by Stephanie Cassidy | November 19, 2017
Stephanie Cassidy: Your development as an artist began long before you discovered the medium of encaustic. Did you start with paint on canvas or were you always drawn to using other materials?
Deborah Winiarski: I have always been drawn to working with a variety of materials. I grew up in a home where there was always some sort of painting, building, or creating going on. My parents had a wood shop in the basement of our family home.
When I first came to the Art Students League, I worked primarily with collage and paint. Over time, I started working on a larger scale, with acrylic, papers, and sand on canvas. I would work at and splash thin washes of paint, looking to create a depth of eld within the layers and layers of color.
Early on, my knowledge of encaustic had been limited to Jasper Johns’s paintings and the Fayum portraits of ancient Egypt. I had never considered encaustic for my own work until I saw my first translucent encaustic painting where the wax was not heavily pigmented, and you could see through to the layers below. I found that intriguing. I started researching encaustic in print and online, eventually finding Joanne Mattera’s book The Art of Encaustic Painting: Contemporary Expression in the Ancient Medium of Pigmented Wax. I began to teach myself. For a few years, while I was still learning, I was working separately in both acrylic and encaustic. Working in both mediums became increasingly unwieldy, aside from the fact that acrylic is not compatible with encaustic, so I decided that I had to choose between the two. I’ve been working exclusively in encaustic for about ten years.
SC: So you just started experimenting, working mostly on your own and without a teacher?
DW: Yes. I was figuring it out for myself, using several references as a guide. From the beginning, I was making my own medium. Now I also incorporate commercial paint.
SC: How did you begin to think of your- self as an artist, one who could teach?
DW: I first came to the League not that long ago, around 2003, but for years prior I had been requesting a League course catalogue and marking up its pages. There was something within that kept me from entering. I suppose it was fear. But once I finally walked into the building, I felt a huge weight lifted. Here was a community that believed in the same things I believed in. You didn’t have to defend or explain yourself or what you were creating. People worked in all different ways. I found it very exciting that here was a place grounded in a belief in the importance of self-expression and respect for the human spirit. I studied at the League for only two years. It just took that long to affi rm for myself I had it within me to do this on a professional level.
The affirmation that I received at the League gave me the confidence to see possibilities. I was encouraged to leave the classroom as soon as possible and leaving was the most significant benchmark to becoming an artist.
SC: How did you feel when you received that message?
DW: It was unexpected, but then I realized it was meant in the best possible way. I knew that the best thing I could do for myself as an artist was to be out on my own.
SC: In the weeks after you left, as you became untethered from the classroom routine, how did you forge your own creative agenda and nd new work rhythms? I think it is a transition most artists experience.
DW: Before leaving the League, my mentor conveyed the idea of “throwing out the sofa,” literally and metaphorically. If you truly believe in something, you do whatever it takes to make that something happen. I’ve heard it said that one should be able to make art in a closet. Clean out the closet and that’s your studio. I began to make changes in my life based on those ideas of what I needed to do.
The thing about being in the studio by yourself and not having a mentor to rely on is that you have to really be present with the work. You have to really look and listen to what the work is telling you. It was frighten- ing and thrilling at the same time. Another challenge was discipline, which I sometimes struggle with even to this day. Having a studio in your home is luxurious but also distracting because there are always things to pull you away.
SC: When you left, did you find that you immersed yourself in the wider world of art outside of the League, in the city or online?
DW: At first I looked a lot. I would go to the museums and to Chelsea often. But while there was some wonderful work in Chelsea, there was some I also wondered about. Now I believe that one has to be selective in what one sees. Seeing too much or trying to see everything can bring distraction, disillusionment, and even despair.
SC: Compulsive looking might also interfere with seeing your own work clearly and make you unduly susceptible, consciously or not, to influence.
DW: Right, too much influence can be a dangerous thing. Once an artist starts creating to appease something other than his or her own desires and preferences, they are sunk. I advise students that they should have two sets of ears. There are the outside-the- studio ears and the inside-the-studio ears. When they’re outside the studio, they may hear wonderful things and perhaps not-so- wonderful things about their work. They’re going to see questionable and confusing things that make them wonder. But it’s important not to let those things into the studio or into their heads. Once at the studio, they should wipe their feet at the threshold and focus only on what it is they need to see. This can be a real challenge.
SC: What is a painting day like for you?
DW: Since I work with wax, there’s a lot of heat involved, so first I turn my palettes on. My main palette is a hot box consisting of a large anodized aluminum plate that’s heated from below. Using both molten and solid wax, I create my imagery on the heated plate, pressing in fabrics that absorb the imagery and color. Basically, it’s a monotype process. I do that in large batches. Once the printing is done, I begin to make compositional decisions, cutting and sewing the fabric. I then use these sewn elements in the final composition on the panel. Mine is a multi-step process. I work afternoons, noonish to 4 or 5 p.m. about four days a week.
