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My Brush Called Fire: Wo Schiffman on Encaustic Painting and the Cosmos

Pod, Encaustic on Wood, 2018. All images courtesy of the artist.

Encaustic Entanglements: Wo Schiffman Solo Exhibition

Atlantic Gallery, 548 West 28th Street (NYC)

May 14 - June 1, 2019

By COLTER RULAND, May 2019

Eventually, perhaps sooner than we would like to think, humankind will no longer exist. The planet will surely still be here, other species will continue to roam, and others will likely form. These words will eventually also hold no meaning just as they held no meaning before they were made. The world goes on, and it goes on slowly. Artist Wo Schiffman, with her encaustic paintings that reference both deep space and the microscopic alike, hopes to remind us of the vast extent of the universe and our small yet precious place within it. 

Drop, Encaustic on Wood, 2019

Encaustic painting is a technique that dates back millennia, involving the heating of beeswax and the introduction of tree resin and pigments. Some of our earliest examples include the portraits of mummified dead and religious icons. For Schiffman, it is the one medium in which she can engage with the creation of a work on a dynamic and intimate level. There is no opening a tube of paint or using a readied pallet. She must start from scratch. She procures beeswax from a local beekeeper; she uses tree resin and range of pigments from ground minerals to plants; she dehydrates indigo and reconstitutes it in the beeswax. She applies all these materials to handmade paper, rock, or wood, and takes them through a range of temperatures in order to congeal, separate, create edges and boundaries and filmy shapes that are otherwise impossible to achieve. Sometimes her butane torch reaches temperatures of over 600 or 800 degrees Fahrenheit. “Sometimes,” she says, “I feel like my brush is actually fire.”  

Virus, Encaustic on wood, 2019

“The process of using fire is mimicking a lot of the basic processes in the universe,” says Schiffman, for that process is as important to her goal of centering human experience within the cosmic realm as the finished work itself. “There’s an interesting connection between this tiny little thing that’s going on in my studio and what happens on a much bigger scale, or in some cases a smaller scale, that creates the very images I find entrancing.” 

These images stem from Schiffman’s personal fascination for deep space photography. She grew up in what she describes as a “noisy family of artists, professors, and research scientists.” Her mother and father both worked for NASA. When she speaks of her childhood, one imagines a whiplash of activity. They lived and moved from various homes in the Netherlands, South America, and the United States. Multiple languages were regularly spoken. “My mother,” says Schiffman, “never realized how much of an impact it is for a young child to not know what the right word for something is. I felt for a long time that the easiest way for me to communicate was to draw.” Finding that “right word” is the very nucleus of Schiffman’s work, which, since its beginnings, has been reaching further and further outward looking for a kind of language of reactions.  

Core, Encaustic on Wood, 2019

Schiffman left home at the age of seventeen and moved to Denmark, where she lived in a community of “artists, rebels, and avowed revolutionaries.” This commune would later become what is now Christiana, a place that once attempted to secede and form its own country. The five years she spent there were a fundamental part of her artistic education. She learned techniques that were orally transmitted from the artists who lived and worked there, and she learned by extensive experimentation. “Questions and questioning,” she says, “became an integral part of how I paint.” 

When she returned to the United States, she immediately began to miss that kind of community, so she took classes at the Cleveland Institute of Art and formed her own co-op, which lasted for another five years. She eventually received a B.A. in Philosophy, yet another manifestation of her personal quest to question everything. “I was always struggling between how I felt about and how I saw the world, but also between feeling very confused about the meaning of life and what we are doing here.” In California, she got involved in textile arts in the graduate program at San Francisco State University. She then went on to Japan to study indigo dying, papermaking, and shibori, an ancient fabric dyeing practice. In 2002, she founded her own design studio in Palo Alto. Over the next decade she created a contemporary art gallery, was involved in a school teaching art classes and workshops, and was awarded ten patents for textile design. Throughout this prolific time she was also painting, but it was on the side. In 2012, she sold the design studio and put most of this administrative and academic work aside, focusing on painting full time. “I decided,” she says, “to go completely back and immerse myself in encaustics.”  

Cosmic Landscape, Encaustic on Stone, 2017

Around the time she sold her studio happened to coincide with an influx of major deep space photography and images. Schiffman felt inundated with nebulae and galaxies, reinforcing her familial connection with space and science. “I embarked,” she says, “on developing a body of work I called landscapes, but they are sort of spacescapes, they are landscapes of things that happened a billion years ago.” The result can be sweeping and violent but within these violent reactions between raw materials, Schiffman ultimately maneuvers them into a sort of delicacy. Sometimes it hard to distinguish whether she is evoking the imagery of space or the imagery of the microscopic, or whether we are looking at a dying nebula or one being newly formed, so similar are they all to each other. In the same vein where the earliest encaustic paintings captured the portraits of the dead, Schiffman also wonders why we “don’t have burials for bacterium.” Her work seems to ask why not? Why do we put preference and therefore meaning on something as large as a nebula, but we rarely think about the microscopic universe living inside us, inside all living things? Are those two extremes—what Schiffman calls the galactic and the cellular—really that different, and what significance, if any, do humans possess between these two extremes? 

Cluster, Encaustic on Wood, 2019 (Photo by Tracy Phillips Photography)

“Most people don’t walk around thinking about what happened a billion years ago,” she says. Her work is a reminder of our own “entanglements,” how we exist in an interconnected universe that can push and pull and effect other existences. “We interact with our environments with a very limited perspective.” We have a kind of “blindness,” she says. “We are receptacles for the mythology of our own history. Each of us as we go through our lives, we create our own inner mythology. We create our life and our story of who we are but also our reaction to everything that happens to us and what we see.” 

Formation, Encaustic on wood, 2018

Schiffman’s work, and her most recent series Encaustic Entanglements, is an ambitious attempt to showcase environments we do not normally think about in relation to ourselves. By echoing the imagery of deep space and the microscopic, Schiffman unfolds and interrogates the mythologies we have taken for granted: how the universe was formed and is still forming, how the microscopic goes about its daily business unseen, how we as humans are merely one part amongst millions in this great, labyrinthine machine of life. Schiffman’s paintings do not capture human experience as much as they capture the existence(s) surrounding our experiences: the rich colors of our world (and the millions beyond it), the physical and chemical reactions of natural elements, the shapes and arrangements of these reactions, how they prod and manipulate each other, how she can somehow temper all of these elements. “I am piloting the piece of work inside of this molten plane that I’m working on. It’s an interactive community, that is the community of materials and myself.” 

Coexistence, Encaustic on Wood, 2019 (Photo by Barry Schiffman)

Schiffman’s body of work is remarkable in how it opens like a portal into environments that, though rich in physicality, ultimately lead to ethereal places. One begins to wonder, if we never achieve space travel, maybe this is as close as we will get to reaching other galaxies. In that case, it is easy (and a pleasure) to get lost in these molten worlds. “I’ve spent most of my life avoiding entanglements,” Schiffman laughs, knowing full well that she hopes to entangle us all. 

Keep up with Wo Schiffman by visiting her website https://woschiffman.com/.  WM

Colter Ruland

Colter Ruland lives and writes outside of Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Territory, Cosmonauts Avenue, Fiction Advocate, Goodnight Sweet Prince, The Thought Erotic, Switchback, and elsewhere. He is working on his first novel.

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