I Am Not An "Encaustic Artist"

Encaustic has reached critical mass. Many artists are working in the medium and showing their work. There are encaustic shows, encaustic groups, encaustic forums. These are all good things. But where does the medium end and the ghetto begin?

When I wrote my book in 2000 and had it published in 2001, I thought that within five years—which would be right about now—encaustic would cease being a novelty and find its way into the mainstream of artistic expression. That hasn't happened yet, but it will.

But here's what concerns me: Some artists who work in the medium have been defining themselves by the medium. Not, "I am a figurative painter," or "I work in geometric abstraction," or even, "I’m an abstract painter who works primarily in wax." No. Typically I hear, "I paint in encaustic." I love encaustic. But what kind of art do you make?

Is Jasper Johns an "encaustic artist?" Or is he an artist—a painter and printmaker? Does he make "encaustic art?" Or does he make paintings, some of which are executed in the medium of encaustic?

Is a painter who works in oil an "oil artist?" Is a painter who works in acrylic a "polymer artist?" (Imagine calling Agnes Martin a "graphite and acrylic artist," or Richard Serra a "steel artist.")

Maybe I’m being too touchy about this because I just got listed on an artist’s website as an "encaustic blogger." I love the way the web lets us link to one another, and I’m pleased that this artist thought enough of my blog to cite it. But….I type my blog on a computer with word-processing software. My comments appear on a cyber screen. There is no wax involved in the process. And I don’t always write about encaustic.

Let me be clear: I love encaustic. I love encaustic. I’ve been working with it for 16 years. I participate in, and go to see, "encaustic shows"—they’re a great way to see the wonderful variety of artistic expression in pigmented wax. (Though I make a point of participating in thematic shows as well.) And I admire and respect the work of many, many, many artists who work in encaustic. I just think we need to think hard about how we define ourselves and our work.

Actually, let me be clearer. You should feel free to call yourself whatever you want. But I am not an "encaustic artist." I’m a painter. Who works with wax.


tina said...

Yes, thank you Joan! I am one of those materials-loving-process people who fell in love with the media, but I think I can still see the forest for the trees. ps-I love your book- it has been a terrific resource. I first learned a bit of the technique from someone who thought that melted crayons in raw wax right from the comb was the way to do it- I knew it was bogus, so it took one good workshop and your book to get me straighted out!

Anonymous said...

While I agree with the concept that we are all artists, not acrylic artists, not oil artists, not egg tempra artists, I wonder why this did not occur to you before? You wrote a book, not about art, but about encaustic art. (very useful technical book BTW)
However, International Encaustic Artists??? What is that? The Westcoast Encaustic Artists ??? Or, the National Encaustic Painting Conference?? You have certainly participated in some if not most of these. Did you not think that eventually you might be labled an "encaustic painter"? Sounds like you are now complaining about a situation that you not only created yourself, but one that has brought you significant personal attention. And good for you but you really can't complain now can you.
As an artist, I have always steered away from joining a club, group or gallery that emphasises a particular medium since I knew it would come with a label. Not rocket science here. Actually, while I love using encaustic as a medium and for the moment it seems to be in demand for me, I
certainly do not feel irrevocably tied to it.
(ASIDE) Do you think maybe you might also get tagged as a "political encaustic artist" since you use this blog to express your personal political points of view? Personally, I like to go to political blogs for politics and art blogs for art. Call me crazy.

Joanne Mattera said...


I think you're missing my point. I love wax. I'm pleased to be part of the wave of artists using the medium of encaustic. It's not the medium I have a problem with, it's the LABEL.

Why did this not occur to me before? Why should it have? The people who have used wax for much of their careers--Jasper Johns, Kay WalkingStick, Rachel Friedberg, Michelle Stuart and others--did not define themselves, nor were they defined, as "encaustic artists." They were and are painters, and rightfully so.

I'm not sure why suddenly the "encaustic artist" term has come into being, but it defines the artist solely by the medium, not by her esthetic or ideas. The book I wrote is on encaustic painting, and I took great pains to show a range of images and esthetics and, further, to point out that it is not the paint that makes the painting but the artist.

You say, "Personally, I like to go to political blogs for politics and art blogs for art." Well, this blog is definitely not for you. Even in non-election times, there are sidebar links to women's issues, gay rights, racism awareness and business information.

As for "political encaustic artist," ha, that's a good one! Add Italian American, lesbian, vegetarian, businesswoman, organizer, New Yorker, professor and writer. Now that would be quite a descriptive, wouldn't it? But, seriously, I can't tell by your tone if you're pulling my leg, pushing my buttons ot just missing my point.

Cheryl Finfrock said...

Enjoyed the blog! I like to put it this way ---- I do paintings, monotypes, encaustic drawings, and scratchboard. I'll make a mark on whatever stands still long enough.