ProWax Journal 2: Featured Article

The Weight: Dealing with the Issue of “Encaustic Art”

By Joanne Mattera

In 1998 Gail Stavitsky curated Waxing Poetic: Encaustic Art in America for the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey. This was a landmark museum exhibition, a scholarly survey that placed  a historic medium within the context of contemporary art. The exhibition also introduced the phrase “encaustic art,” to a broad audience.  In an odd turn of events since then, while art made with encaustic has become ever more visible in galleries and museums, art fairs and art publications, “encaustic art” has gone in the other direction, coming to represent conceptually unsophisticated efforts with the medium.

By 2006, the antithetical divide between art in encaustic and “encaustic art” had become so great that I wrote an essay for my then-new blog. I called it I Am Not an “Encaustic Artist”. (It wasn’t a new idea for me—as a painter, no adjective, I intentionally did not use the phrase in my 2001 book—but after seeing the number of “encaustic art” shows and groups that had been proliferating since Waxing Poetic, I felt it was time to say something.) This is what I said:

“I love encaustic. I’ve been working with it for 16 years. I participate in, and go to see, “encaustic shows”—they’re a great way to see the wonderful variety of artistic expression in pigmented wax. (Though I make a point of participating in thematic shows as well.) And I admire and respect the work of many, many, many artists who work in encaustic. I just think we need to think hard about how we define ourselves and our work.”

The point was missed by at least one commenter, who assumed my intent was to distance myself from the medium. In retrospect I see that the commenter’s indignation was a harbinger of the defensiveness of wax-world identity politics that has continued to this day. The following question, posed recently by a well-respected member of our community has rekindled my interest in addressing the issue in a forum such as this:

“We all agree that calling ourselves “encaustic artists” is not helpful to our careers. And yet we have our Facebook page, our Conference, our medium-specific shows. I understand that educating the public about the medium is helpful, and raising the bar is a most worthy pursuit, but . . . while resisting calling ourselves “encaustic artists,” aren’t we doing exactly what we are denying?”

As the author of the book  that helped ignite the current interest in encaustic and founder of the first Conference devoted to the study of the medium, I have struggled with this question. I would say that we are not doing what we deny; in fact we are doing the opposite. My personal response has been to professionalize the standards for the Encaustic Conference, to broaden the scope of Conference offerings, and to exhort my professional colleagues to join with me in “raising the bar” in hopes that our collective example will inspire others. Last year I put those ideas into an essay, Encaustic: Art, Craft Hobby.  The essay was intended as a tool for discussion. The professionals rallied around it; the amateurs circled their wagons; the folks in the middle took sides. And yet, the issue remains, perhaps more pressing than ever.

I asked the ProWax group for their responses to the question posed above. Here’s some of the discussion, edited for brevity and organized for cohesiveness.

Howard Hersh: “This conversation is especially poignant to me because I have benefitted greatly from my association with the medium. In a crowded and competitive art world, standing out for any reason is a good thing. The problem, now that the world is flooded with artists using encaustic, is that the association with the medium connects us to a lower standard, the hobbyists’. I am all for raising the bar, but the question is: Can this mission be accomplished or are we inviting more (unwanted) attention to the medium?” 

Ruth Hiller: “I want to reiterate what Howard has said. I have found camaraderie, learned amazing things and benefitted as an artist through R&F and . . . the Conference. I have had many opportunities that I would not have had outside this arena. I have learned how to raise the bar.”

Jennie Frederick: “I only knew what I had seen . . . very bad, very thick and poorly conceived work done with encaustic paint. Then I saw Paula Roland’s work at William Siegel Gallery in Santa Fe. Talk about a different ballgame!”

Those three comments suggested several categories for consideration:

Our Venues/ Our Selves

There are many options for exhibition, but we’ve all learned, as Jennie’s introduction to Paula’s work makes clear, that the more professional the setting, the more professionally the work will be received. In no small part this is because the selection of works by a gallerist or bona fide curator helps separate the art from the “encaustic art.” Moreover, there are many ways we deal with exhibition options. Some voices:

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. No more wax shows: “The issue of how I define myself and how I identify as an artist is central to my work, says Milisa Galazzi. “I have been a professional artist for 35 years . . . incorporating encaustic into my work since 2004. I am no longer applying to shows with “wax” in the title. That feels too limiting to me. I am thinking more about what I am calling my ‘crossover niche.’ I define this as where themes and materials interconnect with other ideas and forms in my work. For me this is gender, human connections, fiber, paper, wax. I am starting to see my career as a Venn Diagram and the sections that cross over are the places where I find the most opportunity and the most interest to me.”

