A Unique Texture in Whitefish

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – When art smells sweet, it just feels right.

Shawna Moore says the subtle odor of honey during the encaustic painting process is part of the medium’s appeal – encaustic painting uses melted beeswax. Moore is the curator and organizer of an all-encaustic and all-woman exhibition at The Walking Man Frame Shop and Gallery in Whitefish. The exhibition, Women and Wax: Birds, Butterflies and Bees, begins on Aug. 2 and runs into September.

“To most people it’s wax,” she said. “To us it’s paint.”

Moore said she didn’t originally intend for the show to be all women but after looking for interested artists, only one man – her friend – came forward. The rest were women, so she decided to make it an all-female show, nixing her lone male volunteer. It is hard to say why encaustic appeals to women, Moore said.

“It’s sort of visceral,” she said. “The smells; you make it from scratch; it’s tactile – women are really attracted to that.”

In the encaustic process, clear de-pollinated or yellow pollinated wax flakes, which have the honey odor, are melted together with a bonding agent, often a resin called “damar,” and mixed with pigment of any color if desired. The melted concoction is allowed to cool in containers – ranging from tuna cans to larger bread tins. The result is workable blocks that at any time can be melted down – in Moore’s case with an electric skillet – into a heavy liquid for painting.

“There’s still some life force in there,” Moore said of the wax paint. “It’s the bodies and energy of bees and plants.”

Encaustic artists paint on wood panels, paper or canvas. Moore occasionally mounts book pages on the wood as a background. Brushstrokes leave thick creamy layers that never actually dry, just cool, Moore said. Moore uses up to 40 layers of the wax paint. Details can be added with oil paint, transfer paper and scraping, among other techniques. A heat source, like a small blowtorch, is used to fuse and refine the surface.

Moore prefers smooth surfaces, though various textures can be achieved.

“I like the smooth surface, like it’s a film or skin,” she said. “I don’t like to break the surface of my skin.”

Women and Wax officially features 22 artists, from Massachusetts to Alaska, though Walking Man owners Peter and Michelle Edland said that a couple more signed up late. Nine, including seven from Flathead, are Montana artists. For both the gallery and the town of Whitefish, the Edlands said, the exhibition is significant.

“This is the first time for us (all the art) was sent directly here,” Peter said, noting that pieces have came from as far as New York. “It’s something you don’t usually see in Whitefish.”

Kate Hunt is a sculptor who only recently began working with encaustics to give her sculptures a sense of depth. She said that Moore included her in the show even though she’s not a traditional encaustic artist. That is part of Moore’s sharing nature, Hunt said.

“She loves her medium so much that she curated a show,” Hunt said. “Not many artists do that. She’s incredibly generous.”

Hunt said the closeness of encaustic painting’s tight-knit community helped the show become what it is as well.

“There is a real connection and cohesion between encaustic painters,” she said.

The show’s first day, Aug. 2, will include a reception with music and refreshments between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. A percentage of profit will be donated to arts education.

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