Happiness is….A Decomposing Shark

Art as Investment…

When I first started showing my work professionally, my target market was young professionals. Most of my clients had a miniscule budget for buying art, but they saw something they loved in my work. My paintings were inexpensive – I was just starting out and trying to gain purchase in a highly competitive and intense market. For many of my early clients, my work was their first real art purchase. I loved dealing with people who were excited about this new art-buying stage of their lives, as I was excited about this new, art-making stage of mine. In the years since then, I have counseled many of those clients on further art purchases, and some have since grown into attentive and serious collectors.
In the first few years of my painting career, I knew that many of my customers had to stretch financially to buy my paintings, and as a result, they treated them with great reverence and a bit of awe. They were proud of their purchases and proud of themselves for making art a priority. It made them feel grown-up.  So the first time I heard from a potential customer that my work was too cheap, I was more than a little surprised!
It was one of my first studio shows, where I invited friends and family to my home to view my new collection. I had only been showing my work for a year, and had only had feedback from young, inexperienced buyers. At this show, I had invited relatives, friends of my parents, and business associates of my husband; all of whom had a more sophisticated handle on the art market than my usual customers, and many of whom were serious collectors. The first person who came in said it was nice work, and that in a few years he would consider buying something. He liked a small piece that I was selling for $300, and said to let him know when it was $3,000 and he would come back and look at it then.
That size painting now retails for more than triple what it did then, but my work is also far more advanced stylistically. While it is certainly more expensive, it is also more balanced, richer and far more developed than it was when I was just starting out. However if I called that guy today and showed him the exact same early work from 2006 and slapped a $3,000 price tag on it, he would probably buy it.  I have met many people like him in the years since.
Most collectors are passionate about the aesthetic appeal of the art they purchase. But sadly, there are also many collectors out there who have little appreciation for the art itself. The only measure they know of whether the art is “good” or not is the market value, and unfortunately they are missing the point: the best judge of the value of art is the human heart.  We don’t need art critics, dealers and price tags to tell us what we love. We just need to look at art, learn about art, and remember that the real value of owning something beautiful is the joy it brings, not the resale value.
Am I opposed to buying art for investment? Absolutely not! Some of the world’s most spectacular museum collections are only available for us to enjoy because wealthy collectors have purchased and donated them. Investment collectors keep money flowing into the art world; keeping auction houses, galleries and artists alive to keep doing what they do. But I feel conflicted when I think that one day, someone could buy one of my paintings for investment purposes and feel nothing when they look at it.
In 1991, celebrated British artist Damien Hirst created a huge stuffed shark preserved in formaldehyde and mounted in a glass case. In 2004, an American collector bought it for an undisclosed amount, rumored to be somewhere between 8 and 12 million – a staggering sum for a living artist’s work.  It was an affecting and important work, but by the time the deal was made, the original shark had long disintegrated into a decaying ruin. Hirst had already stretched its skin over a plexiglass model of a shark. This plexi version showed in galleries for several years before Hirst again replaced it with a fresh shark.  Much has been written about this story, but my interest in it today is the question of how far collectors and artists will go to own or produce something that the market declares important. Where is the intrinsic value in this?
My rule of thumb when buying art is to ask myself how much the piece is worth to me in terms of how much I will enjoy looking at it. We assume the purchaser of the shark was concerned only with investment value, but maybe he just loved the way a huge dead decomposing animal looked next to his TV? I’d like to think it was the latter, and I hope he made back his 8 or 12 million dollars a hundred times over in sheer enjoyment every time he looked at his acquisition.
Thanks for reading!
There are no rules about investment. Sharks can be good.
Artists dung can be good. Oil on canvas can be good.
(Charles Saatchi)

The Hows and Whys of Encaustic Painting

Why My Paintings are so HOT!

