Sparse trees with crooked branches and peeling bark, women in rippled cloth with unkempt, disheveled tresses, and the curved edges of flowers clutched in hands; these subjects hold textures that grab onto highlights and shadows with a Velcro-like force, yielding contrasts not only of light and dark, but of growth and decay. And what better way to showcase these mini fault lines than to encase them in a time-tested, preservative layer, of beeswax and responsibly harvested tree sap.
“I enjoy the wide range of possibilities inherent in this technique,” says Los Angeles-based photographer and encaustic artist Nicole Fournier. “I’m also drawn to the evocative and distressed tones, and especially the additive and subtractive qualities that come along with the process.”
Early in her exploration as an encaustic artist, Nicole researched ways to transfer photographs, and ultimately came upon transferring images into wax: “In the transfer process itself, the image is prone to rips and tears; not fully transferring one hundred percent. Using wax gives images a faded, hazy, ethereal look, which I like.”
The term “encaustic” is derived from the Greek word “enkaustikos” meaning “to burn in.” It’s a sensual, technical process of painting with or applying wax, and fusing each application with heat, making sure each layer gets adhered to the layer beneath. Pigments or encaustic paint are used to create color in the mildly yellow encaustic (beeswax) medium. The earliest applications of this ancient, highly archival art form were done by the artists of Ancient Greece who used wax paint to adorn sculptures, murals, boats, and even architecture. Later, in Ancient Egypt, artists created wax-covered mummy portraits, which much like the bodies of their mummified dead, still hold tight to their original form with a respectable stubbornness.
Nicole Fournier chooses to cook up her own encaustic medium using damar resin and beeswax. Gum damar is a natural resin sourced mainly from Southeast Asia in a process similar to natural rubber collection: the collector taps into specific native trees, and the resin collected, eventually resulting in a frosty-looking, cream-colored crystal product, which is packaged for use. The resin is an earth-friendly, all natural ingredient, extracted in a non-invasive, sustainable process much aligned with Nicole’s high respect for nature and the environment. “I feel we ought to respect the Earth, all people, life and material. Anything that we take should be replaced, because we initially do all coexist. It seems working with encaustic really fits my values.”
Beeswax, the second ingredient in the wax medium, is obtained by beekeepers during their honey harvest. Caps of beeswax are shaved off of the honeycombs to extract the crude honey. This “capping” wax is the wax sourced by manufacturers from the farmer to produce refined beeswax.
Nicole began her artistic career twenty years ago as a photographer, her style – as seen in her ‘Memoir’ body of work – often featuring people in abandoned buildings. “Back then,” Nicole states, “I just loved to go into abandoned buildings without knowing really why or putting much thought into it – even more so than to photograph in them.”
There is indeed a forbidden and chilly thrill in walking among buildings that are heavy with stories and rich with decay. It is something that appeals to the childlike explorer in all of us, the adventurous rebel who yearns to enter and spend time inside a place that feels haunted. “They are just time capsules, all abandoned at one certain time. It’s interesting to see what’s become of the building, how others have made their impression in it, how nature has taken over to run its course and recycle it.”
Sometimes artists aren’t completely aware of why they are drawn to particular themes and aesthetics, and their preferences may not be entirely apparent until they’ve produced enough work for patterns to emerge. Nicole has pieces depicting maturation versus immaturity, self-improvement, redemption, and symbols for finding our inner talents and way in this world. “I would say as of today, I’ve grown or would like to think I’ve matured, yet I feel this material is still prominent in my work today.” Nicole is looking to connect viewers to these topics, as well as to explore growth and personal development as seen in the imagery she features in her self-proclaimed strongest body of work: her ‘Human Nature’ series. In this series, Nicole has photographed women holding onto hearts, which symbolize protection and growth; flowers, which represent prosperity; and books, which suggest introspection and development work. The women with dirt reference our past, whereas the ones shown with water depict cleansing. Additionally, the poses themselves are illustrative. Closed eyes mean introspection, and women being blown away, or caught in a whirlwind, are within the dynamic storms of emotional turmoil. These symbols are certainly communicated subconsciously, but practical elucidation by the artist results in a fundamental human understanding within the viewer – an understanding flawlessly captured by the title of the series: ‘Human Nature.’