. Context: “I call myself simply “an artist,” since my work is not defined by the material I choose,” says Maritza Ruiz-Kim. “I would never call myself an encaustic artist or a metal artist or a watercolor/gouache artist. I participate in communities that challenge my work and whose professional standards and/or aspirations are similar to my own. . . . I am interested in medium-specific shows to the extent that they provide the best context for my work, but I don’t think it serves my work or the medium to view work that is medium specific without some larger narrative or framework.”

. It’s just another medium, but . . . “As a painter for many years before being introduced to encaustic, I have always considered myself a visual artist,” says Cheryl McClure, whose “dominant medium” had long been acrylic on canvas.  “I still try to limit the mention of a medium when talking about my work unless asked specifically. I have also limited the ‘encaustic shows’ except for wanting to take part in those connected with the Conference.”  Why? It’s the association with the lower standard, says Cheryl. “Problems seem to arise when those who have not been artists start with encaustic and become ’encaustic artists.’”

Experience and Education

Elena De La Ville clarifies the problem that Cheryl has just noted: “One of the main differences that I see [between artists and “encaustic artists”] is that those of us who are established artists have studied. We have laid the foundation in our own practice and we are innovators. We have a long track record. We teach. A critical mass in encaustic is populated by amateurs who are drawn to the same medium we were drawn to but with hardly any training in concept or art principles.

“What I’d like to do,” continues Elena, “is set an example about good practice, about significant art, about concept and innovation. Being an artist is not a swift race to the top. It is a step-by-step process in which we learn from our mistakes as we find a way to communicate through our art. That is what raises the bar. I am sure some ‘encaustic artists’ will do that too, in time, but not everyone keeps at it long enough to make a meaningful contribution.”

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I’d add that for self-defined “encaustic artists” looking to make a meaningful contribution, opportunities for involvement beyond “encaustic art” are available. Conference aside, there are a number of teaching professionals who offer entree to a higher level of thinking and achievement. They make their presence known on the various Facebook pages that attract those interested in encaustic. However the artists who reflexively slam the door on a way of engaging more broadly are likely to forever remain “encaustic artists”—more weight on a bar that is getting ever heavier to raise.

Raising the Bar

As we distance ourselves from the limiting identity of “encaustic artist”— it’s important we not deny encaustic itself. Nancy Natale offers perspective: “I really think my work would not have developed as it has without my using encaustic. It took me many years to arrive at a signature look and conceptual framework for my interests. I am still inventing new approaches to my work, and just about all of them involve encaustic.  The reason we are able to keep organizing shows, conferences and discussion around encaustic is that it offers a veritable infinity of ways to use it.”

I think of the comment by a visitor to the Swept Away exhibition at the Cape Cod Museum of Art this past June. Surveying the show during a panel discussion, he said, with aPullquote_visitorCapeCodMus_PWJ2 combination of awe and authority, “This is what encaustic can be.”  It was a high point in an exhibition with many high points.

Can we—as Jane Guthridge says, “use the power of a group to elevate the way encaustic is seen in the art world” –or will the collective weight of “encaustic art” connect us, as Howard fears, to “a lower standard.”

Jane Allen Nodine is realistic: “There will always be hobbyists using encaustic wax—and instructors promoting formulaic exercises for their workshops.”

Francesca Azzara is optimistic. “The medium is in an adolescent phase. These are growing pains. I believe the work of gifted artists working in encaustic will settle into the company of fine art done in any medium.”

Pullquote_Mattera_PWJ2I am ambivalent; call it pessimistically optimistic. I continue to pursue my personal, largely encaustic-based practice, and I’m directing the Conference into a more art-world-focused arena, supported by a visionary co-producer, an immensely talented ad hoc faculty, and hundreds of conferees over the past seven years who are invested in their professional practice or working toward professional goals. I have long said that one may arrive at the Conference an “encaustic artist” but leave an artist, with a broader sense of what is possible technically and conceptually.

But there’s no denying the huge organizational weight of mediocrity which supports, encourages and exhibits “encaustic art.” I don’t see that changing. (And I have no intention of trying to change it; if it serves its constituency, so be it.)

So to answer the original question, “Aren’t we doing exactly what we are denying?” I would say no, not at all. In ProWax we have gathered and identified as professionals who are working in encaustic. But to Howard’s question—which I’d paraphrase as, “Can we raise the bar without being pulled down by the weight of “encaustic art?”—sadly, I don’t think so.

But . . .

I don’t know why I it took me so long to realize this: Perhaps it’s time to disengage from the weight. Without it, there’s no limit to how high we can raise the bar! We are visual artists. Our efforts should be visible and they should be exemplary.

