By Todd Krieger
In most places, asking a neighbor if you could borrow a cup of beeswax would be an unusual request, but for the three encaustic artists at Gorse Mill Studios at 31 Thorpe Rd. in Needham, it is just another day at work.
Tucked on the second floor past the earthy fumes of the active pottery kilns and the rich aroma of drying oil paints from other art studios is the unmistakably sweet smell of honey that is an integral result of painting with beeswax.
Encaustic painting is an ancient technique that dates back to ancient Egypt and Greece, using pigments, molten beeswax and resin to create luminous and permanent works of art. The Greeks in the 5th century B.C. used wax paint to adorn sculptures, murals, boats and even architecture, and encaustic paintings have been found in ancient Egyptian burial tombs.
While encaustic painting is gaining in popularity, it is not common to find an encaustic artist in a typical artist studio complex. Having the three encaustic painting studios sharing the same hallway at Gorse Mill Studios is truly unique, especially with each artist interpreting the medium with their own distinct individual vision.
“When I was moving furniture into my studio in November of 2008, I saw the specialized hotplate used by encaustic artists through the open door of a neighbor’s studio and thought that it was very unlikely that there was another encaustic artist down the hall,” said Karen Krieger, an encaustic artist in studio 203.
Krieger soon met her encaustic artist neighbor, Ruth LaGue in studio 201, and the two have become friends and traded techniques, ideas and materials ever since. Even more surprising two years later was the welcomed arrival of another encaustic artist, Amalia Tagaris, right across the hall from LaGue and Krieger in studio 205.
Visitors to Gorse Mill Studios who ascend the main stairway to the second floor and turn right will first notice LaGue's glowing encaustic landscapes on the wall next to her studio, with bold opaque tones tempered by an organic color palette to reflect her fascinating interpretation of the beauty of nature. Her works, which are inspired by the coast of Maine, Cape Cod and other visually rich regions, have complex textures that add depth and detail to her work.
LaGue finds the element of unpredictability part of the intrigue of working with encaustics: “I can manipulate the fire and the pigments and the wax, but in the end, there is a certain amount of it that's outside my control.”
According to LaGue, painting with encaustics is like nature and like life: “When I do demonstrate the technique,” she continued, “I think the natural and unpredictable element is what people really respond to.
The results are different from what you’d expect with traditional oil, water color, or acrylic paint.
Tagaris' paintings are a dramatic yet complementary contrast to LaGue's work. Using photographs, patterns, and other imagery, Tagaris often uses playful colors matched with strong angles that reflect her love of travel and nature.
Originally working as a photographer, Tagalis discovered that she could integrate both photography and encaustic paint to create an entirely new work.
“I was first introduced to wax paintings just a few years ago when visiting the South End Open Studios and came across the works of Linda Cordner,” Tagaris said. “I was immediately intrigued by the uniqueness and beauty of the medium. At that point, I knew that I just had to work with wax and was thrilled to learn that I could incorporate it with my first love of photography. Wax adds a luscious dimension to my images and I can’t imagine working without it.”
Not confining herself strictly to wax-enhanced photographs as a medium, Tagaris has also created some striking imagery solely from encaustic pigments on wood panels.
At the end of the hall, Krieger's works feature the unique integration of encaustic painting with other traditional techniques, including printmaking and the ancient art of Chinese brush painting. Krieger's inspiration is drawn from themes where light, water or atmosphere help define the nature of her subjects, such as glacial ice, celestial imagery, Chinese mountains or an ethereal landscape.
“I explore my themes through translucent layers of color and texture,” she said.
Some of her paintings have many layers of clear and translucent wax, each layer being fused with the heat of her torch or hot iron. This adds depth that would not be possible with traditional oil or acrylic paints.
Her work may be divided into distinct but complementary sections: “I like to use natural contrasts such as dark and light, reflective and matte surfaces, active and passive subjects,” Krieger said.
She experiments by making her own paint and mixing hues that are not commercially available.
The works of all three artists have been featured in several galleries and national juried art exhibitions and are sought out by collectors.
Gorse Mill Studios visitors aren’t the only ones who have taken notice of the sweet smell of bees wax. LaGue recently had to hire an exterminator because bees were attracted to her studio because of the fumes from the molten beeswax.
“They were building their winter hive in my studio because they thought that there would be an ample supply of honey,” she said.
To learn more about all three artists, visit links to their Web sites at www.gorsemillstudios.com. The artists will open their studios to visitors during the Needham Artists holiday sale on Dec. 3 and 4, during which artists across Needham will be selling their work. Visit www.needhamholidaysale.com for details.