Scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed one day I came across the work of Michigan encaustic artist Graceann Warn and was struck by its subtle beauty. In particular, as an architect, I’m drawn to the architectonic nature of the work – compositions of primary shapes alluding to earth, sky and horizon.
However, these are lived, not abstract surfaces. Sedimented layers are excavated and worn. Lines – gestural and ruled – are inscribed on the surfaces. As Graceann states, the surface becomes a palimpsest, blurred, erased and written over, an index of time and intervention.
But – enough of my thoughts, let’s let Graceann tell us about herself and her work:
What is your background and training as an artist?
I have no formal training in fine art. My degree is in landscape architecture (BLA, MSU) with graduate work in landscape architecture (UMich) and Classical Art and Archaeology (UMich). I painted almost daily as a teenager and even when I worked as a landscape architect, I had a small studio set up to work in when time allowed.
What medium do you work in primarily?
I work in encaustic and oil. Encaustic is a paint comprised of beeswax, dry pigment and resin which is painted in its molten state and reactivated with a torch or heat gun as layers of color are built up one upon the other.
What are your broad intentions and interests as an artist?
My goals are always to convey the most with the least. I approach work as a poet would by challenging myself to express a broad idea in the most minimal way. In this way, interpretation is open for the viewer and the painting has a bigger, longer life.
How do you use materials to express your intentions?
Because I am trying to minimize the amount of visual noise on each panel, it is important for my work to have a depth and subtlety in its surface detail. Encaustic paint, the way I mix it, has a translucency and I can control the opacity by the way I mix the paint and/or by the number of layers I create on the surface. I can also embed drawings into the surface, obscuring or revealing parts of them as I proceed. In this way the surfaces of my pieces look one way from a distance but upon closer inspection, reveal movement, marks and a sort of underground life.
What is your typical process?
I generally begin with a word, phrase or a scientific or mathematical concept in my head. I have lists of these things tucked away all over my studio. I generally get an idea of what this word, etc. “looks like” and begin by laying down color onto a braced wooden panel to start the painting process. Frequently the painting takes shape as I work it. It is rare that I know exactly what a piece will look like before I begin. It’s a very active process that evolves over the time I am working.
Who/what inspires you the most as an artist? Why?
When I was much younger I painted in a representational style- landscapes mostly – and always tried to clarify them to the point of being simply a strong horizon line bisecting a closely toned earth and sky. As I look back upon them I realize I was an abstract painter struggling to emerge! When I was in school the work of Luis Barragan was my absolute favorite and I still look at his work to inspire me. Planes of bold color at large scale are undeniable for me-simple, strong, no holds barred. The first time I saw Mark Rothko’s paintings in real life (I was working as a landscape architect at the time), I was affected to the point that I knew I had to find my way to make work that had some kind of emotional impact both for myself and for anyone viewing it. His paintings have a very strong landscape element to them I believe. So that’s where it started. In terms of content, when I travel I photograph old walls because they give me a great deal of information for my work. I am drawn to the idea of palimpsest and in older cultures (India, Mexico) I have found fantastic examples of wall surfaces covered in countless layers of paint and posters, drawing and graffiti. I have numerous photos from which I work that inform compositions and palette.
How does your background in landscape architecture affect your art?
The farther I get from my days as a landscape architect, the more I realize how much impact those years and training had on my eye. My work, even at its most minimal, has a feel of the landscape about it. I am not always aware of that but I am told often that by others. Over the years I have honed my taste in design and that aesthetic absolutely informs the paintings. I do not believe I would be the kind of painter I am today without my background in landscape architecture.
To visit Graceann Warn’s website and see more of her work, click here.
© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013