Mary Farmer is an accomplished and passionate artist whose journey with encaustic painting began in the 1990s. I recently visited Mary in her studio.
Encaustic is a Greek word meaning “to heat or burn in”. It is the oldest form of painting in use today, and one that has always fascinated me. Mary melts beeswax adds color pigments, creates a paste then when molten applies the mixture to a panel. Her command of the medium is evidenced in her luminous and sensuous surfaces and her seductive approach to color. She creates a sense of depth and texture in her paintings that is unlike any other medium.
Walking into Mary’s studio is like walking into an alchemist laboratory. There is an eclectic mix of frying pans full of wax, tins ablaze with colored wax and harnessed with clothes pins; heat guns, many pounds of beeswax, hand torches and her in-process paintings.
How do you navigate the art world?
Mary: I actively participate with the galleries who represent me–I deliver on time, I keep their inventory updated, I have shows when asked, etc.
I love cultural events, plays, museum shows, and musical events. I went to Paris in February to see Sonia Delaunay’s long overdue retrospective and I plan see the Frida Kahlo exhibition that will examine Kahlo’s appreciation for the beauty and variety of the natural world, as evidenced by her home and garden as well as the complex use of plant imagery in her artwork at the NY Botanical Gardens. I have already been to her home outside Mexico City and seen those gardens.
Recently, I’ve decided to blog (had a very successful blog, The Steinberg Farmer Report, with Gail Steinberg in Northern California) again. It was fun, I enjoyed doing the research and I look forward to the new release any day now.
Describe your working routine.
Mary: The two questions I answer as I begin each painting are: what do I want to say or paint and how am I going to get there? Thus begins my studio day.
What (What?) am I thinking about? Is it pink tones of a beach sunset, dappled light in a forest, or fleshy light reflected from a firm rump? How will I express these thoughts in a well-executed piece of art?
Will I struggle? Will I engage in battle with the piece? Is it a fight to the death? Probably not, since as painters we are the luckiest of humans to get to paint and make art. How cool is that? It’s my job to paint. Each day I wrap my head around “Art is my job” as a guiding principle.
Then the process kicks in. Just how do I make art? Simply put, I am dedicated to my studio practice and embrace each step of my art making process. It all begins with solitude. It is my belief that arranging the mental space and accepting that I absolutely need time to think about my work is a major force in my creative process. Without it, I flounder and flop about.
When given proper time to think, ponder, question and debate, I tread a much smoother path to the How? Beginning, facing that bare panel or that white surface can be the most daunting of tasks (it’s almost as difficult as “Is the piece finished?”). As I begin, I shed any notion of where this will end; else I get tangled up in silly bits. This is discovery and I become willing to take the journey and find the outcome.
I do not preordain the outcome.
As I work new questions always pop up and sometimes, those queries require me to back up a few paces to consider what is being asked of me. For example: am I happy with the depth, do I need more going on between the layers, will a glaze work here and how’s the surface holding?
Then, you are speeding along, fusing with glee — and boom, you hit a snag. You slam right into some painterly quandary. Aren’t you glad you took the time, upfront, to think about the work on your table? This early prep always helps me overcome panic and sanely address the difficulty: is it too light, is there enough paint, does the passage work, is it stagnant, is it too floral, and is it not floral Enough and so on.
Yes, there is the occasional “accidental opportunity.” We all get a few of them in our painter’s lifetime. You cannot count on them to pull you out of trouble day after day. It won’t happen. Many non-painters believe that we do just that: go into the studio, sling paint and a masterpiece suddenly appears. You and I know it ain’t so.
It’s here where I take a breath, take some long looks at my painting and assess what’s going on. I begin to formulate answers to these questions:
- What am I compelled to look at, where does my eye stop?
- Why do I care?
- Am I doing a proper job of executing this work?
- Is there a construction problem with the composition?
- Are my perspectives shifting appropriately?
- Am I able to embrace the process or have I too tight a grip on the outcome?
As I explore the answers to these questions, I am able to rein in my wandering focus. No short cuts here. If I disregard any piece of this I’m probably going to fail. This means I’ll be scraping off layer after layer of wax because I would not fully engage, or sometimes I just feel smarter than the process. Again, it ain’t so. It’s so liberating to reject indecision and press on with the luxurious indulgence of moving the paint into a piece of work that makes you feel like, “I’ve done it.”
Is there something you are currently working on, excited about?
Mary: Yes! I have moved from my ethereal florals to a more impressionistic landscape. I have been stewing over my work for several months; it has to do with seeking protected and sheltered spaces. For a personal development project I’ve been mining the past and have discovered that my work revolves around the creation of a space that is liberated, unassailable and welcoming. I want the viewer to feel secure, seek sanctuary and know they are free from the daily fray in this space.
What advice to give other artists?
Mary: Make your own work, make the best work you can and continue to challenge yourself. Make sure to show up everyday.
Why did I choose encaustics?
Mary: Initially, I thought oil painting was my calling. During my last year at Georgia State I was able to design my own semester (I had exhausted all the other painting classes) and wanted to develop my (you how it when you are sick of art school) work. During a final critique it was suggested that my painting was too good. I know! It sounded ridiculous to me, too. The committee wanted me to expand and grow, they felt I had reached a high level and wouldn’t challenge myself.
I had to find a new medium to explore and develop for myself. At that time few were working with encaustic. I’d heard about it, been introduced to it via a gallery friend and thought, “What the heck?”
So I set myself up in a studio to work out the details of painting with wax. I was so amazed by the depth, luminosity and fusing aspect. It hooked me right off; I had been glazing and thinning oil paint in an attempt to get the depth I suddenly was able to achieve with encaustic. It hits you like that – it’s like you’ve been put under the spell of Stupefyin’ Jones. Nothing would stop me from using this wax paint. That was 15 or so years ago and I’m still enthralled by encaustic.
Every time I teach I see the same thing – someone becomes captivated by encaustic paint.
It’s damn exciting to fire up a butane or propane torch and make art; knowing how much or how little heat to apply keeps me sharp. There is little margin for error when the flames are present. I can safely say, “Pfffftt! and your painting is lost.”
Mary’s painting journey began early 1990s in Atlanta GA where she studied at Atlanta College of Art and Georgia State University. Her final year at Georgia State, under the tutelage of Cheryl Goldsleger, is the turning point where Mary gave up oil painting and focused on working with encaustics. Upon graduation from Georgia State, Mary moved to Northern California where she became a founding member of West Coast Encaustic Artists (now IEA). Since her move to Asheville NC in 2008, she happily paints amid the majestic Smoky Mountains.