Liminal Spaces

On the internet, the liminal space phenomenon is mainly of nostalgia. There are spaces we find collectively familiar that either bring forth feelings of comfort or eeriness.

In architecture, liminal space tends to describe spaces of transition and passage, like corridors, airports, waiting rooms. It also describes spaces that don’t fulfill their purpose if not used by hordes of people and consequently feel creepy, such as empty offices, empty train stations, empty malls.

For me, there is another layer: These are the memory landscapes of the last few generations that grew up in increasingly suburban and urban environments. We don’t get to experience open natural landscapes or farmland as much as we once did, and so waiting rooms, highways, pedways, and mall plazas have become what we remember of the world. This is the natural habitat of the 80s, 90s, and 00s kids.

Empty high school hallway by karolina szablewska liminal space watercolor painting

Empty High School Hallway

12″ x 12″ watercolour and ink on watercolour paper, painted in 2022.

A familiar sight, if you were late for class. The hallways of high school lose their essence when empty of teenagers. The green lockers, painted cinder block walls, and shining, polished floors reflecting fluorescent tube lights are key memories of high school.

Talking about liminal spaces with people across the world shows what brings forth the same feelings is very visually different. A Japanese or Dutch liminal photo does not feel liminal to me, as a Canadian. However as I did grow up in Poland, so I do experience the same feelings looking at photos from Poland, Czech, Russia. I concluded that the liminal space phenomenon is an individualized experience and there is no recipe for invoking it.

The liminal spaces I paint are specifically Canadian and American. North America lacks the depth of architectural and cultural heritage that can be found in thousands of years of architecture in Europe, Latin America or Asia, so our spaces are open to be shaped by more current values around driving, mainstream trends, melting pot aesthetics, maximizing, and pragmatic efficiency. As the internet is heavily influenced by North American culture, it is easier to invoke the liminal space experience through this perspective.

Wood Puzzle in Dentist Waiting Room

12″ x 12″ watercolour, ink, and acrylgouache on watercolour paper, painted in 2022.

Whether at the hospital or the dentist, there was always that strange wooden puzzle with beads either mounted on the wall or on a table off to the side. Who played with it? Yet another landscape of geometric industrial colors, ceiling panels, and familiar grey plastic and vinyl seats.

Wood Puzzle in Dentist Waiting Room liminal space painting by karolina szablewska

To go deeper, I believe there are also objects that invoke this experience. For example, there are generic toys every child had or universal pieces of furniture we saw filling the need for a table or chair. Just think of the average old telephone or imagine what a folding chair looks like, and likely a very specific yet familiar image comes to mind.

nine birthday balloon creepy exit sign by karolina szablewska liminal space watercolor painting

Exit, Nine

12″ x 12″ watercolour, ink, and acrylgouache on watercolour paper, painted in 2022.

A metallic balloon shaped like the number nine reflects the red glow of an exit sign down a dingy hallway. This is like many apartment, mall, or office hallways in the backrooms of buildings.

*If you would like to see me paint more international imagery, please feel free to submit your own photos (no copyrighted images) and tell me what feelings the images invoke for you. Like my documentary-style watercolor series of Canada, I will label all paintings with the location and year of the scene to place it in a point of historical time and place.

Become a patron to participate in the behind-the-scenes of this series with work-in-progress pics, polls, and discussion.
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