Nicole often photographs women among trees, birds, and flowers, evoking a longing for humans to be more connected to nature and the outdoors. “I feel we are all connected to nature, period. Plus, nature is a symbol for growth within ourselves. I’m always trying to grow and improve certain aspects of myself, and I hope others can see that in my work.” Nicole isn’t pleased with the current state of our environment – overpopulation, global warming, GMO foods, and deforestation – and she makes a conscious effort to be aware of how her actions impact the earth.
Delicate flowers, insects, and birds are the subjects of Nicole’s ‘Art of Nature’ series, depicted within an encaustic overlay in a way that is reminiscent of the bugs preserved in amber that you see in both syrupy pendants and glittering gem and mineral shows. In a way, it feels as though Nicole is preserving and showcasing that which she feels to be sacred. That isn’t, however, the fundamental reason the artist chose this medium. “The reason why I picked the material I’m using is because I was looking for a way to “distress” or age my photographs, without faking it using a computer.” Nicole is quite fond of antique photography, such as daguerreotypes and tintypes; especially those photos, which have started to decay, or those in which the chemicals haven’t been fixed properly.
In Nicole’s ‘Basis of our Grounds’ series, she features tree silhouettes which feel at once both sacred and eerie. She photographs trees quite often, and nearly always finds herself gazing up to notice the various trees around her. “Perhaps they remind us of ourselves, with their anthropomorphic features being greatly symbolic with their “roots”, and how their limbs reach up into the sky. Trees can be extremely poetic in their forms. I suppose they also serve as a beckon or a messenger, to remind me of my drive for improvement, meditation, and for self-reflection.” Nicole also feels the trees are instrumental as “check-ins” to our current state of mind, much like a Rorschach test.
Nicole has stated that her family has a Protestant background and that she is more spiritual than religious (in a “striving for self-actualization” sort of way). In her ‘Devout’ series, Jesus and angels take the front seat in works that explore themes of hope, thoughtfulness, mourning, and introspection. “I’m not quite sure why I’m attracted to religious (specifically Catholic) icons and churches,” she states, adding, “A long time ago, before my encaustic work, a fortune teller at a Renaissance Faire said I was a monk in a previous life and that I tended bees, seriously. Seems she’s nailed it. Perhaps it’s a desire for faith, or redemption from both internal and external conflicts.”
The technical aspects of the encaustic process can take years to master with finesse. Nicole educated herself by reading books, watching online videos, and meeting and speaking with other encaustic artists during The Brewery Art Walk at The Brewery Art Complex in Los Angeles, where she resides. “I met other encaustic artists, and began taking lessons, and attended an encaustic conference, complete with various workshops with fellow encaustic artists from all over the country. I would say I began feeling more proficient in my technique up to around 2010; however I continue to learn and pick up more tricks each year.”
The encaustic process is a tried and true, luxuriously tactile and ancient practice that is still relevant and well represented today. Modern tools such as heat guns and electric warming plates have proven effective in simplifying the process; however, the two original and unaltered natural elements of beeswax and crystallized tree sap remain at the core. Wax appeals to photographic artists like Nicole because not only does it allow her to combine her photography with painting, drawing, and mixed media elements, but it also allows for image transfers with the benefits of adding texture and mystery to a piece.
The appeal of melting wax stretches further still as its soft, smooth warmth blankets any room with a sacred, cozy atmosphere. When she’s melting up her custom blend of resin and beeswax, Nicole says the smell in her studio is “pretty heavenly,” and so magnetic that bees actually come inside her studio to partake of the dreamy, alluring odor.
A collection of Nicole’s nature-based work will be on display until September 5, 2016 at Rebecca Molayem’s Home and Gallery.
Gallery location: 8304 West Third Street in Los Angeles, California.