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It's All About Wax At Pajaro Valley Arts

The latest show includes the history and technique of encaustic art, and works by over 70 unique artists.

It was a sweltering Sunday in Watsonville: perfect weather for the opening of an art show made up entirely of wax. Wax: Contempory Encaustic Works is the latest exhibit at the Pajaro Valley Art Councils' gallery, and it's a testament to the multitude of unique manipulations artists have found to turn wax into art. 

The show, which hangs until April 15, is made up of 140 encaustics pieces by 77 different artists hailing from Santa Cruz, the Bay Area, across the United States and even an artist from Germany.

"Our goal of the show was to show the diversity of the artwork," said Wendy Aikin who currated the show with artist Daniella Woolfe. "We looked at over 300 slides."

Most of the pieces are abstract, which seems to be a common way to go, especially for a medium which has to be heated to a melting point twice during the artistic process. Amy Stark of Santa Cruz, was one of the few artists whose art was representational, but she still employs the same encautics technique:

"I take my chunks of wax and melt big puddles of color on my plate, and then paint—fast, because as soon as you lift the paint off the heated palate the paint solidifies," says Stark, who worked primarily with watercolors until she took up encaustics 12 years ago.

But it doesn't end there. Once the encaustic paint is applied, it needs to be set with a hot air gun, which remelts the layers of wax and infuses them together. This is where the process gets really tedious.

"When wax melts it starts moving. Just like with watercolors, when you add water to the paint, you're never sure exactly what effect you'll get when you add heat to your wax, except for when you've been working at it a long time, then you can control the effects," said Stark.

Although it's a tedious process, it's an ancient one, and as time passes, the wax solidifies harder and harder. In fact, the earliest encaustic paintings that have been found date back to 100 A.D.

"It's really an ancient form of art. The earliest paintings that survive are the Fayum Portraits from Egypt, which were funerary pieces painted with wax on wood with four colors," says Judy Stabile, president of the PVAC.

The Fayum Portraits were buried with their subjects in their tombs after adorning their homes while they were alive. But encaustics have remained a rare art form because of its involved process. 

"It kind of fell out of favor when oil and tempera came in, but it saw a Renaissance in the 1800's and then again in the 1950s," said Stabile. 

The 1950's Renaissance of encaustics was sparked by the evolution of electric tools which made it easier to melt and work with the wax. Since then, encaustics have come a long way, and no longer contain terpentine like the earlier forms. Still, good ventillation when working with encaustics is a must.

Stabile, Aikin and Woolfe chose to leave their artwork out of this show. That doesn't mean they're not fully immersed in their passion for wax several times a week. The three artists run Wax Works West, an encaustic learning center where they give classes on how to use encaustics and even have a retail section for supplies. 

Still interested in encaustics? Check out Woolfe's blog: Encausticopolis where she writes about all things wax under the name Dotty Stripes. 

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