Imaged in Wax

The mediums of photography and encaustic meld.

Before I came to the Island a year ago I was largely unaware of the variety in and the vitality of the arts scene here. It is possible to come across artists and artisans working in almost every medium and in many cases in very unusual mixed-media. At the season close of The Dunes out at Brackley Beach I came across a piece by a local artist that captured my attention both in the use of mixed forms and because, well because I liked it immediately.

mary-carr-chaissonMary Carr-Chaisson is based in Charlottetown and works out of her Pinhole Photography Gallery .  Pinhole photography is the art of taking pictures at its most basic and Carr-Chaisson has been creating images using this technique since the early ’90s.  She first learned the skills involved as a fine arts student at Mount Alison University.

She says she enjoys the uniqueness of pinhole photography which allows her to play with abstraction, distortion, and magnification.  Her photographs have a vintage air of times past and she admits that she “likes the nostalgic feeling they evoke in the viewer.”

I understand what she means by a “nostalgic feeling” – looking at her photos reminds me of many of the family photos I have stored in that box I mean to go through one of these days.  And looking at her equipment I realize that it isn’t all that much different from the old Brownie box camera my mother used to capture those events, moments and people.

So what exactly is a pinhole camera:

pinhole-cameraThis is a very basic camera that can be constructed out of found materials such as cans or boxes, provided it is made light-tight.  This can be done by lining the interior with black construction paper, and taping the sides with black electric tape.  A small piece of pie plate or thin brass can be used to make the camera lens.  The aperture is made by drilling a tiny hole into the brass or pie plate.  This is then attached to the body of the camera.  A material such as a piece of cardboard or cork can serve as the camera shutter.  When taking the picture, a piece of film or photo paper is placed inside the camera opposite the lens.  The shutter is then removed from the camera, and the light enters though the tiny pin hole to expose the film or paper behind.  A watch can be used to count the time required to take the picture.  This type of camera has no light meter, viewfinder, multi-aperture lens, or other features of standard cameras.  A lot of patience and practise is required when using a pinhole camera.

In the past few years Carr-Chaisson has been taking her photography one step further by combining it with an ancient art that is not that widely practised today:  encaustic or hot wax painting.  The use of Punic Wax in painting was described in early Greek writing and the earliest existing examples are the Fayum Mummy Portraits from Egypt of 100-300 A.D.   In 77 A.D. Pliny the Elder describes the art of wax painting in Book 35 of his encyclopedic  Natural History. It was also a known on the island of Samar during the 1500-1800s but is now considered a lost art in the Philippines.  In the 20th century there was a minor revival in the use of encaustic by early members of the Bauhaus and by the Mexican muralist movement.  It has seen a further revival in the past few years and new tools and materials have made it a more popular art form.

In this case Carr-Chaisson took one of her photographs and mounted it on a wood base that had been covered in white paper.  She applied layers of encaustic wax to the photograph, building up some areas, leaving others barely touched by the medium.  She also created abstract areas to the right and below the photograph that are heavily built up like faded bars of some mysterious minerals.


Here is the photograph that Mary Carr-Chaisson used as the foundation for the little piece that now graces a wall in our living room.  The image of the Warehouse at the Experimental Farm here in Charlottetown was taken with a wooden pinhole camera then created in her darkroom using film and traditionally printed using various darkroom chemicals and washed.  Rolling the mouse over the picture will show how she transformed the black and white photograph with the use of pigmented, obaque and clear wax in applied layers.

There is still, for me at least, the evocation of that feeling of nostalgia perhaps now heightened by the hints of faded colour and softness that the wax gives to the image.

P.S.  I began thinking the other day, always a dangerous sign, about how heat/cold would affect the piece and was please to find that should it start to melt the best advise was to get out of the building:  encaustic wax typically withstands temperatures of up to 120ºF.  Also the wax will continue hardening for up to three years and could turn dull.   The Eloise hint to restore its gloss:  rub gently in one direction with a nylon stoking.

On this day in 1864: American Indian Wars: Sand Creek massacre: Colorado volunteers led by Colonel John Chivington massacre at least 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho noncombatants inside Colorado Territory.

Lost … and Found – #1

The never ending, it would seem, story of the unpacking continues and though there may be some light at the end of the tunnel there isn’t much in the spare room which still contains 52 boxes of CDs, books and sundries.  I am assuming that things such as the cable for the printer is in one of them but until I can get the bookcases in place I can’t even start to take exactoknife to tape.

Happily so far there has been very little damage in the shipment from Italy – only two broken bowls in an old dinner set – and the wine arrived intact!  Would that the same could be said for things that were in long term storage – there is rather large dent in the upholstery of an armchair and the satin-finished Watered Maple dining table top has a few more abrasions, scratches and nicks than when it left the house in Aylmer.  But one of the fears of any unpacking job – no matter the provenience of the packing – is that you may inadvertently leave something in the reams of packing paper and have it whisked off to the mangler at the warehouse.  I was sure just such a fate had befallen two of my favourite little creatures.

Two hummingbirds – carved in BC cedar by Haida artist Dorothy August – said to bring joy and healing.

 Back in 2002-3 I was working in Vancouver and that allowed me to spend some time with my friends Dan and Cameron.  In those days they were renovating a house in town but have since moved to a wonderful waterfront home on Galiano Island in the Gulf – some people have all the luck.  One rainy Saturday (hey its Vancouver okay???) we headed up to Horseshoe Bay and after a healthy vegetarian, organic lunch (hey its Vancouver okay????) we wandered into The Spirit Gallery to look at the Haida art and crafts.  I fell in love with two tiny hummingbirds (7cm x 10cm – 3″ x 4″) carved in BC cedar by Dorothy August.  Said to bring joy and healing to a home, they have always found a place on a wall in ours since then. 