Each of us will determine how to be an exemplar in a way that is best for us personally, but I see many possibilities:

  • Present yourself in a larger arena. Say goodbye to the “encaustic shows,” or at least wean yourself on those with strong themes. And while you’re limiting, be choosy about the venues and organizers. These are ideas already expressed by Misa, Maritza and Cheryl in this essay
  • Speak about your work, limiting the tech talk in favor of the what and why. This raises your personal bar and, by extension the collective bar as well
  • Curate! Most of us won’t get the opportunity to curate in a museum setting, but there are plenty of opportunities in non-profits, libraries, historical societies, small commercial galleries, or pop ups. This is a chance to raise the bar for and with others
  • Write! Blogs, books and personal catalogs all help us stake out a broader space
  • Find a mentor; there’s always someone farther along the path than you
  • Be a mentor; you have much to offer someone who is not as far along
  • Collaborate on teaching or exhibition projects, as so many of us have been doing already
  • Organize, whether it’s a study group, a critique group, a retreat, a session to learn a skill like Photoshop or professional presentation. ProWax Journal is a fine example of raising the bar
  • Feel free to add to this list in the comment section, found to the left of the article title in most browsers

While we engage in a dialogue with encaustic in the studio, and in conversation with one another in ProWax and elsewhere, our larger interaction must remain in the art world with contemporary art.

“Encaustic art”, meanwhile, is free to find its own path, likely creating a place for itself alongside macramé owls, decoupage and painting on velvet.

Joanne Mattera is a widely exhibited painter who works in a style that is chromatically resonant and compositionally reductive. Chromatic Reasoning, her 29th career solo, will take place at Conrad Wilde Gallery, Tucson, in December. Joanne is responsible for two important firsts in the encaustic community: She is the author of The Art of Encaustic Painting (Watson Guptill, 2001) and founder of the now-Provincetown-based International Encaustic Conference, which she produces in conjunction with Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill and its director, Cherie Mittenthal. She made her first encaustic painting in 1969, but she is not now, nor has she ever been, an “encaustic artist.” Her coverage of the Miami art fairs can be found on her Joanne Mattera Art Blog in December.

6 thoughts on “ProWax Journal 2: Featured Article

  1. soskelnt says:

    The above discussion is truly wonderful and imbued with much thoughtfulness. On this basis, I have to put my 2 cents in (maybe 25 cents with inflation). I have been photographing since age 5, about 60 years, however, I’ve been a photographer for fewer years (early photos were snapshots) and an “artist” for even fewer (started thinking of photography as an art form in early college). Fast forward until after medical training, teaching and doing research in medical schools, etc, all of which stifled imagination. When I joined a local art group consisting of about 100 members and then another group with a similar number I began entering some of their juried shows. After winning first place in their National Exhibition, best of show and being juried into a number of their shows, I started calling myself an “artist”. Then I sought out other media (watercolor, collage, serigraphy and finally encaustic). I don’t believe the quality of my encaustic-containing works rises to the level of my photography, which has also been juried into national and international shows. So, on the basis of the discussion at hand, would I be labeled an artist in photography and a hobbyist in encaustic painting? I think we all go through transformations during our lifelong experiences and that there’s a continuum of expertise that we achieve. My daughter (BFA, School of the Art Institute in Chicago) makes the distinction between “Art” and “art”, but, then, she’s hypercritical, especially of my “A-art”. So this dogmatism of categorizing (real artist, outsider artist, “insider artist” (my spoof) – who cares? Each piece or body of work should be evaluated on its own merits and each artist on what they have produced and continue to produce or what they contribute intellectually to “artistic” endeavors. Not all artists teach well and not all teachers of art are good artists, but they all could be considered “Artists”.

    • Cheryl McClure says:

      Norman… at the risk of too many 2 cents worth of my thoughts. … I think that a person might have work in one medium that is more worthwhile or effective as fine art. That doesn’t mean that person is not professional as an artist.If you feel that you are more than amateur in a particular medium and not another, I just wouldn’t show that work publicly…just use it privately to extend your knowledge and enjoy doing it.Today, I am struggling with one medium and thinking maybe I should have stuck with another one. I just can’t do it though as I am determined to do more with it. I don’t want to think of it as a medium…but as a painting (in my case).

