There are a number of things about the Annual Conferences of Encaustic Painting at Montserrat College of Art that amaze me, and a good deal of the credit goes to its founder and director, the indomitable Joanne Mattera, who began building a network of painters back in 1999 with her book, The Art of Encaustic Painting.
Joanne has kept the conference program broad enough to appeal to a wide range of interests, allowing the event to build upon itself each year. This momentum is a reflection of the social nature of the current encaustic movement. So much of the development of contemporary encaustic has been community-driven – artists teaching themselves and each other. From this have sprung networks, conferences, retreats, exhibits, and collaborations.
- Hallway Gallery at Montserrat
Another thing that amazes me about the conferences is how much I myself learn. Here I am, involved in all areas of encaustic matters 364 days of the year (I take off Groundhog’s Day), and I still come across information about materials and methods that I did not know or was only vaguely familiar with. For example, Roberta Bernstein’s excellent keynote talk on the work of Jasper Johns was both refreshing and enlightening. Johns’ great feat was to usher the medium into the modernist era. He did this by concentrating on surface effects that had as much to do with his thematic concerns as the images themselves. Except for the use of Japanese kimono irons, his encaustic tools were simple everyday implements. Yet with these, as Dr. Bernstein showed with examples from major points in his career, he explored much of what is now standard encaustic vocabulary – collage, layering, and muted color surfaces.
- Roberta Bernstein delivered the keynote talk about the work of artist Jasper Johns
Several of the sessions that I attended dealt with either materials or with social aspects of encaustic: Ask Dr. Wax, Inquiry into Soy Wax, Batik and Encaustic, and Creating an [encaustic] Organization.
John Dilsizian, dubbed Dr. Wax at the conference, has long been the technical mentor on wax. Here are some of the things he discussed:
· Microcrystalline and paraffin waxes as substitutes for beeswax. Both microcrystallines and paraffins are derived from petroleum, and one of the problems of working with either is their tendency to turn yellow, due to residual oil in the refined wax. Although blends of micros and paraffins can imitate some of the characteristics of beeswax, the long-term structural integrity is not known. Blends of microcrystallines/paraffins/beeswax are linear. This means that if you combine waxes with the following approximate melting temperatures: 2 parts of a micro (170°F) with 1 part of a paraffin (140°F) and 4 parts of beeswax (145°F), you will get a wax with an average melting temperature of 151°F. Blends of carnauba or resin with beeswax, however, are not linear but geometrical and their combined melting point has to be measured because it is not easily calculated.
· Resin and beeswax. Some of the virtues of adding damar resin to the wax is that it retains heat and remains flexible for a longer time. It also adds to the adhesiveness of the wax. Its hardening effects on the wax are progressive over time and not entirely immediate.
· Bleaching and blooming of beeswax. The best way to decolorize beeswax for artists’ use is by running the wax through filters. Using chemical bleaches can reverse over time; the wax retains some of the bleach, and is more likely to react with pigments. However, not all crude waxes can be decolorized by filtering. Surprisingly, the greater the tendency of a beeswax to bloom, the easier it is to be decolorized by filtration.
· Colony Collapse Disorder among bees is still of grave concern. There has been a larger count of bee deaths this last year than previously. Autopsies have shown a higher incidence of pesticides and virus. This is surprising and disturbing because each cause should be countering the other – if higher pesticide deaths, there should be lower virus deaths and visa versa. But this is not turning out to be the case. The mystery continues with potentially major consequences for our general food supply, honey production, and wax supply.
- Barbara Walton Dr. Toni Wang
Barbara Walton has been conducting experiments with soy wax as an alternative to beeswax for encaustic with her colleague Dr. Toni Wang, a food scientist, at Iowa State University. The initial results of soy wax and damar resin proved too soft and dull, cracking occurred, and there was a lack of adhesion between layers. Later formulations were more successful. Still, this was an in-progress report of experiments that are continuing.
- Barbara Walton, Soy Test #12.
Regardless of whether or not they result in a useable soy wax-based encaustic, the mere effort to research this avenue is one more sign that encaustic is an open field with many possibilities still to be explored and discovered by the inquisitive.
Cat Crotchett’s talk on a collaboration she did with batik artisans in Indonesia gave another demonstration of the expanding encaustic community. The project began with a visit of batik artists to Western Michigan University who were fascinated to discover an artistic use of wax in which the wax remained as part of the image, rather than being used as a resist to produce a negative image. Grant money from arts and cultural organizations and a donation of paint from R&F funded a trip last summer to Yogyakarta, the major arts city in Java.
- Indonesian Painters Seated Around An Encaustic Palette
Many technical hurdles were overcome, such as the improvised use of the pans normally employed to heat the tjaps (copper pattern blocks). Available tools such as the traditional tjanting tools, torches, palette knives, and brushes were used. Fusing was often done simply by leaving the work in the sun.
- Student work (Giyanti)
Two sets of workshops were set up, one with batik artists, the other with fine arts painters, and their approaches were greatly different. One very interesting cultural difference emerged from the workshops. Painters here in the West tend to work individually, sharing palettes and their work space only when necessary. But the Indonesian artists worked communally, sharing palettes and work space out of custom.
- Encaustic Art Institute, Cerrillos, NM
Harriette Tsosie and Kim Bernard talked about the setting up their respective encaustic networks, The Encaustic Art Institute (formerly New Mexico Wax) and New England Wax. Each organization has between 60-70 members. New Mexico Wax merged earlier this year with the Encaustic Art Institute located in a spacious 2,400 sq. ft. building built by its founder, Douglas Mehrens, with the intention of being a national center for encaustic art. New England Wax was formed in 2006 and focuses on group participation through bi-monthly meetings, exhibits, and museum and gallery visits.
Listening to Kim and Harriette made me think once again about an anomaly in our encaustic world. It is striking how so many artists are drawn to encaustic, seek out other encaustic painters, form encaustic organizations, publish encaustic manuals and videos, set up encaustic exhibits, and attend encaustic events yet emphatically state that they are not encaustic painters but artists who happen to use encaustic.
In a sense, that’s what the encaustic networks are about – a counter to the solo artist making her or his way in the gallery world in which encaustic becomes a vehicle for creative communal activities. The EAI held an exhibit called “Dialectic” that partnered artists using encaustic with artists using other mediums. NEW collaborated with the International Encaustic Artists in the “Diptych Project,” in which an NEW member sent a finished piece along with a blank panel to the IEA member to complete as the second half of a diptych. In these activities is a sense of community, certainly grasped by the Indonesian artists whom Cat Crotchett encountered.
- 2010 R&F Vendor Booth