I am an artist and I’ve been working…
I’m pretty sure anyone who utters the phrase, “she’s playing with fire,” does so with derogatory intent or, at the very least, with a caveat. But there is a very legitimate and appropriate use, too. It’s called being an encaustic artist. I’ve long been fascinated with this technique and am the proud owner of two fine encaustic panels done by an Egyptian artist that I will keep forever. The vitality of wax, pigment and graphite incorporated in those pieces is as evocative today as when they were burned into life a dozen years ago.
Meet local artist Flo Bartell, who plays with fire, wax, pigment and other materials in a way that transcends confined expectations. Don’t be scared. In this interview, you’ll see that she’s just a “normal” grandmother who happens to play with fire in a very creative way. Her flamework, use of color and composition give each piece a depth of meaning and life of its own. When she weaves fiber into the wax surface as seen in “Source,” the delicacy is a fine contrast to the strength of the piece.
First, a quick history of the discipline’s ancient origins. The word encaustic is derived from the Greek “enkaustikos,” meaning “to burn in.” Ancient Greeks used wax to highlight features on sculptures, notably around the Acropolis. Once the technique spread to Egypt, it was incorporated into the mummification process. From there, it was inevitable to influence the Romans. Historian Pliny records encaustic paintings commissioned by aristocracy including Julius Ceasar. Although much artwork of the Middle Ages favored fresco, tempera and oil painting techniques, encaustic samples continue to be found in Herculaneum and Pompeii. By the mid 19th century, encaustic methods had found their way into European murals. With the advent of modern heating technology, Jasper Johns pushed the discipline into the mainstream.
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Now, about Flo Bartell. Bartell has lived in Los Osos since 2003. She moved from South Carolina to be closer to her growing family. She had success as an abstract acrylic painter, but when she located to the Central Coast and found her “art tribe,” her inclinations and techniques quickly evolved. She joined San Luis Obispo Museum of Art and the Painters Group. During a serendipitous trip to Cambria, she found a book with an intriguing wax cover. For a few years, Flo tried to find out about wax collage online, but with limited results. In 2006 she discovered the world of encaustic painting (“I didn’t even know that word!”) and began playing. A workshop at Cuesta College sealed the intrigue, but she still needed resources. Around this time the International Encaustic Artists was being formed, and Flo joined. While working mostly in solitude she still found inspiration and camaraderie among the “tribe” and refined her approach.
Read the interview with Flo Bartell in next month's column.
Patrick Dennis is an artist living in Cambria. He owns Working Artist Studio/Patrick Gallery in the West Village and a very large dog named Bella. His column is special to The Cambrian. www.patrickgallery.com.
- March 29-April 29: Spring Juried Art Show, Allied Arts Association, 1350 Main St., Cambria, 805-927-8190. www.cambriacenterforthearts.org.
- Feb. 22-April 2: “Windows to Other Worlds” – Encaustic master Flo Bartell and other artists of various disciplines pay tribute to the customs and people of other countries. Art Center Morro Bay, 835 Main St., Morro Bay, 805-772-2504. www.artcentermorrobay.com.