Under the Surface

BY Kathryn Manis

The surface of Ohio-based artist Helen Lewis’ calming and uniquely beautiful encaustic paintings are subtly textured; every mark she makes contributes to the balance of their composition. And the surface quality that can be achieved through this technique is one of her favorite aspects of working with it.

Encaustic painting involving a heated mixture of beeswax resin and pigment is an ancient process and is characterized by the translucent malleable surface that results. Derived from the Greek word “enkaiein” or “enkaustikos” meaning “to burn in ” the process is often compared to fresco which involves painting on wet plaster so that the two combine as the plaster dries. With both techniques the finished product is able to better withstand time and the elements.

Encaustic paints are kept continuously molten on a heated palette. Typically applied to a wooden surface they can then be repeatedly reheated to combine with other paints or found and paper objects like photographs and letters to achieve varied textural effects. Indeed to the modern viewer the final product can look a lot like oil painting with layers of color and a glossy raised surface.

Though the process of burning resin essential to the encaustic method can be toxic for the artists who work in the medium the final product is completely safe.

In order to combat the toxicity of the burning process artists install double exhaust fans in their studio windows to pull the fumes out an interesting predicament for Lewis during the cold Carrollton Ohio winters. The artist also manages this concern by starting with pharmaceutical-grade beeswax which is otherwise used in the creation of pill capsules and by creating her own pigments using pure materials.

“I start out with a cleaner product ” she explains.

Lewis who has honed her skill in the medium over the past few years uses the process to create nonrepresentational paintings and takes great care with their surface.

“I really build on the texture. I carve into it a great deal and often go back into it with oil pigments and other materials ” she says.

Perhaps the best-known examples of the encaustic process are the Fayum mummy portraits of Egypt which were most likely created during the third century. These beautiful lifelike paintings demonstrate a stylistic similarity to Greco-Roman realism and often feature the use of gold leaf as underpainting.

The gold leafing contributes to their continued popularity with contemporary viewers and is one of the clues indicating that they were almost exclusively commissioned by members of the upper classes. These portraits were placed over the faces of the mummies and mounted to the cloth wrapped around the body during the embalming process.

Lewis’ paintings however are borne of a different aesthetic. Many of her works recall the color field paintings of the 1940s and ’50s by artists like Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. They are meant to grant a sense of calm to their viewers.

“I personally gravitate toward that style; I love the simplicity ” she says. “I am drawn to the look of the color fields and the order that is there. I always want my work to have a real quality of peace of tranquility. This is inherent in that particular style which brings calmness rather than busyness.”

Illustrative of this artistic leaning on Lewis’ part are works like “Breaking Through ” a 36 x 36 inch painting on wood paneling. This captivating piece features long vertical blocks of yellow and blue alongside larger square segments of white and grey-green. Splashes of red seem to seep through the faint seams between the blocks of color. As with all of Lewis’ oeuvre brushstrokes from pigment application and signs of the encaustic process can be seen in the interestingly abraded surface.

Lewis’ encaustic paintings were the subject of a recent show at Wilmington’s Art in Bloom Gallery called “Looking Within: Encaustic Painting by Helen Lewis.”

Owner Amy Grant saw Lewis’ work when the artist and her husband came into the gallery during a vacation to the Wilmington area.

“I knew I was looking at something very special ” she says.

Grant notes that the patron response to the show mirrors her own.

“The show is called ‘Looking Within’ and people have spent 30 minutes or more with the work really thinking about what it means and what it means to them ” she says. “I’ve had people ask me to pick the paintings up for them so that they can see the backs of the pieces. And more artists have purchased her work than any other artist I’ve featured. The response has been incredible.”

Coming from a background in mixed media and collage Lewis embarked on the process of learning encaustic after seeing the work of artist Clare Murray Adams hanging in the same gallery that was exhibiting her own work. Lewis learned from the gallery’s curator that Adams was an art professor at Malone University in Canton Ohio and an occasional teacher of encaustic workshops.

Lewis says that she “holed up in a corner” and learned all that she could at one of Adams’ classes. Afterward she began trying it on her own originally using a small br�l�e torch to heat her materials.

While she later completed an additional workshop with Patricia Baldwin Seggebruch another well-known encaustic painter Lewis is largely self-taught in this technically challenging medium. She explains the technique melded very well with her work in collage and that she enthusiastically took to the challenges of working with blow torches fumes and constant heat.

Lewis says she was drawn to working in encaustic by the unique surface quality the translucency and mark-making potential.

“I love making my own mark ” she elaborates. “I love the idea of marks in a variety of contexts: stones along the beach layers in rock natural cracking from the elements and the way paint ages on an outside surface.”

One of the ways Lewis adds her mark to her encaustic paintings is through script both her own and segments taken from maps letters and other printed materials.

In paintings like “Spring Up ” “Before” and “Conventional ” Lewis experiments with a variety of script types. She works in a grid-like format similar to those used by many color field painters. In Lewis’ grid however the text rather than the color becomes a major focal point of the painting.

She has been fascinated with writing and script since she was in grade school.

“As a younger student late elementary school I think by the time teachers had us writing long pages I remember loving being able to turn that paper over and see the pattern that my handwriting made on the back of the page ” she reminisces. “Not necessarily the writing itself but the reverse of it the imprint on the other side. A similar effect is achievable with wax. When you put hot wax onto something that’s been handwritten it can make the paper very translucent. When this happens you are looking at both sides of the paper at the same time.”

In many cases Lewis will purchase the text or paper documents that she wants to incorporate into her encaustic works. Over the years though as her community and friends have become more familiar with her practice many interesting ephemera have been gifted to her.

“I do sometimes pick up things or order them online if the script is particularly beautiful ” she says. “But people often gift things to me as well. They will bring me papers or stamps they find in furniture they got at a thrift store or that they have found while cleaning out an old house.” She also does commission work for patrons who want nostalgic or personal items preserved in Lewis’ comforting memorial style.

Perhaps most important to Lewis is the experience that viewers have with her work. The artist intentionally titles her paintings so that they do not prescribe meaning — though they may hint at it — leaving interpretation open for each person.

“I am a words person but I do not want them to be limiting ” she explains. “They may allude a bit to a place or a situation but remain ambiguous.”

Encaustic has been used since the ancient Greeks but contemporary artists continue to experiment with and extend the potential of the medium. Lewis’ work invites the viewer to look closely to contemplate the surface and the unique details imbued in each piece. In this way Lewis’ non-naturalistic works encourage a sense of meditation and provide a soothing impression of quiet and familiarity to every person that sees them.