In the quiet darkness just before morning, LSA senior Ariela Steif leans over her work table. Passersby — if there were any — would be presented with a peculiar scene: Framed in the window of her first floor apartment, Steif is surrounded by brushes of every size and shape, scalpels, a heat gun and a heating tray filled with cans of molten colored wax.
The window is open. The sound of buzzing and the smell of paint fumes fill the air. Her medium, known as encaustic painting, is as ancient as the Greeks, though it is now an obscure art form. This type of painting, using a combination of beeswax, resin and pigment, is labor intensive — the colored wax must be heated to the right temperature, mixed a very specific way and applied quickly before it cools. The art commands her attention.
The process is long and complex: Multi-colored layers of wax are added to the canvas, and each addition must be reheated and fused to its hardened predecessors. Most encaustic artists go through many periods of adding wax, fusing it, chipping it away and adding more wax until they achieve the desired effect. So why would an artist, in this age of instantaneous results, take the time to revive such an archaic art form? Why deal with such a tedious medium? Steif says that, for her, the dividends are worth the painstaking effort.
“It’s an incredibly difficult medium to master. It took me months and months and months to learn — learning how to control the wax, choosing the right tools and implements, a thousand different things,” she said.
“From the angle you hold the heat gun to mixing different colors, there’s just so many things to learn. But there are so many effects you can achieve. You can bury things in encaustic, like paper. You can build up multiple layers. And this depth is important to the concepts I have been exploring.”
It is a combination of encaustic painting’s qualities of translucency and depth that draws Steif to the medium. Steif has been working in encaustic since her sophomore year. Originally an oil painter and watercolorist, she chose to switch to encaustic because the medium better fit her expressive nature. Over the past two years, this interest has grown into a dedication to encaustic painting and has recently resulted in a solo installation in the Michigan Union.
“It comes down to the way I paint or the themes that I’m interested in. I’ve always been interested in looking at marginalia and things that are not one thing or another. They’re sort of in between,” Steif said.
“And encaustic fits that really well because it’s sometimes a solid and it’s sometimes a liquid. It’s sometimes opaque and sometimes transparent. It exists in this strange region in between all of these things. It works well with what I want to say.”
According to Steif’s artist statement (a description of the medium and her artistic intentions), she is interested in representing “fragments of dreams and memories” and exploring “the interstices of things, sites of liminality.” It should be no surprise that she chooses to paint in the early morning — a time when dreams and memories are still connected and the day has not quite begun. And she draws from multiple sources for inspiration.
“In medieval folklore the spaces in the margins, those which are betwixt and between — the edge of the sea, between night and day, doorways and thresholds — were thought to be dangerous places of power and transformation,” Steif wrote in her artist statement. “These marginal spaces are reflected in the region that my paintings occupy: the no-man’s land between representation and non-representation.”
Encaustic, rooted in the Greek word encaustikos — meaning “to burn in” — was first mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his manuscript “Naturalis Historia.” According to Pliny, the Greeks invented this painting technique circa the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E. It is believed that when Homer mentions the “painted ships” of the Greek fleet in “The Iliad,” he is referring to the rudimentary encaustic that ancient Greek ship-builders would apply to waterproof their vessels.
Encaustic works eventually moved from purely utilitarian usage into the realm of art. The oldest surviving examples of encaustic paintings are the Fayum portraits, wooden boards on which realistic portraits of mummified individuals were depicted. Well preserved in the dry Egyptian heat, these rare artistic relics have remained vividly colored and detailed for about 2,000 years. With beeswax acting as a sealant, moisture and other deteriorating factors didn’t affect the art pieces. Hypothetically, encaustic paintings could last, unchanging, for hundreds of thousands of years.
Still, no matter how many years encaustic paintings can withstand, the medium proved to have no defense against the whims of human preference. After the Fayum portraits, encaustic fell out of artistic favor until the 1950s, when it enjoyed a gradual rebirth under Jasper Johns, the father of contemporary encaustic painting. Slowly regaining its popularity, encaustic is still an obscure art form, but it’s not forgotten.
Two of Steif’s most recent encaustic series — the Knot Series and the Wire Series — explore several of her artistic themes of marginality. Both series grew out of her interpretations of the “knot theory,” which she explains is the theory that, mathematically, some knots cannot be undone.
