"…whenever I see the pictures in Taiwan, it just reminds me of home. I'm just immediately drawn to that. Immediately I feel comfortable. So, I want to recreate that kind of image… I want to remind myself that that's where my heart is."
Almost three years after spelunking around Christina and Nate's kitchen for the last episode of "People Making Cool Stuff," I found myself in my friend Wolwold's home. She is (among other things) a watercolor artist, and in the moment, she was focused on sketching a moment from her imagination.
Well… not completely. Inspired by the architecture of her original home, she told me that the pieces combine her own memories, with more recent pictures of the place, as well as a little bit of fantasy. "There's a mix of imagination. It's not 100% true / doesn't 100% exist. But it's based in Taiwan a little bit."
Wolwold is in the midst of putting together a 20-piece collection for an upcoming exhibition. She told me that her goal for right now is to do enough work to get some feedback, but not to invest so much time that she'd hesitate to change directions if that's the sense she gets from the show. "Ideally, I want to go maybe 30, but then time drags too long, and I'm going to be a crazy cat lady…"
It feels like sketchbooks of some form have been a mainstay of Wolwold's development and practice in watercolors. She told me about middle school in Taiwan, when she had an assignment book that the teacher would review, and her parents would sign every night. She took to sketching little illustrations alongside her notes, which her teacher came to appreciate.
Those experiences led to a top Taiwanese art high school, where she specialized in traditional Chinese painting, followed by college, where she studied textile design. In college, one teacher encouraged keeping a sketchbook, which is a habit Wolwold stuck with. "She valued little ideas a lot."
Looking back, she told me "ironically, watercolor was my weakest [medium] when I was in high school. I would admire people who were really good." "I had no idea how they would mix the colors, do the wash, do the brush, color beautifully… Everything just seems really beautiful."
After 1-2 years of cram school after high school, where she'd do weekly practice for college entry exams, she started figuring it out. "Sometimes you get to a point where you feel, like, 'you know, I think I got it.'"
An aptitude for watercolor wasn't the only change since high school. She was originally not a cat person. "I was actually afraid of cats when I was in high school. I was more like a dog person." But a forced introduction in college started a shift. As she got to know that cat better, her fear began to subside.
After college, she moved to Michigan, and was befriended by one of her roommate's cats, Jojo. Jojo would stay nearby when Wolwold was home, and Wolwold told me that after awhile, "I feel like I could read what she was trying to tell me." When Wolwold would later move to the Bay Area for work, Jojo made the move as well.
After spending a few years on animal character studies, inspiration struck twice in early 2018. First, Wolwold discovered Mateusz Urbaniwicz's channel on YouTube, which shows how he paints watercolor scenes from Japan. She told me that "how he mixed the color just made me want to draw again." Then, on Pinterest, an artist who focused on cats made her think "Ooh, that's kind of fun." Those influences dovetailed into her current project, which combines watercolor and cats with her deep-seated love of Taiwan.
When working on any piece, Wolwold told me that "there is always a mental challenge, and a skill challenge." The mental challenge focuses on the concept of a piece — is the idea behind the piece good? Is watercolor a good medium to express that idea?
The skill challenge is to execute that concept, at times further refining the concept along the way. I was only present for the sketching, but Wolwold pointed out that the coloring phase can be more challenging. "Pencil can go back and forth" — you can erase sketch lines and redraw them until the scene looks right. "Watercolor, you can only do so many times. Once or twice. When you [add color layers, from background to foreground], that can also be challenging."
There are a few habits that Wolwold tends toward as she works. She'll often burn incense and listen to music or podcasts. She also tries to work somewhere that's warm — as the sun shifted during that afternoon, we moved to her front room to catch a bit more warmth before the sun dipped completely out of view.
Part of the fantasy of Wolwold's pieces is a speculation about what it would be like for Jojo to journey to other places. "You know, we want to take her to the park, or elsewhere. She's an indoor cat. To think, her whole life is indoor. She doesn't get to go to a park, church, restaurant… So I kind of throw her in difference scenes."
But it's not all speculation. "[The] taking a bath one, that one was for her, too. I think most people think that a cat does not want to have water. She resists, but once she's in the water, she feels calmer. [With water] up to the chest area, she feels safe. So I kind of create that scene of a cat taking a bath."
As she finishes the pieces, Wolwold tends to look forward more than she looks back. "When you finish something, you feel good about it. The more you finish, the more you feel like 'Okay, I accomplished something.' It's fun to look at it for sure, but it almost feels like, okay, you climbed a mountain. And [you think] 'Okay, I achieved this mountain, what is next?'"