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Of light, tide, and the river: Ink drawings inspire OSU music students 

In “Pacific Waters” at the Corvallis Arts Center, students composed works for strings to go with Mary Frisbee Johnson’s water sketches.


"Quail Beach 3" by Mary Frisbee Johnson (ink on Arches watercolor paper, 22 by 22 inches, 2022).
“Quail Beach 3” by Mary Frisbee Johnson (ink on Arches watercolor paper, 22 by 22 inches, 2022). Photo by: Gabe Braukman

Many pieces of art are products of collaboration: collaboration of pen with paper, brush with canvas, chisel with marble. The Arts Center in Corvallis is hosting an exhibition that takes this idea even further. Not just a collaboration between ink and canvas, but between visuals and music, between the artist and local students, between the viewer and the piece itself. 

Pacific Waters, at the Arts Center until July 22, started off as a solely visual exhibition. The creation of Mary Frisbee Johnson, an artist living on the Oregon Coast, it primarily features indigo ink drawings exploring the subject of water.  Two larger installations, composed of five panels each, are hung above the floor, dividing the gallery in two.

“I had always wanted to move back to the Oregon Coast because I had fallen in love with it in the ‘70s,” Johnson said. “I’m just so enamored with everything about it — the ocean, the geography, everything. I just went all up and down the Central Coast taking very fast pictures and got very interested in the way the light and the tide and the river – everything that makes the water move – happens.” 

Mary Frisbee Johnson, artist and author
Mary Frisbee Johnson, artist and author

The art itself visualizes the unique aspects of water. The way it can flow both gracefully and chaotically. The contrast between the light and inviting shallows, and the dark, unknown depths. These drawings are moving, despite staying completely still. 

If water is one thing, it’s noisy. It ripples and bubbles, noise and motion intrinsically linked. Likewise, if Corvallis is one thing, it’s a college town. 

“She came into our class, through Zoom, and gave a wonderful presentation,” said Dana Reason, an assistant professor of music at Oregon State University. “Showed us her work and had the students read her mission statement for the project beforehand. They got this opportunity to now think about how they would compose music to someone else’s artistic practice.” 

Through the curator at the Arts Center, Jennie Castle, a connection was created between Johnson and Reason. The students of MUS 443, a composition course, would become part of the exhibition, bringing sound to the visuals. 


MYS Oregon to Iberia

"Alsea Bay" by Mary Frisbee Johnson (drawing installation: sumi and india ink on roll strathmore, stones, 12 by 16 by 3 feet, variable).
“Alsea Bay” by Mary Frisbee Johnson (drawing installation: Sumi and India ink on roll Strathmore, stones, 12 by 16 by 3 feet, variable). Photo by: Gabe Braukman

Every student in the course chose a drawing to respond to, writing for strings. They utilized digital software to compose. Students each had their own story to tell about the creation of their response. 

“This was something that really took me out of my comfort zone. I had to learn how to really notate music on staff paper instead of just producing how I know how to produce,” said Cooper Reynolds, one of the students in the course. “I wanted to try and have it represent the painting in a sense, but also be its own independent musical experience for the listener, where they could really get a certain feel of something before even seeing the piece.

Reynolds said the art he worked with “predominantly featured a lot of calming shades, the blues and whites, that you commonly see in the Oregon Coast. I tried to evoke that peace and serenity off the bat with some light textures, heavy flow, soothing stuff. And then I tried to depict the other, more violent waves crashing out in the distance as the piece progressed.” 

The exhibit is set up in a way that every viewer can independently engage with both levels of its art, visual and musical. The Arts Center provides refurbished iPods, alongside headphones, with the entire library of music loaded onto them. At the front of the exhibit is a sheet that lists each of the drawings, the student who composed the music, and the title of the composition. It also includes a unique QR code that links to each song in an online playlist, so attendees can bring their own headphones and listen that way. 

“You have to think about a lot of different things in the sense of how you want the viewer to experience the show,” Castle said. “It’s a very different gallery experience to have ambient music playing in the space versus an interactive component where you choose a song and then sit in more of a solitary moment, listening to it alone. That’s the route we decided to go. We thought if people visited the gallery alone and used headphones, they could have a very personal experience in a public space.”

The students took a strong liking to Johnson’s art and used their interpretations as the basis for their compositions.

“One thing I really liked, it was a painting of foam in the water, that I just loved,” said student composer Erin Mendelson. “The more you zoomed into it, the more things you could pick out, which I thought was so cool. There was so much detail, one phrase that was used to describe this work was ‘motion in an instant,’ so even though it was a still image, it looked like there was so much motion, worlds within worlds.”


PCS Clyde’s

"Sandpiper 7.2" by Mary Frisbee Johnson (ink on Arches watercolor paper, 30 by 22 inches, 2022).
“Sandpiper 7.2” by Mary Frisbee Johnson (ink on Arches watercolor paper, 30 by 22 inches, 2022).

The project gave Connor McKay an opportunity “to expand my skills of writing music,” to go with previous experience arranging and reorchestrating songs. “With this,” McKay said, “it was really cool to have the type of visual that she drew. It’s of the ocean, but it’s so close up, you get this small piece of the ocean that’s blown up to proportions that are bigger than that piece. It helped me have another piece where I went from the start to the finish with something. To know how it feels to finish something and move on.”

Music major Mackenzie Bjornstedt usually focuses on lyrics when writing music, with instruments being secondary. “So it was really interesting to create something that wasn’t attached to lyrics,” Bjornstedt said. “It was a unique challenge. As it all came together, I got a picture in my head of the sound I wanted to create.”

Other composers whose work is in the show are Sage Jarvie, Tak Yeung Shum, Gage Mergel, Adam Banks, Kaitlyn Barrett, Zach Elms, as well as Professor Reason.

Johnson said she hoped viewers/listeners would enjoy the experience. “Each moment is really a moment in time,” she said, adding she hoped the show would prompt people to think about ecology, “and that we could lose this beauty.” If viewers find the drawings beautiful, she said, “they will appreciate that water is so important to us and so important to the environment. I think that’s the underlying, not so much in-your-face message. I just hope they’ll enjoy that aspect.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Gabe Braukman

Gabe Braukman is a fourth-year new media, journalism, and film student at Oregon State University. With a particular passion for game design, Gabe has always had an interest in analyzing all the media he has come across. In his free time, Gabe is often hiking, creating videos, or catching up on sleep.


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