People often ask me how I heard about encaustic painting and why I do it.  They wonder why an artist would bother with a medium that is so messy, involved, difficult and expensive (not to mention the potential for serious burns and inhalation injury), when you can now create similar effects with acrylic mediums that are far cheaper and easier to use.
Encaustic is different from other media not only because of the look of the final product, but because of the paint itself: both in its historical significance and its connection to the earth. I work in encaustic because there is something about warm beeswax in the studio that makes me feel alive and connected to something ancient and authentic, in a way that manufactured acrylic paints cannot.
Encaustic painting is an ancient art form that was developed over 3000 years ago when Greek and Egyptian shipbuilders used hot wax to fill the cracks in their ships. Soon pigment was added and this led to painting designs on the surface of the waxed hulls. The process was eventually refined for the art of painting on panels. The word encaustic is Greek – meaning “to burn in”.

One reason for the popularity of the encaustic medium was the durability of its finish once it was dry. Beeswax is impervious to moisture and acts as a sealant to keep colours bright. Under the right conditions, an encaustic painting can last indefinitely. Probably the best-known encaustic works are the Fayum funeral portraits painted in the 1st through 3rd centuries. Amazingly, these portraits are still intact today.

Encaustic fell into disuse with the decline of the Roman Empire, when cheaper and easier methods of painting were developed. The process was so time consuming and painstaking and the cost of producing it so high, that Tempera painting eventually took over and encaustic became a lost art.

Encaustic had a few stops and starts in the 18th and 19thcenturies, but began to truly come back to life in the 20th century with the availability of portable electric heating devices to melt the wax. It began its resurrection in the 1950s with a few artists, including Jasper Johns and Diego Rivera, and continued to grow with the work of Tony Scherman and others in the 70s.  From then on it rose steadily.

Johns, Rivera and Scherman offer a good cross section of how encaustic can be used in any style of contemporary art, and I have been lucky enough to see works by all of them in person. One constant with encaustic work is that photos simply cannot capture their richness and intensity.  The luminosity, immediacy and depth of an encaustic painting can only be experienced in person.

It was seeing a contemporary encaustic show in Toronto that set me on my current path.  I had been painting with acrylics and epoxy resins (a highly toxic and chemically produced cocktail). After attending the encaustic show, I did some research on the method and tried it. As soon as I began, I was hooked.

I now paint almost exclusively with encaustic, often incorporating papers, inks, found objects, charcoal and other media. Oil paints and oil sticks are an important part of my practice and I use them liberally. One of the ancient practices I was most drawn to was the ability to suspend papers and objects in beeswax. They can be incorporated into the paint, or made to look like they are floating; giving the work an ethereal quality.

I make my own encaustic paints, staying close to an ancient recipe of beeswax, pigments and damar resin. I begin with a visit to an Ontario honey farm to purchase my beeswax, which I then melt down with the resin and pigments and mold into individual pucks of paint. The paints become solid at room temperature and are melted as needed on a hot palette in order to be brushed onto my panels. Each layer of encaustic paint must then be re-melted into the layer beneath it in order to fuse the painting together. I use a heat gun or iron for this process.  My studio is a crazy mess of brushes, scrapers, mark makers, collections of papers (both handmade and vintage), found objects, fabrics and natural matter.

Each of my paintings is a culmination of diverse elements coming together, and every day is an adventure in painting since I never know what I will discover next. As Jasper Johns said: “Do something, do something to that, and then do something to that”. I couldn’t agree more.

Painting with encaustic is about rich scents, warm, soft textures and smooth, glossy surfaces.  It smells like honey and the smell never dissipates, even after the painting has been finished for years.  I love working with it because of its tactile qualities. Other types of paints come alive when the painting is complete, but encaustic speaks to me because beeswax has a life of its own before the artist even begins working with it.   As I work, I give thanks to the bees for the gift they have given me, and I am ever grateful for being able to do what I love and put something new and beautiful into the world.

“I tend to like things that already exist.”  

(Jasper Johns)