To be a sculptor or a painter these days means living and dying by the photographs on your website. Martha Saunders, who has painted with beeswax for the last decade, often jokes about switching to a medium that’s easier to photograph than encaustic, but she is quick to credit photographer Scott Smith with bringing her work to life online. To the untrained eye, photos of works like “Howling Tracks” and “Song Space” look like abstract oil paintings. A flat, 2D image does little to convey the texture of Saunders’ paintings, or the hours that she spends mixing, carving and melting beeswax to create them.
The local visual artist Martha Saunders paints with beeswax, which is known as
A Virginia native, Saunders studied printmaking and painting at Maryland Institute College of Art and Virginia Commonwealth University before settling in Charlottesville, which has been her home for the last 13 years. She currently juggles teaching positions at UVA and JMU—where recently, she’s been leading her students in creating scrolls with an old press type—while still finding the time to work in her warehouse studio.
Beeswax has been your medium for over a decade. What brought you to encaustic painting?
When I was in grad school I was actually in a painting program. But it’s hard to make even that kind of division anymore because many of us were working very sculpturally. And when I started drifting more toward sculpture, I started using wax because it can really hold materials. I still like that aspect of it. Encaustic painting—using beeswax as a medium instead of oil or watercolor—it’s an ancient method, but it seems to have risen in popularity lately.
Is “painting” with wax a bit of a misnomer? Are there other steps involved that people don’t usually associate with painting?
Again, it has a lot in common with sculpture. Obviously, wax has to be heated, so you’re always working with heat. But first I have to actually buy pigments. You can get concentrated pigments, or wax that already has color, and you can also mix the two. And before I ever start working with it I have to turn on the heating elements and get the wax to a liquid state. And then I just begin applying it, building up layers of color and texture, and sculpting and reheating surfaces of the painting when I need to. It can feel like an archeological dig; I’ll put 20 layers down and forget what the early ones looked like. And there’s also the collage element. A number of the paintings in the current show are just pigment and wax, but I often include other materials.
Are there more surprises in the studio when you work with wax, as opposed to oil or watercolor?
After this long, there isn’t much surprise in terms of what the material does. But I would say that all of those mediums are unpredictable in their own ways. Your question is more important to me in terms of surprise as an element you always look for in the studio. I think we as artists are very motivated to stumble across things and to be taken by surprise. “I just made that?” The unpredictable is always welcome, even searched for.
Pretend you’re writing a semi-auto-biographical artist’s development novel. Describe an early scene that greatly affects your later work.
I used to love to lay and look at the ceiling of the bedroom my sisters and I would share. I would pretend I was walking on the ceiling upside down. I think a lot of kids do this, but it’s a very important experience, to look at something and project yourself into a whole different kind of space. It’s magic, in a way. I think I also had a tightrope extending from my window that I used to walk around town.
The artist’s statement on your website says you wish your work to “speak to in-between states, where boundaries are blurred and contents coexist,” and our “desire for something tangible to access the intangible.” Can you elaborate?
When I’m happiest is when my pantings are somewhere between image and an object. To have them create a visual sensation that translates into a feeling or maybe even a thought, something very abstract, while at the same time consciously remaining physical artifacts or fragments. Which isn’t something new to my work, artists are always interested in that. Wax lends itself to this because people know that it can change, even if they aren’t conscious of it. It can become liquid again. It’s alive in a way, not frozen.
Have you been focused on any specific kinds of images lately?
Recently I’ve been very interested in looking at neurological images. How the brain works—that’s a big subject that I think artists have always been trying approach. I think we’re always trying to explore elements of how we’re in the world.
For your 2001 show, "Mind/Skin," you created hundreds of small tiles that wrapped around a room together. Did you have a different relationship with the work when you were churning out a lot of small pieces?
Yes, it was really different. I’m looking at one piece right now, up on my wall. The whole thing was one of my favorite works, and now I call it a dotted line because people have bought sections of it. It was three feet tall and 90 feet around, and so I liked how it played into the architecture of the room.
At the time I was making the pieces my daughter was very young and I was also teaching, so it was almost like a calendar—not literally, but it marked the time I could fit into do it. I loved the fact that they were kind of insignificant in a way singularly, in that people don’t really appreciate them that way, and it was more about working this kind of huge, fabric-like thing together. I needed a grant to create it, because it took 900 pounds of beeswax. The money helped me expand it and really finish it.