Shards of Darby: Cynthia Back in the Studio

December 30, 2014 by

20141208-Cynthia-Back-798Ten years ago, when workspace resident Cynthia Back moved from Brooklyn to Philadelphia, she encountered a changing landscape in the throes of housing development. Driving large distances for her work as a decorative painter, she visited newly-built McMansions that dotted Philly’s expanding exurban sprawl.

“Just north of Philadelphia, there’s all this rural, beautiful farmland mixed with development,” Cynthia says, describing how the environment around her bore evidence of the houses’ construction and the land’s own subsequent destruction. “The landscape’s been changing so much.”

20141209-Cynthia-Back-809Cynthia’s printmaking practice uses her personal experience of the landscape to address larger environmental concerns. Layering vibrant prints to create complex graphic compositions, she contrasts natural landscapes with man-made infrastructures, like bridges, piers, and sewage tunnels. Their abstract, sometimes even violent, juxtapositions suggest a landscape in flux.

20141208-Cynthia-Back-767In WSW’s etching studio, she works on a series of nine copper-plate etchings that depict Darby Creek, a small but vital body of water that runs beside her home, with objects she’s collected from its polluted shores. The flowing stream supports a unique estuarine ecosystem that has been transformed by multiple generations of dams and industrial development. In contrast with Cynthia’s previous work, where constructed environments are energetically interrupted and constructed, these new prints appear serene. Their almost dreamlike waterscapes quietly suggest an environment fragmented and deteriorating.

“Moving to where I live now, so many people have a history, and they can talk about how [the creek] has changed, what’s happened, and ongoing efforts,” Cynthia says. Using historical maps, comparing accounts of eighteenth century floods and contemporary reports on the area, her research reveals how severely the creek’s ecosystem has shrunk and disappeared over the past century due to human activity. Walking the creek everyday, Cynthia found herself compelled to collect pieces of broken pottery, glass, golf balls, and other worn-down items that dot the edges of Darby Creek. These objects appear throughout her newest prints, placed in the environment slightly askew.

Mimicking the flow of trickling water, she paints acid-resistant ground onto one of her plates with a small brush. Using two to three copper plates for each print, she first establishes a black or off-black base that depicts the majority of each scene using aquatint and soft-ground etching. Second and third plates bring in select earth- and water-tone colors of the environment, rendering the final prints with subtle, meandering line work and a range of textural gray tones.

20141208-Cynthia-Back-792The final waterscapes are quiet and devoid of the human presence that’s defined them: a large, red-brown brick wall crumbles across the monochromatic creek bed. Vibrant shards of pottery seem to almost float in space, interrupting an otherwise colorless scene. In another print, broken bricks lie scattered with pebbles by the shore, only visible by their sepia tones.

These scattered remains appear as a recurring motif throughout Cynthia’s new work, blending naturalism with a surrealistic leaning towards abstraction. Their presence amidst the dwindling Darby Creek not only references environmental pollution, but also suggests a trace of someone’s history, evidence of a more personal, human degradation.

20141215-Cynthia-Back-881Staring at the brightly-colored fragments, she can’t help but think about the home they might have belonged to. “Why are they here?” Cynthia asks. “What happened to the person who owned these objects? Or the home that all these bricks came from?”

Within the larger context of environmental destruction, Cynthia’s inclination towards personal narrative continues to drive her work. Describing her residency as a “charging of my battery,” she’s excited to develop these themes further and find shards of her own history within these fragmented waterscapes.

Cynthia Back holds a BFA from Minneapolis College of Art and Design. She draws inspiration for her printmaking-based practice from Shelley Thorstensen, James McNeill Whistler, and Francisco de Goya. Find her work online at, and see more pictures of her newest prints on Flickr.