Small curls of beeswax are building up on Hélène Farrar‘s fork as she delicately carves into her artwork, her intent invisible to the untrained eye.
Her hands sweep across the wings of a large owl, brushing aside the bits she leaves behind. Her brow creases as she assesses the impressions she’s making in the image in front of her. Soon she’ll press oil paint into the shallow carvings, making the invisible come alive.
Then she’ll take a blow torch to the whole thing.
For Hélène, forks and blowtorches are part of just another average workday with encaustic painting — painting with beeswax.
“It’s like an x-ray of your work,” Hélène explains, multicolored foil containers of beeswax gather neatly on hotplate nearby. The wax is a bit translucent when it dries, the amount depending on the colors, and often shows the details of all the layers underneath. She compares painting with the dripping wax to watercolor in that way.
And the blowtorch isn’t an exercise in frustration, as it may be with another medium — the next layer of beeswax will only grip onto the previous if both the wax on the brush and the wax on the painting are hot. Basically, each layer needs to be melted into the next or it just slides right off. The blowtorch is standard operating procedure.
“You can control it once you’ve had a lot of practice. You have to think very quickly and make decisions — because the moment you hand leaves the hot plate with the wax it is starting to cool,” she explains.
Encaustic actually means “to burn in” in Greek, and dates back to the 5th century B.C., according to Hélène. She said the process was originally used to seal up boats, and very quickly evolved into a way to paint colored details onto a boat’s wooden carvings. When she first witnessed encaustic painting she was working as an art teacher at a school in Portland, doing her personal work out of a community studio space called Running With Scissors. The artist next to her was using an apricot scented wax that just “permeated” the studio and drew her right over.
“I wondered, ‘What is that?’ It was very seductive,” Hélène said of the woman’s process of slowly dripping wax on the outside of ceramic bowls. Soon after witnessing encaustic, Hélène’s life became a whirlwind of life changes: she moved up to Manchester, experienced the loss of her mother and gave birth to her daughter, “all kind of simultaneously.” Amidst it all she decided to take a three-hour crash course in encaustic. Now she’s been doing it for about 11 years.
Hélène tries not to place an exact idea or concept on her work; she wants people to be able to react and interpret her paintings on a more personal level. But everything has an inspiration, and many of her series started with very particular moments in her life.
Her “What We Carry” project, for example, came from weeks of thinking on how our bodies and emotions keep score of our lives and whether something is joyful, painful or beautiful and how all that “impacts our design.” How we stand, our facial expressions, and the overall way we interact with the world are all a result of the lives we’ve led.
Hélène had been trying to do it with containers, seeing it as a sort of natural extension of carrying something, but was eventually inspired by a local woman who is often seen around Augusta, always wearing a raincoat and pushing a carefully packed cart. Hélène modeled the painting after the woman. Then, very recently, she started thinking about the piece in terms of refugees and how all we have in life is what we can carry.
“It’s kind of funny. I’m coming up with my own interpretations of my own work. I’m just letting it sort of evolve without knowing what they mean yet,” she said. “It’s really neat.”
Her series on owls reflects a more simplistic side, though. As opposed to some philosophical question on life, her fascination with birds is based on an experience she had with her Mom when she was dying of cancer. On a visit to New Mexico in the last year of her life, the two were driving around when Hélène’s mom asked if they could just pull into a parking lot and watch the birds.
When Hélène pulled over, her mother started throwing them parts of a hamburger she’d just bought for her mother’s lunch. The birds “descended” as her mother threw the pieces and Hélène was reminded that sometimes in life it’s good to slow down and just be an observer. Just watching made her mother happy, even in the midst of pain and sorrow. Her owls are a reflection of that memory and other owl-related incidents she’s had since then.
Art for Hélène is, as it is for many people, a way of expressing herself and connecting to others. Over the years she has worked to pass along her love of it by teaching art at public schools, private schools, community centers and colleges, and even started her own art school and studio space. About 60 people come every week, from little kids for whom she’s honored to be their very first art teacher to older, often retired people who are finally doing what they’ve always wanted.
Her personal art and art education are completely intertwined, with the students energizing her and vice versa. They get to witness an active studio space and she gets to share her art, and more importantly the process of making it, with people who can reinterpret and reimagine what it means.
Which leaves me with the question: what do you see in Hélène’s encaustic paintings?