SC: Mixed media is a broad field. You must have students in your classroom working on myriad things simultaneously. What do you do as an instructor to help them?
DW: I love materials. I try to keep up to date on new developments in materials and media. There are students in class working with metal, wood, paper, plastic — with so many different materials. In mixed media, the challenge is to transform the materials sufficiently so that they as a whole serve the statement of the artist. If materials aren’t transformed sufficiently—put together in a way that identifies the creator and clarifies statement, then the work becomes more about the material, and the statement can be lost.
I talk with my students primarily about the formal aspects of their work: composition, color, line, form, movement, texture, etc. — the things you can actually see. I find that my teaching involves a great deal of listening. I ask my students many questions and listen to their answers very carefully. One of my most important goals as an instructor is to help students clarify for themselves what it is they are looking for in their own work. It is within this constant clarification that a student may begin to develop a distinct and unique visual voice.
I work with each person individually. Since the mixed media room is small, when I’m speaking with one person, everyone’s listening. But it’s the same type of conversation over and over again even though one person may be working with wood, another with paper, and another with paint. Most conversations are rooted in bigger issues than what glue to use. We do discuss the technical aspects of what they’re doing, but more often than not the conversation turns to the bigger issues of being an artist. I don’t much discuss statement with students, only enough to help them clarify whether the materials and composition are serving their statement in a clear way. I never try to talk students into doing some- thing. In fact, I tell them not to listen to me or anyone else — only to themselves.
SC: What are some of the best qualities you’ve taken from your mentors that you try to bring into the studio as an instructor?
DW: One of the greatest things I learned from my mentor is generosity. There was a generosity and honesty to my mentor’s teaching that I found very profound. Also, I
learned from my mentor the value of taking each student seriously and working with each person as an individual. When I first came to the League, I was listened to and taken seriously. This made a huge impact and was vital in my development.
I try to emulate these same qualities with each of my own students.
SC: Do the open-ended discussions you have with students affect your own work?
DW: Students don’t know what struggles I’m having in my own studio and they needn’t. That’s for me to work out on my own. But sometimes something will come up for one of them, and we’ll have a discussion aloud in class. The conversation can result in a clarification for me about something I was questioning or struggling with in my own work. That happens a lot actually.
SC: So outside of your studio, your teaching and work with students keeps you connected to your own work.
DW: Absolutely. It goes back to the idea of generosity. I do my best to give my students my all, but in the end get back so much more. I often say to students that art is a way of life—a way of being. The act of creation can be life affirming and life changing. It’s certainly has been for me.
SC: You’ve been teaching encaustic workshops at the League for a some time now. Prior to that time, this wasn’t a medium offered at the League. Thinking about this sets off a chain of questions in my mind: What is this medium? What are the qualities of encaustic? How did it become rediscovered?
DW: Let’s begin with a little history . . . The word encaustic is derived from the ancient Greek word, encaustikos, meaning “to heat” or “to burn into.“ The earliest evidence dates back to around 800 BCE when the early Greeks used wax and resin to waterproof their ships. There are early writings from this time of warships being decorated with pigmented wax. The ancients Greeks also used encaustic extensively in their stonework and architecture because of its ability to color and preserve. There’s a terracotta krater at the Metropolitan Museum that shows an artisan painting with encaustic on a sculpture. The krater dates back to around 300 BCE.
The Fayum Portraits are the oldest surviving works in encaustic. They were painted in the 1st through 3rd centuries CE by Greek painters living and working in Ancient Egypt. The Greeks living in Fayum adopted many Egyptian customs including mummifying their dead. A portrait of the deceased was placed over the person’s mummy as a memorial. The portraits were able to survive due to the dark, cool environment inside their tombs. Over time, encaustic fell into disuse. Through the Middle Ages through the eighteenth century, the only existing examples of encaustic painting are of religious icons.
The rediscovery of the Fayum portraits in the late nineteenth century caused great excitement and reintroduced the painting medium of encaustic to a global audience. These portraits are represented in museum archeological collections all over the world.
In the twentieth century, there was a resurgence in the medium primarily due to the harnessing of electricity. The increased availability of electrical heating tools and appliances made the melting of wax that much easier. Though there were many artists experimenting in encaustic in the early twentieth century, and even a book written on the subject (Encaustic Materials and Methods, co-authored by Becca Fizel and Frances Pratt, in 1949), it was Jasper Johns who put the medium back on the map with his painting, Flag (1954–55). The use of encaustic during this time was primarily an experimental venture with artists creating their own paint recipes. These recipes oftentimes included the use of solvents. Heating solvents is never a good idea.
SC: So, what exactly is encaustic?
DW: Encaustic involves painting with pigmented, molten wax – usually beeswax – that has been tempered with a hardening agent, usually damar resin. Once applied to a surface, the wax medium cools immediately so each layer is reheated – or fused – so that it remelts and becomes one with the surface below. The building up and fusing of layers of wax creates the luminosity characteristic in many encaustic paintings.
