“If You Taste Almond, You’re Minutes from Death”

Erica, thank you for the interview. Tell me about encaustics.

Joseph, you’re welcome. Encaustic is painting with pigmented wax, and it’s one of the oldest forms of painting. You take beeswax, melt it, then add dry pigment and that becomes the paint.

As long as it is malleable or heated, you can brush it on. You can use all sorts of different told to work into while it’s wet, but once it’s dry or cool, you can scrape into it and use different tools to get textures in the wax and every layer you paint. The first layer is usually beeswax, on bare wood. It sinks into the wood and it both protects the wood and anchors the paint, and every layer of paint sits on top, and if you fuse it with heat, then it all becomes one mass (she raps one of her works with her knuckle) anchored into the wood, which is one of the reasons why you want to fuse it.

Is it acidic? Are there fumes?

"Babel" 12"x12" encaustic and paper on panel

“Babel”
12″x12″
encaustic and paper on panel

Definitely some of the things I use are poisonous, you have to be careful. Some of it is a sensitivity I have. For some reason this red has bothered me. Maybe it’s a poisons thing…I don’t know what it is.

Encaustic was sort of a lost art form for thousands of years, and different artists would dabble in it. There’s a group of portraits called the Fayum portraits discovered in a tomb in Greece, and they were done in encaustic. It’s one of the most archival mediums so long as it’s not exposed to a fire or cold weather (cracking can happen in very cold weather). Jasper Johns was the father of modern encaustic art.

I stumbled into it because I was mixing wax and oil, and my professor introduced it to me. Over the past couple years it’s become more popular. I’ve almost killed myself several times because of the heat I was using, so you have to be careful about keeping your studio well ventilated. There is a flash point with wax, like grease, so it can catch on fire if you don’t watch it. Once wax gets it on you it continues to burn. I’m very accident prone and kind of a afraid of fire, and so this is a very unusual thing for me.

Once I was having a love affair with Prussian blue (it’s one of my favorites, because when you combine it with greens and browns you get some neat colors), and I kept getting really sick when I was painting—really fatigued, dizzy, and there would be this weird taste in my mouth. And then the fumes would clear out and I would feel a bit better, and a friend who saw me in this state looked in one of my material books and said, “You’re not supposed to heat this.”

After a studio tour, one gentleman cornered me and said, “Can you tell me again about how that made you feel. Was it a taste like a bitter almond?” Turns out he’s a toxicologist and that to get to the point you taste almond means you are minutes from death.

Yikes! Why do you work with encaustics, what do you like most?

"Reliquary No.4" 36"x36" encaustic and shellac on panel inset- glass, feathers, encaustic and pins

“Reliquary No.4”
36″x36″
encaustic and shellac on panel
inset- glass, feathers, encaustic and pins

The things I like the most are the things that can drive me the most crazy about it, like any love affair I suppose. I can build up layers and incise and fill with paint and scrape down and get these interesting layers of color and pattern. What I love is that when you expose something to flame: what it’s going to do is unpredictable. It can be maddening and frustrating, but it can also be really cool. And you can encase all kinds of things in it: paper, sunflower stalks, etc.

But as I’m starting to get older, especially as I’m 7 months pregnant, I’m trying to find ways to make it easier for me. It’s hard work and I’m only thirty five and I want to paint for as long as I can. Again I love it, but it’s becoming more difficult.

I love how you say that you work on paintings and mixed media “until they sit quiet and finished amongst the wreckage” of your studio. How do you see the role of your studio in your art? Is it ever a refuge, or is it the place where you face down the demons?

It can be both, for sure, As life has gotten busier, as I’ve become a mom, you know, you’re exhausted, it’s the middle of the night, but once I get going I usually wind up in a better place. There are times when there can be an angst or an emotion, something I need to paint, even if I’m not painting directly what it is about.

Being creative helps me. Sometimes I just need to paint it out.

More so when it’s a deadline. When deadline approaches it becomes a nuthouse in here. Sometimes there’s so much work to do, but I can put on a layer of paint at three in the morning.

How do you know when a painting is done?

I have a view of what I’m trying to create. I find my paints as I paint them usually, even if I have an idea of where I want them to go. I found that for me and how I create, I have go to with the flow and follow that white rabbit, and if I try to force it it turns out terrible. But if I follow good things usually end up happening. If it doesn’t work, one of the cool things about encaustic is that you can turn the blow torch on high and it becomes one of these puddles on the floor. (She points to a mound of three years’ worth of wax in the middle of the studio.)

"Ode No.3" 24"x48" encaustic and natural materials on panel

“Ode No.3”
24″x48″
encaustic and natural materials on panel

What advice would you give to an aspiring artist?

"Trestle" 36"x36" encaustic, paper, acrylic, sumi ink and graphite on panel

“Trestle”
36″x36″
encaustic, paper, acrylic, sumi ink and graphite on panel

I would advise them that it’s not an easy thing. It’s one of the harder career paths for sure. I would advise them to take some business classes, because it can be very hard to approach something that you are emotionally attached to from a business perspective, and if I had taken business classes I would have had a better mind about it.

You just need to let things roll of your back, too. You’re not always going to get shows, and people won’t like what you do, and you have to keep going. Also, having a studio is really important. Sometimes it is like a sanctuary and I take it for granted, because if I didn’t have a place where I could just get right into painting, it would be impossible for me to begin. Having this mess enables me the freedom of getting right to work.

Finally, Jasper Johns and Thomas Eakins get onto the elevator with you. Who do you say “hi” to first?

Oh my god. I would just hope to hear them talk, I think. Thomas Eakins was pushing the boundaries—he was avant-garde. I think if they got on the elevator they probably wouldn’t just start talking. But I would feel stupid having said anything to either because I admire them so much.


To see more of Erica’s work and to support her art, check out her website here. You can also follow her on Instagram.

Joseph Cunningham
Joseph is a featured Humane Pursuits columnist. He works as a marketer in West Chester, PA, and writes music, articles, and the occasional short story.

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