Learning New Words

LEARNING new words is fun.

The encaustic work of artist Pamela Farrell offers several opportunities to learn new terms. She talks about lacunae, and I have to stop her there to learn more about this term. A lacuna is, basically, a blank space, a missing part, a gap or a deficiency. When Ms. Farrell talks about lacunae, she is referring to the gaps in memory that survivors of trauma experience. Ms. Farrell, who lives on a former farm in Raritan Township, earned a master’s of social work from Marywood University in 2002, and practices psychotherapy in Lawrence, in addition to being an artist.

Ms. Farrell’s artwork will be part of the Hunterdon County Cultural & Heritage Commission’s invitational exhibition at Prallsville Mills in Stockton in its newly renovated Sawmill, October 2-30.  The opening reception for The Real, The Abstract: The Art of Hunterdon is Oct. 2, 5-8 p.m. Other artists include seven painters and two ceramists: Susan Blubaugh of Milford; Malcolm Bray and Barbara Osterman of Lambertville; Sheila Coutin and Alexander Farnham of Stockton; and Bruce Rigby of Flemington; Penny Gagne of Glen Gardner; and Rhoda Yanow of Whitehouse Station.

All works will be offered for sale. The exhibition is open daily, except Mondays, noon to 5 p.m.

Having earned a bachelor’s degree from the Mason Gross School of the Arts in 1991, and worked in printmaking and sculpture, Ms. Farrell gravitated to the medium of encaustic because it helps her to explore themes of identity and memory, and reveal vestiges, scars, memories and clues in the layering process – much as a person in psychotherapy will peel away the layers.

“There may be very good reasons why some memories are not accessible,” says Ms. Farrell. “There’s always some protection over the underlying layers. I think of beeswax as a protector and preservative, and respecting that vulnerability… We can’t walk around with everything exposed. We need layers of protection.”

And that brings us to another word-of-the-day: Encaustic is basically a method of painting from molten beeswax with added pigment that dates back to the 5th century BC. Fayum – the third and final word for the day – were mummy portraits made with wax in ancient Egypt. Wax appealed to oil painters because it shortened the lengthy drying time for oil.

In ancient times, according to Ms. Farrell, powdered pigment – color – was made from ground stones or blackened wood and then mixed with beeswax and resin (tree sap) that would harden the wax. It was melted over fire to a molten state, and then burned into the wood substrate using a heated iron.

While examples of 5th century encaustic can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the form experienced a resurgence in the 20th century, rediscovered by such artists as Arthur Dove, Brice Marden, Diego Rivera and Jasper Johns.

Ms. Farrell became enchanted with the medium when she saw the exhibit Waxing Poetic at the Montclair Art Museum in the late ‘90s. “I had done sculpture incorporating found objects and melted beeswax, and I love the smell and the plasticity of it,” she says. “And I love painting with it.” She rubs a section of one of her works, then invites a viewer to inhale the candle-like scent.

“As an unpredictable, organic medium, encaustic has especially been embraced by a generation of process-oriented artists reacting against the industrial, prefabricated mediums of Minimalist and Conceptual art,” wrote Montclair Curator Gail Stavitsky for the catalog. “Today, at the end of the century, many artists find encaustic to be uniquely appropriate for the communication of a vast array of spiritual, philosophical, environmental, and painterly concerns. Functioning as a seductive skin or membrane, encaustic is an unusually malleable and mutable medium that evokes bodily sensations, emotions, alchemical transformations, religious rituals, layers of history, and the passage of time.”

Indeed, since it is difficult to work with this medium outdoors, it is conducive to introspection.

“Beeswax is a preservative and becomes a permanent surface on the wood,” says Ms. Farrell. “The beeswax becomes part of the strata below.”

Using Joanne Mattera’s The Art of Encaustic Painting: Contemporary Expression in the Ancient Medium of Pigmented Wax (Watson-Guptill, 2001), Ms. Farrell taught herself the technique and began experimenting on her own. “I took to it and began painting luminous, luxurious colors,” she says. “The wax provides gem-like colors I hadn’t seen in oil – it’s seductive.”

She works with 20 pounds of wax at a time, melting it in a large lobster pot on an electric burner. The space is well-ventilated, and on an el-shaped counter she assembles heated palettes of paints in pots and pans. A crockpot is used to keep the medium (beeswax and resin from a tree in Madagascar) molten. And yes, the colony collapse disorder that has led to a decline in honeybees has driven up the price of the wax Ms. Farrell tries to secure from local farmers.

Wood panels are used as the surface, and sometimes Ms. Farrell will stretch canvas over the frames for texture. The wax is applied with brushes, then layered and scraped using spatulas, knives and kitchen tools. “I scrape and melt and allow the layers to show through,” she says. “You have to work quickly” – the wax will harden – “and I use a tacking iron, heat gun or torch to manipulated it. Even when it hardens it’s still pliable. Some people use heat lamps. You have to get familiar with the characteristics of wax, and the temperature, and know how it reacts to the heat.

“There’s a huge element of chance that is scary and exciting,” she continues, “but something beautiful can happen.”

After the wax has hardened, Ms. Farrell buffs it with cloth for a polished surface. “Buffing can reveal more depth. It can recede and come out at you at the same time.”  http://www.pamelafarrell.com/

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