ProWax Journal 5: Op Ed

Sandbox Semantics

by Heidi F. Beal

When describing the combination of photography and encaustic painting, I dislike the term “encaustic photography” or “photo encaustic.” It just makes me cringe.  Because I’ve had such a visceral response to its use, I’ve had to give pause as to why.  I found myself considering the following three issues:
First, these terms overstate the importance of methods rather than content. Don’t get me wrong, I love to show processes.  However,  when processes become about the novelty of themselves, then they are distracting to the message of the art.  It’s like a beautiful woman wearing clothes that are so much about the clothes that you fail to see the beauty of the woman.
Second, these terms are too often being associated with undeveloped work and are usually examples of highly limited integration of the two mediums.  Anyone who knows my work knows that my photography is my primary image making process however it is only successfully used in my encaustic practice when it is authentically integrated.   I come from a fine art photography and interdisciplinary background, so I learned early on the importance of balancing my mediums. Folks who are just starting out are often so glamorized with the wax that they “call it art” by simply laying down an encaustic layer over the photograph (theirs or pitifully someone else’s).  By virtue of inexperience and lack of training, they fail to push the boundaries of the encaustic process beyond the starting gate.  I know because I also began at the starting gate.  However, I learned quickly that just the process of covering a photograph with wax is no different than putting it behind glass or mounting it onto a board with gel medium.  It may have its place in the world of photo finishing but I need more maturity from the work for it to be in the art playing field. The same can be said for photo transfers.  Although the photo transfer lends itself to being more integrated, the process must still have a purpose and reason for being used beyond the cool factor.
And lastly, making up a “new” micro term like this unnecessarily limits the scope of the “new” medium. I think folks often like to play in little sandboxes rather than big ones.  If they think their sandbox is too big and scary, they will make a smaller one with seemingly fewer rules, precedents, and judges.  They create a false sense of security for themselves that sadly does not serve them.  Such it is when some folks begin to bring work out of the studio and into the world at large for the first time.  Sometimes the world feels too large.  So, if a special term is made up to describe what they are doing, somehow the playing field is smaller and more comfortable. Unfortunately, not only are they undermining their work by giving it a confined description, they run the risk of undermining others’ work as well.
Words are powerful things! Words define our highest potential and how we state our Truth.  It is the language that we use that connects our souls with those of others.   What we call ourselves and our art defines who we are and what our art is.  For this reason, I say, if you are working in multiple mediums (like photography and wax, perhaps), think big and call it by its more universal name.  It’s okay to simply call it “mixed media.”
Heidi F Beal is an interdisciplinary artist. She is best known for her encaustic photographic paintings; applying layers of hot molten beeswax with her photographic images. Her work is narrative and often references nude studies, architecture, transparent forms, and found objects. Introspective issues are explored, encouraging the viewer to be transformed to another place and time. At times, her art becomes a personal religion, crossing lines between traditional art, other disciplines, and her connection to Spirit. Beal says, “my art feels as though it is channeled through my body. As a conduit, I often feel as if Spirit is directing my hands. My mind then follows, reading the story my hands tell.” Beal received her Bachelor of Arts from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio (1985) with additional graduate studies at California College of the Arts in Oakland, California (1985-1987). From 1989 to 2001 she owned and operated Wind & Sea Studio, designing and wholesaling a collection of giftware. In 2001, she began to focus her efforts full time on her fine art practice. Beal is based in downtown Bakersfield, California where she and her husband are renovating a 108 year old home. She is fond of traveling the countryside on creative, eclectic adventures, showing her work regularly, and teaching encaustic painting.

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