Kenai artist puts new spin on ancient art form

KENAI — On a recent snowy Wednesday, Marion Nelson stood inside her warm backyard studio pulling on a pair of blue gloves, occasionally reaching over to lift a heated paintbrush and test the elasticity of a pot of colored pigment.


A wall of smell, beeswax and resin, invades every inch of the brightly colored 20-by-20-foot encaustics studio where Nelson paints, scrapes, shapes and colors her heat-malleable creations into pieces like the ones currently on display in the Gary L. Freeburg Gallery at the Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus.

“It’s kind of my community coming out,” Nelson said over the slow ticking of a heating tray that warms each wax color into a liquid form.

As she painted a plywood square with the beeswax and resin base, Nelson talked about the process of heating and painting and heating again to blend colors, mix textures and bring each heavily tactile piece into being.

When she began taking encaustic classes in Anchorage, Nelson joined the revelry of artists who create in a medium that has been around since at least 80 A.D.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has an encaustic portrait painted onto a mummy on limewood from about that time period and there are stories that Greeks used the wax to paint ship hulls, and decorate warships.

The process of creation is laborious, although not as time intensive as pottery making, Nelson said.

The heated wax and pigment can and has been painted on a variety of materials — glass, wood, ceramic, canvas, paper — and Nelson recalls displays of encaustics on cloth.

“There are definitely people doing big installation pieces where they have sewn strips of fabric together, I mean quite tedious, galleries with ceiling to floor pieces, with hundreds of these strips that they had sewn together that are encaustic,” Nelson said. “One guy is now doing quite a few pieces using tea bags, they’re kind of neat because it’s pretty subtle coloring in there, although they don’t much look like tea bags anymore.”

Nelson mentions yet another artist who layers colored pigment in carefully controlled, deep layers before gouging them into complex strips of color.

“They’re exquisite in terms of execution,” she said.

As the pigment heats in small silver pots on top of a griddle top Nelson said she bought at Fred Meyer in Soldotna, little spots and drips of wax begin melting as well, forming small pools of color on the cardboard she used to cover a wooden table.

It’s the color that drew Nelson to add encaustics to her list of the mediums which includes photography, painting, fiber art and clay.

“The look of it is pretty much what gets people,” she said. “Its luminosity, its depth. The versatility.”

As she spoke, Nelson paused from painting a thick orange-red combination onto her plywood canvas, above a thick strip of blue black and reached for a heat gun that she uses to reheat the rapidly cooling wax and cause it to mix and become more malleable to painting.

“I can flatten it out about as quick as I can build it up,” she said of the mixing colors. Some of her pieces on display are just as much three-dimensional as they are deep pools of color and Nelson said the texture is an interesting dimension to work with as well.

“You can just melt the whole thing down and start over again and you just have to know that that’s OK to do it and you’re probably capable of resurrecting it,” she said. “And if you aren’t, just go on and do better the next time.”

Most of the wax pigment that Nelson scrapes off of her canvas, or that drips from her paintbrushes is reheated and used in other pieces.

The pigment sticks are expensive, she said, and the scrap wax can be used to create texture and then painted over without affecting the color of a piece.

Nelson’s encaustics display is the first of its kind on the Central Peninsula and Nelson said her work has been well received.

Nearly 10 of her pieces have sold since they went on display at KPC and she’s received a few commissions, too.

“I’m not surprised that they’re intrigued by it, but I didn’t expect to sell that many, that’s for sure,” she said.

Going forward, Nelson said she plans to move into using paper with the heated wax.

“I want to get some very large, super heavy-duty water color paper which is very thick and compatible with encaustics. I could certainly put wax onto it, dip it into the medium if I want to if I can get a piece that will fit in there. I’ll pour it on there, whatever, but to use that in conjunction with this gives me a lot of options,” Nelson said. “I could cut into the paper, have the wax show through, form the back in various windows. It would allow me to do some very free form drawing on part of it, which I can’t do on this.”

The display at KPC will be taken down Dec. 12, but Nelson has plans to give curious artists a space to work with the medium.

Her studio is built with several bench tables, seats and supplies for students to work with the medium and while Nelson said she has quite a few things she’d like to learn before she teaches classes in encaustics, she’s ready to share the art form with others.

“One of the nice things about encaustic artists that is sort of a baseline philosophy — certainly in Alaska and as I’ve been told by those who go to national conferences holds true there as well — is they share, they don’t hold secrets, they’re not too territorial about stuff and I’m certainly willing to continue that philosophy,” Nelson said. “I wish I knew a few more tricks to pass along, but you know I’m learning more all the time.”


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