Buzz worthy: McGuffey group exhibition reimagines ancient beeswax-based medium

L. Michelle Geiger's encaustic mixed media is one of seven artists’ encaustic paintings, sculptures, and mixed-media works are on view in “Melting Point: Contemporary Encaustic Works” at McGuffey Art Center through June 2. Courtesy of the artist L. Michelle Geiger’s encaustic mixed media is one of seven artists’ encaustic paintings, sculptures, and mixed-media works are on view in “Melting Point: Contemporary Encaustic Works” at McGuffey Art Center through June 2. Courtesy of the artist

Sometimes, when the windows are open and the weather is warm, Giselle Gautreau has special guests at her McGuffey studio.

“Bees will come in and visit, so I have to escort the ladies out,” Gautreau says. “I used to be a beekeeper, so I’m obsessed with bees.”

The winged visitors are drawn to the smell of beeswax and honey created by Gautreau’s encaustic artworks. Encaustic painting is a wax-based form of mixed-media art that has its roots in Greece, as early as the fifth century B.C. By combining molten wax, damar resin, and extremely high heat, artists could create and preserve paintings ranging from warships’ adornment to architecture and pottery embellishments and Egyptian funeral portraits. Over time, the costly, labor intensive artform fell out of favor—but it has experienced a modern-day resurgence.

“Artists now have more access to tools to heat the wax,” she explains. “More studios are teaching encaustic workshops, too.”

Gautreau uses instruments such as a pancake griddle, créme brûlée torch, dental tools, and razor blades to create her artworks, several of which are on view until June 2 in a McGuffey group show that she curated, “Melting Point: Contemporary Encaustic Works.” Gautreau selected six other encaustic artists from around the region to join the exhibition—Michelle Geiger, Gina Louthian-Stanley, Bridgette Mills, Lynda Ray, Jeannine Regan, and Kristie Wood.

The show is a veritable feast for the senses. Sculptural works like Mills’ “Guardians II”—comprised of chicken wire, mirror, wax, and textiles—still smell of beeswax. It’s a rich, tactile piece that pays homage to a site-specific sculpture Mills installed in an arboretum in Maryland that was stolen and never recovered.

Geiger, another McGuffey artist, infuses her interest in marine biology and bookmaking in her three-dimensional assemblage paintings. In her whimsical “Stories of the Sea” mixed-media piece, an octopus figurine leafs through an array of papers Geiger ripped from a textbook. She positions the figures against a blue-green background, richly reminiscent of algae, space, or the hue of water 10,000 leagues beneath the surface.

Other pieces in the show, such as Ray’s bright, geometric wave series or Regan’s abstracted landscapes, build up colorful layers of the thick, textural wax—so much so that light bounces across the paintings and creates three-dimensional peaks and valleys. Louthian-Stanley achieves a similarly sculptural effect in her works by using a combination of roofing tar and wax. Her 3-foot-wide painting “Frozen River” calls to mind an empty winter landscape that nonetheless feels warm and inviting, complex, and expansive.

“It can be an excavating or additive process. Everyone approaches encaustic in different ways,” says Gautreau.

Wood, another Charlottesville artist, incorporates the wax and resin medium via photo transfer. She scours antique stores for vintage portraits, manipulates them digitally, and renders the photographs on wax. In “Delicate Little Flowers,” Wood peeled the new wax representation of the original image, and delicately arranged each photo transfer in circular layers—and with added elements like a gold frame and hardware she has captured this cyclical family tree at one specific moment in time.

Gautreau’s works also evoke feelings of nostalgia and memory. Her delicate, graphite-based marking dances across the surfaces of “Grove in Winter” and “Gather”—perhaps imitating a honeybee in flight. She loves the cloudy, diffused quality created by buffing and re-buffing the encaustic surface, and experimenting with the translucency of the wax.

“When I’m oil painting, I know what I’m after and what the piece will look like,” Gautreau says. “Less so with encaustic. There are more happy accidents.”

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