  2. joannemattera says:

    Norman: I’ve told this story before, but I think it’s work telling again. I play the congas. I love playing them. I have studied drumming, participated in drumming groups. I listen to a lot of drum music and attend many concerts. I traveled to Cuba a few years ago and sat in on a descarga, a jam session. So you could say that I have played internationally with professional musicians. But by no stretch of the imagination am I a professional drummer. I have nowhere near the training necessary–neither formal or nor under the tutelage of a working professional–and despite my enchantment with the instrument, I know that I have nowhere near the chops necessary to play well. I just love the music, hanging out with musicians, talking shop and hitting the skins. I am in every sense of the word an amateur conga player. I would never dream of teaching drumming, writing about drumming, or drumming outside of a small circle of friends.

    There is nothing wrong with being an amateur, but it does come with certain limitations. For instance, I do not see a gig at The Blue Note in my future. However, if I were willing to work at drumming every day for years, I might get to the point where I could perform for fun, maybe even for money, at small gigs. So am I a musician? No, I’m not. But I do drum and I do love it. And that’s enough for me.

    I think your daughter in art school is right to make a distinction between Art and art, just as you would be right to make a distinction between a trained medical doctor who performs surgery in a hospital OR and the guy with a feel for medicine who does liposuction in the garage behind his house. Training counts. Experience counts. Intent counts. Engagement with the larger conversation counts. Listen to what Cheryl McClure and Elena De La Ville have to say about art, training, and experience.

    Interestingly, I notice that photography, with which you’re quite fluent, gets no adjective. It’s clear you’ve been involved with it for a long time. You don’t need adjectives like “ditigal photographer” or “b/w photographer” or “darkroom photographer” or whatever, because your degree of engagement is broad and deep. When you get to that point with painting–not “encaustic painting” but painting; not just pigmented wax but paint of all kinds– you’ll be a painter. It’s a long road. You’re on it.

  3. soskelnt says:

    Thank you both for such thoughtful, attentive comments. I like the notion of presenting “a work of Art” without qualification. Most of the time we are forced to be more specific (gallery, juried exhibit, etc), and, I have to admit, frequently I’m in awe to find out what went into certain pieces. You are right in that the novelty of using encaustic is wearing off and there had better be some “Art” to back up whatever piece is being presented. I also like the notion that I can just have fun with what I’m doing and not worry about any pressures to produce at a certain level. However, there always seems to be something in me that wants to keep improving.

    By the way, I too play an instrument, the piano, which I played competitively from the age of 8 until undergraduate school. I won superior ratings in the National Piano Teacher’s Guild for 10 years, earning me the Paderweski medal and numerous other awards. My decision to enter pre-med was a difficult one but I figured I’d be able to make a living better as a physician and still be able to play the piano. However, medical school completely stifled creativity and I stopped playing the piano for 20 years. When I finally started back again I hardly could read notes and had to teach myself all over again. It took years to be able to play what I had learned in high school and begin to learn a few additional pieces. I still can’t match the agility of those days but my interpretations are so much better and more satisfying. I mention this because of Joanne’s congo drums story and because of the similarities. I never studied music in college although I was certified to teach (St. Louis Institute of Music) before entering undergraduate school so I have to consider myself not an “Artist” with respect to music. I believe the parallels are interesting and perhaps we can discuss this further in Provincetown in June.

  4. joannemattera says:

    Allow me to add one general thought, lest the baby be thrown out with the bathwater. As we are talking about limiting our involvement with wax-specific or encaustic shows, there are a few exhibitions of long standing that go way beyond “encaustic show” and are well worth the involvement of any artist working seriously in the medium.
    . The first is the Encaustic Invitational that takes place each year in Tucson at the Conrad Wilde Gallery. Miles Conrad has a refined eye, and the show is a barometer of what’s taking place in encaustic in any given year. If geography doesn’t allow a visit, there’s a catalog
    . The biennial event organized and run by R&F was a major highlight of encaustic for well over a decade. Two years ago R&F decided to create “exhibitions in print.” I juried the first book and provided an essay. This year it is being curated by the legendary Michelle Stuart. Like Conrad’s Invitational, the R&F publication is much anticipated in the community
    . Encaustic Conference exhibitions have evolved over time and are now strictly thematic. Three years ago we instituted the Conference Curatorial Program, which gives each of several conferees the opportunity to conceive and produce a thematic exhibition. Additionally, galleries in Provincetown get involved with thematic exhibitions as well.

  5. sherrieposternak says:

    This comment is not a reply to the discussion with Norm, Cheryl, and Joanne. But it is a comment on this article that Joanne wrote. Regarding Cheryl’s comment and Joanne’s suggestion #2, I agree that the discussion should be primarily about the “conversation” or “idea”, not the “technique.” It is interesting that noone asks a writer if he uses a pencil, pen, typewriter, dictating machine, or computer keyboard.

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