Navajo Artist Enjoys Wax Painting’s Surprise
by Debra Mayeux
With a blowtorch in one hand and a bamboo-handled paintbrush in the other, Michael Billie prepared to paint. He dipped his brush in colored beeswax, liquefied by the heat of an electric kitchen skillet. Billie brushed the wax onto silk, adding multiple layers to create his art.
The silk holds a decades-old image of a Navajo. This image will stand out despite being covered in wax, because once the wax dries, Billie will use sculpting tools to etch it away. “It’s like sculpting,” he said. “You can build up the wax as much as you want. When it dries, you can take a sculpting tool and scrape it away. There’s always an element of surprise.”
The unexpected factor of encaustic art is what led Billie, a long-time sculptor, to take up the practice of it two years ago. “I was in a gallery in Albuquerque, and I ran into a painting that was encaustic,” Billie said. “I knew I had to learn to do that.” The technique of making paintings out of pigmented wax dates back to A.D. 100. “It’s ancient. The Egyptians used to do it, but it’s coming back into vogue. That’s not why I’m doing it. It’s just because I love it,” Billie said. Artists of the 21st century are creating a renaissance of sorts when it comes to encaustic art, and Billie is emerging as a new and respected artist in the field.
He is one of the only Native American artists using the technique, and he is incorporating his Navajo culture into his works. Billie has a series of Shiprock paintings and a “Blue Bird Flour” series. “As a child growing up on the reservation, there was always Blue Bird Flour in the house,” Billie said. “After it was used up, the bag would be used as a wash rag. They made quilts out of them, shirts out of them, pillows out of them — it was always recycling.”
His new series, “Circle of Memories,” features five pieces. The images will be transferred to silk, which will be covered in wax. Once the wax dries, Billie will chip away at it to show the image beneath the layers. “They’re all old images, and if you put all five in a certain order, they form a full circle.”
Billie first learned to work with heated wax by watching YouTube. He later attended workshops and just kept experimenting. “It’s almost endless. You’re constantly experimenting,” he said. “Every weekend I’m working on wax — endlessly working on wax.”
Billie is represented by Fire God Gallery in Santa Fe. He also has a website: http://www.michaelbillie.com.
p i c t u r e d a b o v e
“ School Boy in Tibet No. 2”
18” x 24” x 6.25” Encaustic, rust and cyanotype on plexiglass with light
Available at the Encaustic Art Institute in Cerrillos, New Mexico
Innovation in Art
by Stew Mosberg
Useful and life-sustaining activities undergo periodic transformations that generally improve the way of doing things. In some cases, the changes give rise to wholly new alternatives. Whether the function is to support life such as hunting and gathering, or to communicate by scratching on a cave wall or inventing the written word, the catalysts for those changes have been discovery or deliberate experimentation.
Lascaux Caves, France 15,000 BC
The evolution of art runs parallel to that paradigm, and listing some of the more significant transitions, however cursory, can provide insight into why and how art has changed through the ages.
Prehistoric cave paintings from 40,000 years before the Christian era depicted the likeness of animals and continued to do so for another thirty millennium. Eventually, cave dwellers moved from nomadic hunting and gathering to more permanent settlements. It was then that man-made architecture and large-scale sculpture began to appear. With farming and the herding of livestock came more free time and intellectual pursuit. As humans became more sophisticated, they developed the desire for adornment and decoration which then led to a class of artisans able to fill those cravings. In addition to gemstones and precious metals, the discovery of glass created an alternate medium for decorative, as well as functional use.
Venus de Milo 130-100 BC
Greek civilization gave birth to some of the most exquisite examples of art still revered today. Several periods of growth mark the history of that culture, each of which transitioned into the next. During the Orientalizing period (725-650 BCE) artists experimented with elements borrowed from Mesopotamia and Egypt and ideas, motifs, and various cultural elements spread throughout the Mediterranean.
Civilizations absorb, copy, or improve upon a conquered society or trading partner’s knowledge, and so it has been with a country’s art.
Christus Ravenna Mosaic , Italy 526 AD
Early Christian artists explored ways to give visual form to the origin of their faith, gradually moving away from attempted realism to a more mythical realm. They found a suitable medium in mosaics which provided beautifully colored reflective surfaces to meet their apocryphal vision.
As travel and trade routes continued to expand, so did increased exposure to foreign cultures and their respective artifacts. When new styles and techniques cross-pollinated they added to the artist’s repertoire. As a wealthy merchant class developed so did their appetite for ornamentation and art. Their personal fortunes allowed them to compete with the church for the most talented artists available. With art so greatly in demand, workshops sprang up to accommodate the commissions and they experimented with new methods for enhancing output.
In 1450, Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press was a seminal innovation that would eventually bring visual art to the masses, initially in the form of wood cuts. Over the course of the next two centuries, from artists such as Giotto and Duccio, to Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Hals, new approaches to visual relationships, vantage points, perspective, and composition, were explored and expanded upon. Then, as the result of archaeological excavations in the late 17th century, there was a renewed interest in classical art. This neoclassical approach reverted back to the forms and character of Greco-Roman civilization. Formal art training leaned heavily on classical premises and subject matter and would be rigidly adhered to in the academies well into the 19th century. Until, that is, artists consciously broke with the past and rebelled against the Academy and its Classical standards; innovation for its own sake became a goal.
Composition Viii, Kandinsky, 1923
Once again, the artist’s world changed radically with John Rand’s invention of the paint tube. Produced in England by the Winsor & Newton company in 1841, this simple device redefined the direction that art would take for a very long time. Tubes made painting accessible to almost anyone, and artists were no longer shackled to their studio. This straightforward development did away with the need to understand the alchemy of powdered pigments previously taught only in the academies or by “Master” artists. Paint in tiny transportable containers gave rise to the Impressionists and Cubists, the Fauvists and Pointillists and to their outdoor experiments with light, planes, and color.
Innovators such as Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp and later, Andy Warhol, made their precept-shattering discoveries somewhat suddenly, while major experimental artists, such as Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Pollock, came to them more gradually. Regardless of how and when in their careers artists arrive at ground-breaking discoveries it is part of art’s progression. The advent of the electronic-digital age has hastened that evolution, and nowadays the art world is rife with innovation on an instantaneous basis. One can only guess where it will take us.