“I don’t know how I stumbled across this piece of arcane knowledge,” Steif said. “I am not a math person — but it really appealed to me. The idea of knots that can’t be untangled, which is what the Knot Series technically is.”
The Knot Series, at first glance, looks like brightly colored wax has been poured over knotted yarn. But that’s not the case. After carefully drawing a sketch of an intricately tangled knot on onion paper, Steif then painstakingly built up layers of wax to create an encaustic representation of the knot.
“There’s always things that people realize they’ve missed in my work the first time around,” Steif said. “I guess that one thing a lot of people miss is that the whole piece is wax. There’s no wire or yarn involved.”
While the Wire Series also evolved out of Knot Theory, it was actually completed before the Knot Series. Steif explains that she intended the connection between Knot Theory and barbed wire to be more subtle and to reflect more on the “boundary between isolation and community.”
“Barbed wire operates as a material that continually negotiates boundaries in our society, whether you’re inside looking out or outside looking in,” Steif said. “It appears all across history as a material that marks boundaries in a very vivid way. So I guess that connects to this idea of knots, of boundaries.”
Steif cites, among others, Louise Bourgeois (creator of “Maman,” the giant spider that used to perch outside the Tate Modern in London) and Robert Motherwell, an abstract expressionist painter and contemporary of Jackson Pollack, as inspirations to her work. Yet she is unsure how she feels about comparing her work to other artists.
“I’ve been looking at my paintings, particularly the Knot Series, and seeing a lot of Pollack in them. Other people see it too,” Steif said. “I inwardly groan when I hear this. Pollack was a great artist, but I want to be viewed independently. Besides, there are many important differences between our work. Mine is premeditated and executed to an acute degree. His was unconscious. Plus, my work has centers. His doesn’t.”
In any case, Steif is certain that the artists she admires did not listen to Green Day or Tom Waits, her usual musical painting accompaniment, when they created their works. When asked if Billie Joe Armstrong has influenced her painting at all, Steif smiled and said “No, I don’t believe he has. I’d like to think that painting is a little more self-directed than that.”
Steif’s Wire Series has been on display in the Art Lounge of the Union since Oct. 2. She says that “it was much easier than most students know” to get an exhibit in the Union. Aside from filling out an application and self-installing and uninstalling, there were no other obstacles. The opportunity to exhibit her first solo show at such a prominent University location has propelled Steif into the exhibiting world.
“I wanted to start exhibiting as an artist,” Steif said. “The Union was here and it was a good chance for a solo show, which is important for a résumé. I just did it. It sounded cool.”
After this first solo show, Steif’s next step is placing her work in an online exhibition and auction associated with the cooperative gallery, Galerie St. George, in Staten Island, N.Y. Steif submitted her piece, “Wire #17,” to the auction and, starting Nov. 5 at midnight, interested buyers can start bidding for Steif’s and other artists’ work. The auction, taking place at www.140hours.com will be closed 140 hours after its starting time.
Besides the 140 Hours auction and several tentative shows, Steif does not know what her plans for the future include. She is certain, however, that working in encaustic will always be a part of her life.
“I plan to always paint, even if I don’t exhibit. It’s just part of my life. Furthermore, it’s a process. You can’t just stop in the middle of it,” Steif said. “There’s this famous quote from Chuck Close: ‘Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.’ And that’s sort of the mindset that I exist in.”
“There are periods where I’m not happy with my work and you have to push past it and the only way to push past it is to continually make work. You may have to make hundreds of paintings before you make one you like,” she said.
Steif adds, “And that’s why encaustic is so great — years later you can come back to the same painting and reheat it and rework it.”
Steif also feels a calling from the medium. She admires the individuals throughout history who have propelled encaustic out of its obscurity and feels a kinship with their efforts. In a time when technology makes tricky processes effortless and “nano” is too imprecise of a measurement, Steif feels it is important to keep this complex, archaic and imperfect medium of expression alive. Encaustic may be tedious and frustrating to work with, but sometimes, it is the perfect artistic mode. Pixels can only take the imagination so far — wax, on the other hand, has withstood the test of time.