Waxy buildup 

Layering meaning with Shawna Moore

“It’s like skin,” says Whitefish encaustic painter Shawna Moore, describing what she says is her medium’s ability to record time in layers of wax.

Moore is curating Women in Wax: Birds, Butterflies and Bees, an exhibit of her own work alongside that of 24 other female encaustic painters, both local and far flung, showing at Walking Man Frame Shop & Gallery in Whitefish this month.

Moore says it was circumstance that led to the show being all-woman—only one man responded to her call for submissions, and he was already scheduled for an exhibition at Walking Man—but she enjoyed the opportunity to curate an all-female show.

Plus, she says, “It appears that there’s more women who paint with encaustic. It just really appeals to women.”

Encaustic painting uses layers of bees wax in place of oils or acrylics. To create their works, encaustic artists use colored waxes, scuff or scratch the wax with tools, and paint layers of wax over objects to embed them into the work.

The medium has been around since ancient Egyptian times, when it was most famously used for painting portraits of the dead, which were entombed with their mummified bodies.

It’s also been used by modern painters, including Jasper Johns, who incorporated encaustic painting into his famous American flag series.

Moore says encaustic painting has resurged in popularity during the last century, in part because electricity and modern tools such as blowtorches have made it easier and more accessible. In her studio, she uses a hot plate to keep her wax warm, and a propane blowtorch to fuse layers of wax she’s built up on her canvas.

These days, Moore says, “there’s a tremendous amount of variety” in what people are doing with the medium. This is in evidence at the Women and Wax exhibit, where encaustic painting takes on many forms, including “Blown Glass,” by Bigfork artist Laura Grace Barrett, which incorporates photographs of antique glass bottles; the work of Santa Fe, N.M. artist Christy Hengst, which features coils of porcelain rising out of deep layers of amber wax; or the work of New York artist Sandy O’Brien, in which paintings of small birds perch among scratches and scuffs in the waxy surface.

Moore has been painting with wax since 2002, when she took a workshop on the technique in Santa Fe. Since then her art has been displayed in galleries in Bend, Ore., Santa Fe, and New York City, and she was recently invited by the Missoula Art Museum to submit work for an encaustic show it plans for next summer. She also teaches encaustic painting classes at the Stumptown Art Studio in Whitefish.

Moore says one of her typical paintings uses between 20 and 40 layers of wax.

“I’m a very direct person, so having a little bit of a shroud has been very beneficial to me,” says Moore. “It kind of keeps me from hitting people over the head with all my ideas, all my images. I can sometimes come on a little too strong with my art.”

She says she doesn’t begin a painting with an overall plan for how it will look when it’s finished.

“The idea is you have this sort of, this plane, that represents days and thoughts and activities, and everything’s encapsulated in the wax,” says Moore, who has also been a yoga instructor for the last decade. “It becomes sort of a metaphor for body or mind.”

Over several days, as Moore works on a painting, she scratches and scuffs it, leaves blemishes and pock marks with paint, and writes words across the surface in large, looping cursive.

“It’s sort of like an etching process,” she says.

The scratches and writing are filled in with dark paint so they show through the layers.

Standing in front of her finished work, the sense of time passing is conveyed, the planned imperfections in the surface suggesting the wrinkles and scars of skin. The words in the background are clearly there, but not quite legible under the layers of wax. It’s like trying to recall an old memory, or a bit of a dream.

“So it’s sort of like all this information, all this time information gets sandwiched in between the wax,” says Moore.

“I’m getting better at sort of going with it,” she says. “Just lately I’m starting to enjoy how fragile it is. I used to really fight my accidents, and I’ve finally made friends with them.”

Women and Wax: Birds, Butterflies and Bees shows at Walking Man Frame Shop & Gallery, 305 Baker Ave. in Whitefish, until Sept. 1. 10 a.m to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays.
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