In Rome they graced the wall of the hallway leading down to the bedrooms.  I had opened a box and everything from that hallway was there – two small drawings from San Miguel de Allende,  a decorative hanging from Sappa,  a searing political cartoon from Poland and an 18th century hand coloured print of Warsaw.  And only after the box had been collapsed and paper disposed off did I realize that of hummingbirds had I none. 

I looked through the discarded paper in nearby boxes  – in effect unwrapping everything again – but no luck!  There were 12 other boxes filled with wrapping paper but I just didn’t have the time or strength to go through them all.   Several people – Cathy, Mark and Laurent – assured me that I would find them, that they had just been put in another box.  That the packers had perhaps overlooked them and then at the last minute put them where space allowed.  I wasn’t buying that story – everything else from the hallway was in the one box so they must have been.  They were small and very light weight so I had missed them in the unpacking.  I reconciled myself to the fact that my two little hummingbirds had been lost.

Well I guess you should always listen to your friends.   A few days later as I was unpacking a box from the dining room (?) there they were.  Not to be too poetic or sentimental – my two tiny birds hadn’t flown away at all – they were just waiting to be found, unwrapped and to be given a place in our new home.

I’m not sure when Haida artist Dorothy August carved these two – 12/8 is written on the back in pencil which could be December 8 or August 12 but no year is indicated.  She’s originally from Port Alberni on Vancouver Island and her Haida heritage is Nuu-chah-nulth from the Ahusaht First Nation.  According to the brief biographical note I received from The Spirit Gallery as well as cedar carvings she is know for her intricate bead-work and the Cowichan sweaters she knits. 

The hummingbird has no prominence in the older iconography or legends of the Haida but has made more of an appearance in recent years.  Within the constantly evolving mythology of the West Coast its character has developed into a speedy messenger of joy, love and healing.  If it appears at a time of great sorrow, wings beating rapidly as it hovers in mid-air, spiritual healing is said to quickly follow.

I know their appearance amongst all that bloody wrapping paper gave me a sense of joy – and relief.  They are now hovering on the hallway wall in our – and their – new home.

17 agosto/august – Sant’ Elia di Enna

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Sunlight on the Side of A House

I was first fully aware of who Edward Hopper was back in 1981 when I fell in love with Pennies From Heaven, a musical film fantasy with Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters based on Dennis Potter’s successful BBC TV Series. The settings for several scenes were right out of Hopper paintings – and the one I recognized immediately was his most famous: Nighthawks. A bit of investigation – the library, yes Virginia we went to the library back in those days – revealed more about him and his work and I number him amongst the 20th century artists that I adore.

When the Hopper exhibition at the Museo di Roma was first advertised on billboards throughout town I made a note to myself that I really had to catch it. And finally I did last weekend – further note to self: try to catch these things other than on the day before they close.

This retrospective has toured several cities here in Italy with Roma being its last stop. I had been hoping that Nighthawk would be amongst the paintings but sadly its still hanging in its usual place at the Art Institute of Chicago. But they did have a marvelous life-sized mock up of the scene and allowed you to have your photo taken in it. Being the shy person I am, I declined as really if Hopper had wanted an extra person in the scene he would have painted them in.

If his most famous painting wasn’t there then certainly others quite recognizable as the work of the Nyack born artist were. Included were some of his early work from Paris, including Soir Bleu and a series of wonderful caricatures. Many of his graphic works from his earlier New York days revealed the subjects he would return to again and again but in shades of black and white.

One of the interesting features was the work ups for so many of the paintings that were included – it appears that Hopper or more specifically his wife and chief model Jo saved pretty much everything he did. When she died in 1968 – a year after Hopper – she left almost 3000 items to the Whitney Museum. Needless to say much of the exhibition was on loan from them.

At the beginning of the exhibition Hopper is quoted as, rather ingeniously, saying: All I ever wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house., And that he did do – on houses in both urban and rural settings. But he also painted lamplight in streets and parks, the flickering lights in a movie cinema, the clotted light of industrial cities, the clear air of New England, the glare of neon on an interior and the first sun of morning through an open window on the walls of a room and the body of his beloved Jo.

Morning Sun was painted in 1952 and as usual Hopper did a series of drawings before brush touched paint or canvas.

Hopper worked with Conté crayons for most of his preliminary drawings. The top drawing was obviously his initial thoughts on the composition and you can trace the line of this thinking as the drawings become more and more detailed.

What I found fascinating was his detailed notation on colours and shadings to be used once he got to work. Noting the effects he wants to achieve, the degrees of light and shadow within the painting and the shading of colours. This was the first time I was aware of an artist taking that approach – I guess much of my view on how painters work is based on how they do it in Hollywood.

Obviously these notations were meant as guidelines and there would be deviations but it is interesting to see how often those first thoughts are present in the finished work.

As with most of Hopper’s work the lines are clean, at first glance the colours deceptively seem primary and the subject seems very ordinary. What makes its extraordinary is Hopper’s ability to “paint sunlight”.

The preliminary drawings are all from the Hopper collection at the Whitney Museum, the painting itself is in the care of the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio.

18 giugno – Sant’Erasmo di Formia


Video – Visages d’Art

Once again Philip Scott Johnson (Eggman913) has worked his video magic. I find the morphing of the first two images particularly fascinating.

Music: Bach’s Prelude And Fugue No. 6 In D Minor BWV 851 – Praeludium from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 performed by Daniel Ben Pienaar.


It had been a while – a long while, in fact I missed his Christmas animation – since I visited Eggman913 (Phillip Scot Johsnon)at YouTube. His Women in Art and Women in Films animations from last year where amongst my favorites.

Music: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F Major – 2nd Movement – Allegretto Scherzando performed by Philharmonia Baroque.

03 febrraio – San Biagio