On a warm, sunny day earlier this month for First Friday at Bunnell Street Arts Center, a soft odor permeated the gallery for the opening of Antoinette Walker’s show of encaustic paintings.
Like perfume warmed by skin, Walker’s paintings gave off a pleasant smell hinting of the media’s origins: beeswax, tree resin called damar, and pigment. The scent added a sensory element to the showing of two-dimensional work.
Walker’s exhibit continues through the end of this month at Bunnell, paired with the embroidered thread vessels of Beth Blankenship.
In encaustic painting, artists melt a media of beeswax and damar to about 220 degrees Fahrenheit. An encaustic artist’s palette is a hot griddle — some artists use old electric frying pans — where clear encaustic media gets mixed with pigments.
At her artist’s talk for First Friday on July 5, Walker said she first saw encaustic paintings in Oaxaca, Mexico.
“It had such translucency and depth,” she said. “I didn’t know what it was.”
Walker ordered a start-up kit, started painting “and didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” she said. “I took a three-day workshop in San Francisco, learned the basics, and I’ve been working in encaustics ever since.”
Encaustic artists usually paint on a rigid surface like plywood. For abstract work, encaustics can be liberating because it’s hard to control. The media has to be kept hot to work with, but then it also becomes fluid and can run or splatter. It’s one of those techniques that looks easy and then becomes challenging when the artist tries to assert command of her media.
Walker shows fine control in her work, often painting realistic subjects. Whether of boats, cannery shacks or landscapes, her art exhibits an attention to detail and a solid understanding of color. One ocean scene of sailboats, “Fair Winds,” evokes the power of sea and sky seen in Winslow Homer’s maritime paintings combined with the luminosity of Van Gogh’s landscapes.
A longtime Kodiak resident, Walker also is a commercial fisherman.
“I express my creativity and experience through coastal marine themes that capture the wild beauty of my home,” she writes in her artist’s statement. “The inspiration for these paintings is an image of time-worn canneries, setnet sites and fishermen working their gear as I travel the ocean towards our fishing grounds in Bristol Bay.”
In creating her encaustic paintings, Walker demonstrates an encaustic technique that literally gives it depth.
“When you’re painting, your surface is laid down,” she said. “You paint and can embed pieces of paper, which I do a lot of, and then you fuse it with a torch or a heat gun, and you just layer it up. That’s the way I work.”
Many of Walker’s paintings include scraps of text, such as shingles of roofs. One painting, “Life on the Pier VI,” is more sculpture, done on a log cut in half. It includes scraps of metal and barnacles built up out of wax. Another painting of a Bristol Bay double-ender boat includes a nail found near the actual boat that inspired the painting. One work has a piece of metal found on the beach.
“I do that a lot — a lot of beach found objects on my pieces,” Walker said.
One painting, “Red Curtains,” features a gray, weather worn shack with a splash of a curtain in a window, a painting inspired by a cabin in Naknek.
“I was drawn to it for the lines, and they way they attach to the roof that was blowing off,” Walker said. “…And then the curtains, the red billowing curtain and the invitation to go inside.”
One of her paintings is of an old Homer wooden boat, Altair, seen now on the Homer Spit.
“I think the lines on it are beautiful when it was in the water,” Walker said. “It has peeling paint. I am drawn to peeling paint when it’s not on my house and rusty metal as long as it’s not on my car.”
The ethereal quality of encaustic media reflects the theme of Walker’s paintings. While some subjects might be of old boats and buildings from history, others are of cabins still used and well loved.
“What I aspire to do is give it a time worn appearance, to give you a sense of the past and the present,” Walker said of her paintings.
In her introduction of Walker at the First Friday talk, Bunnell Street Arts Center Artistic Director Asia Freeman praised Walker’s paintings.
“Your work just resonates in this community and to many of our visitors. You capture something really specially and powerfully,” she said.