SC: What are some of the other qualities of encaustic?
DW: Well, encaustic is a very versatile medium. It can be worked opaquely or transparently, smoothly or with a great deal of texture. It is immediate but long lasting. It has wonderful reductive and accretive qualities and is a great medium for working with found or collage materials. The possibilities are endless. It mostly depends upon the vision of the artist.
SC: What are some of the challenges of working with encaustic?
DW: Working with encaustic is more accessible than ever before. A variety of electrical equipment and tools abound and there are several paint companies making artist quality commercial paints. That being said, as with any other medium, it takes time to learn the intricacies and nuances of encaustic so that execution may eventually align with vision. In encaustic painting, it’s all about the heat. One of the challenges is learning which temperature works best for what the artist is trying to achieve.
An encaustic studio is like any other with the addition of heating equipment that keeps the wax molten. Griddles, torches, irons, heat guns are all integral components. Safety is of the utmost importance. Though encaustic is non-toxic when worked at the proper temperature, it’s important to ensure that the studio is well ventilated. Fire safety and safe studio practices are also very important.
SC: I get a lot of Linea posts from you regarding your work with ProWax Journal. As Featured Artwork Editor, you’re really active. I’ve read through your posts and the posts of other contributors. There seems to be a whole international community of artists who are reviving the medium of encaustic.
DW: Yes. There is a growing global community of contemporary artists working in encaustic. Building on the revival of encaustic during the 40s, 50s, and 60s, the recent resurgence I believe began in 1999 with the first museum exhibition devoted to encaustic painting. Waxing Poetic: Encaustic Art in America at the Montclair Art Museum and the Knoxville Museum of Art, was curated by Dr. Gail Stavitsky. The accompanying catalog and essays were very important in establishing a historical timeline rooting encaustic in the history of Art per se firmly linking the past with the present.
Shortly after that, Joanne Mattera’s book, The Art of Encaustic Painting, which I mentioned earlier, was published. I believe this is still the best overall reference for those beginning in the medium. Mattera was also the founder of the International Encaustic Conference and was its director for ten years. Entering its twelfth year, the conference brings together artists from around the globe for a weekend of talks, demonstrations and exhibitions centered around the medium of encaustic. I’ve been teaching and speaking at the conference for six years now.
SC: Can you talk a little bit about how you came to ProWax Journal and what your work life is as an editor at large?
DW: My involvement in the encaustic community came by chance. Shortly after I began teaching the encaustic workshops at the League, I proposed a gallery event to introduce encaustic painting to League students. Pam Koob, who was the League’s curator at the time, generously agreed. What eventually came of it was a series of three evenings in the gallery. On one evening, I gave a short talk on the history of encaustic and demonstrated the basics of encaustic painting. For the other two evenings, I invited Gail Stavitsky and Joanne Mattera to speak which they did. In turn, I was invited to attend the upcoming conference. I’ve been a part of that community ever since.
Mattera has continued to build community by connecting artists working in encaustic. Using social media, she created a select group of professionals called ProWax whose focus is to “raise the bar” within the greater community. It is within this group that the initial idea for the journal was born. ProWax Journal is now a quarterly online publication for professional artists working in wax and encaustic. All contributors offer their time and energy on a volunteer basis. As Featured Artworks Editor for the journal, I curate exemplar works in encaustic based on themes of my choosing. I see my contributions to the journal as an educational tool and my way of giving back to the larger community.
Another offshoot of this community development is ProWax Forum, an online group I created and moderate. It’s an educational forum in which those learning and working in encaustic can ask questions from the larger professional community. It’s been quite a success.
SC: What are some of the things developments that you’ve seen in encaustic work recently that you think are really interesting and want to shed some light on. There are so many different kinds of work. It’s incredible the variety.
DW: Yes, the variety is impressive. I think it’s because more and more artists are becoming aware of encaustic and it’s potential. The nature of encaustic as a medium provides expressive qualities and possibilities that are just not accessible with any other medium. Once an artist gets past experimenting with all the things encaustic can do and begins to focus on how the medium can work toward forwarding their own creative expression, Art can happen.
SC: I raised the question earlier about whether or not encaustic is a movement. What are your thoughts on this?
DW: In terms of it being a movement, I would say no. The development of new mediums and/or tools may have spurred movements in the past, but encaustic is a medium like any other. It’s one tool in the toolbox. As a result of the renewed popularity of encaustic, there’s been a plethora of exhibitions in recent history that are wax based. I think this is a mistake. I believe that encaustic-based exhibitions bring too much focus on the medium itself when the focus should be on clarity of statement, the expression of that statement and the distinctiveness of an artist’s work as a whole. First and foremost Art with a capital “A” – no matter what the medium.