She is not squeamish about photographing dead animals and road kill as she explores the visceral of life. She even has a taxidermy rooster at home. Living in China, she became fascinated by fish, which are a strong theme in traditional China. Her painting of two fish, titled Wú Tí 16, 33” x 23”, is a compelling example of Nissa’s attraction to tension. One orange fish is swimming, whole and shimmering. The other fish is twisting away from the viewer, with delicate tendrils trailing, tangled and thin.

In her three feather paintings, Wú Tí 13, 33” x 21”, Wú Tí 10, 31” x 20”, and Wú Tí 12, 31” x 20”, also made with traditional Chinese watercolor and ink on rice paper, Nissa suspends a single feather in space, with tendrils of color dissolving into the white space around them. Wisps of delicate line and color are left in the air by a single, trembling feather.

With mixtures of wash as well as calligraphic lines, Nissa manages to convey dualities of strength and fragility, life and death, and the transitory nature of the natural world − all in just a few lines. “The Chinese have six different terms for describing line,” she said. “These paintings for me are a form of meditation, especially living in such a chaotic place as Southeast Asia. What draws me to painting is the process, not the finished result. It is the initial attraction that is so delicate. I am attracted to that.”

Wu Ti 16, 33 x 23 unframed, 42 x 32 framed, LARGE copy

Wú Tí 16, Chinese Watercolor & Pigment on Mounted Rice Paper, 33″ x 23″ (Unframed)

Nissa’s studios are in Foshan and Shenzhen, China. “I go back and forth between the two,” she said. “There is so much visual stimulation in those places. The people, the architecture, the colors. Chaotic and beautiful. I love it!” Her work has an industrial element combined with the natural world. “A single object can hold the feeling of tension in just a line,” she said. “I am drawn to explosions.” While in China, she also studies Mandarin with a tutor.

With a BFA in painting from the Rhode Island School of Design, Nissa switched to digital media and education for her masters at University of Vermont. She has been teaching digital design and video production for the past six years at South Burlington High School.

Nissa has exhibited her work in galleries in Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Beijing, where, “There is such a positive response to my work. Many people think the work is done by a Chinese painter.” Indeed. Nissa Kauppila’s paintings are filled with nuance and simplicity, evoking flight, disintegration, power and delicacy.

Nissa Kauppila’s most recent works will on view as part of the exhibition, “Flight: Explorations in Migration, Movement, and Freedom,” April 2 – June 26, 2016.