art quilting

My Fairy Tale Love With Encaustic

I confess, I am in love with the medium of encaustic. Just like any great relationship, it faithfully welcomes me as I enter the studio with it’s warmth, smell and luminescent glow. It always yields to my wishes without too much resistance and surprises me by doing things I didn’t even know I wanted it to do. Although we’ve had many tiffs and I have strayed to other mediums, I always return and our partnership gets better and better. We have a symbiotic connection, encaustic and I…yes, I am blissfully in love. But this wasn’t always so….

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, there I was, a mid-thirties Fibers & Materials Studies Graduate Student at Tyler School of Art in 2001. I was working with ideas related to creation and the cyclic nature of life-imprinting, staining and marking as it relates to birth through to death and decomposition. More specifically, I was interested in the physical mark and pattern of this cycle on the earth and body. I began making visual comparisons using these kinds of patterns with images I took myself or found on the internet. Some of these were uncanny in their similarities as you can see below.

At the same time I was doing this research I was also looking for materials and processes that could replicate these patterns. Simply copying them or painting them didn’t work and looked contrived, I had to make these patterns via mark-making and process. One of my professors had taught with Christopher Leitch at the Kansas City Art Institute and recommended I look at his work combining organic printing processes and textiles. Based on the one paragraph and few images of his work that I found on the Internet, I developed my own process of rust printing and staining on textiles using decomposing organic matter and the results were more amazing than I expected. Using natural processes to depict natural processes also supported my content, it was astoundingly brilliant. I have included images of some of these fabrics below.

I came into the graduate program as an art quilter, hand dyeing my own fabrics and sewing large beaded and painted creations that included everything but the kitchen sink. I loved quilting and wanted to expand on what a quilt could be based on the simple definition, ‘three layers of material stitched together from front to back’. I used the fabrics I had created combined with papers, image transfers, mark-making, burning and lots of machine and hand embroidery. I spent the next year sewing very large, intricate quilts (which I later stretched and called paintings) for my upcoming graduate thesis show. These pieces are pictured below along with smaller quilt studies.

Even though they were a huge labor of love, I felt these quilts were just not enough. I wanted to show another side to these ideas and sculptural books were another thing that intrigued me. I wanted to work with anything skin-like. My quilts spoke very much to landscape and alluded to the body, but I wanted something luscious and something that could be touched. I experimented with melting Tyvek, plastics, crayons, layers of glue and although I liked some of these things, I didn’t find anything I could pour myself into doing. During a critique, one of my professors suggested encaustic. I had never heard of this mysterious and scary sounding thing. At the time, there were no books available yet and the images I found on the Internet of other encaustic work was done with an iron on card stock and was just not my kind of thing. I decided to experiment on my own and purchased a sampler of cheap encaustic colors, a bunch of beeswax and a pancake griddle. I also employed my Clover piecing iron that I used for quilting and I still use this versatile iron today. My first attempts were horrible, I had no idea what I was doing. I wasn’t ventilating properly, I wasn’t using Damar resin in my medium, I wasn’t fusing properly, my cheap colors were flat and muddy-I hated this crap and what I had made with it! I threw all of my paints, griddle and everything else encaustic into a closet hoping to one day sell it all on Ebay…And in that closet it sat for almost a year…

For the better part of that year, I continued sewing, making books, experimenting with materials, teaching and learning, getting ready for my thesis show. It turned out that the gallery where I was to have my show had a little room off to the side about the size of a walk in closet. Neither me or my gallery partner could figure out what to do with the space, so we tossed it between us for a few weeks. Finally, it landed in my lap and I was totally overwhelmed with what to put in there and I only a few weeks to figure it out. I started rooting through all the samples I had made to come up with an idea and I stumbled across those awful encaustic paintings…which surprisingly didn’t look so awful anymore. I attribute this change to two major turning points throughout that year.  One, was an amazing graduate level drawing course I took at the beginning of my second year. I had never drawn very well and was nervous about this course, but I was encouraged by my professors and fellow students to take it. This was not a typical drawing course, it was focused on mark-making and process-two ideas that were relatively new at the time and very new to me. This course completely changed the way I thought about drawing and making work in general. It completely changed my life in the studio and the way I taught my classes and I continue to carry those ideas into both parts of my life to this day. Two, was the writing of my thesis paper, for which researching and writing had played an integral role in marrying my content with what I was doing in the studio. For the first time in my life, my ideas and the work I was making were becoming one thing. I had grown immensely and knew myself and my ideas, I had become an artist and could look at the work I had made through that lens. The featured image at the top of this post is made up of two of the first experimental paintings that I hated. After rediscovering these two along with the other paintings, I began pairing them together and they were complete. This piece called Damage was the most successful and is now in the collection of one of my grad school friends, traded for a few glass pieces that he made.

One of the experiments I had done was to dip my stained and rust printed fabrics into encaustic medium and really liked the way it added depth and enhanced the marks on the fabric. Since I had been stretching the sewn pieces into paintings, why not do the same here. I mounted the fabrics using wax, only using minimal color and letting the stains and marks speak for themselves. I made ten of these paintings and hung them in the small room adjacent to the main gallery, which housed my large sewn pieces. The opening was in the gallery district in Philadelphia on First Friday so we had a packed house and there were so many people in that tiny room ogling my encaustic paintings, one could barely move. People were interested in the sewn paintings but it was sparse interest and they sparked no real discussion, everyone wanted to know about the luscious paintings in the tiny room. The icing on the cake was that I also sold one of the encaustic pieces to someone I didn’t know, wasn’t related to and was a museum curator. This was the first thing I had ever made that had sold, so I saw it as some kind of sign that encaustic is what I should be doing. The piece that sold is called Fulfillment, pictured below with images of some of the other paintings in the show.

I followed all the signs and immediately abandoned the sewn paintings to continue exploring the fantastic medium of encaustic which I have loved and made my own at the same time the medium itself was becoming it’s own. Over the years, I added more color, collage, image, hair, mark-making and investigated various ideas, although my core ideas have remained rooted in the earth. The rest, as they say, is history and encaustic and I continue to live happily ever after.

To see what came after this early work, visit my web site portfolio and begin with the archives here.

This post is a lot longer than I had intended so stay tuned for the next post focusing on the lessons learned in this fairy tale and some ideas that may help you in your own studio practice.

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