The story of how this encaustic series began
This body of work caught me off guard. It began during the winter snow storms in February 2015. If you live in Massachusetts, then you know what I’m talking about. The amount of snow was nothing I ever remembered or want to see again. My husband and I have a honey business and after a snow storm, the hives need to have their opening unblocked with snow for ventilation and light. These storms did more that block their entrances. There was so much snow that we had a hard time finding the hives with snow shoes and shovels in hand. It was cold and there was little chance that they would break from their cluster and see what the ruckus from the shoveling was all about. This went on all February. Between shoveling ourselves out, going down the street to help my folks clear their long driveway with a bobcat, and clearing hives, there was little energy left to create. Winter is my time to focus in the studio. Our honey business is quite consuming once the farmers markets start right through to Christmas. Although I have found a balance to create throughout the year, I am unable to paint from November till January.
Collage and drawing exercises are my way of getting the creative juices flowing when I’ve been distant in the studio. I was tired too. I did remember that my folks had a large tupperware bin in their basement with old family photos and letters that belonged to my great Aunt Bess. When she died, my father helped clean out her house and couldn’t throw out what appeared to be some family history, so he shipped it back home. I decided to bring that box over to my studio and see what I could find to use in some collages. Bundles of letters were held together with string according to who they were from. I found letters as old as 1919! My father’s family is from the Texas panhandle and I remember stories of the dust bowl days in Texas told by my grandmother and my father who was born in 1933. To my amazement I discovered a large amount of these letters were written by both my grandparents in the 1920’s- the 40’s and spoke about raising their children. When you are out of touch with your creative side and tired, procrastination pulls up a chair and welcomes you, and with that I began reading stacks of letters every day. My studio is next door to my folks, and I would run back and forth with letters that highlighted events in their lives. My father read them with a twinkle in his eye as the memories flooded back and the reminiscing began. There were other letters too written by great uncles and great aunts, and friends. Much of them talked about crops growing and failing, the weather and the price of wheat, and money woes. A lot of cowboys in this family too, fun to read but I’m glad I didn’t grow up then. Pretty hard times. It was the Depression.
I wanted to share some of the early letters that talked about the children with my uncles and aunt who are out west so I shipped them out and asked for their return when they were done. My Aunt Betty called me after reading some of these letters and told me that she changed her opinion about some of her relatives after reading them! This hit me. The idea that something from the past can change after so much time.
Back to the studio, I had some layering ideas that I wanted to begin with these old letters. I glued the letters down on panels and sealed them with beeswax medium. Once heated and saturated both the top and the underside writing are revealed. Beginning small and experimenting my intention was to peel up a few built up layers of wax fold them while malleable and cut shallow cross sections to attach in some way to the panel. It was new and exciting, and near the end of the day I cut into my masonite board too deeply, broke it and had to stop. Before I left for the day I thought I would try and repair the board with some joint compound and continue the next morning.
The next day brings fresh eyes and what I saw blew me away! The painting was all in earth tones, the joint compound had dried and cracked resembling the desert ground. The rolled pieces of wax that sat beside the damaged board were asking to be place on top. I fused them on and knew it was done! My first encaustic relief is called Drought and began this series. Working in relief with encaustic was like the invention of a new color for me! It was a revelation and I was stimulated to learn this new language.
Using text in my work is part of my artist vocabulary, and I began to think of how we all carry around obstacles and doubts, that we need to work through. The layering of wax had that covering and hiding quality that accentuates the passing of time when cross sections of the layers are revealed. My attention and focus was alive and the layering process would begin with text of fears and doubts, or old letters. What you see here is a result of 2 years of developing this idea.
Stephanie Roberts-Camello 2017
Discovering a box of old family letters in my family's basement would change the way I painted and how I thought about my work. There were stacks of letters bound in twine according to who sent them. They dated back as far as 1919 through 1946. Many of these letters reference the dust bowl days of Texas and the Great Depression. I come from a family of cattlemen and farmers who were dependent on the weather for their survival. Loss of crops due to droughts and tough conditions in raising cattle are common themes coupled with money problems. These problems are not mine, but I couldn't help relate them to obstacles and set backs that we all have.
Encaustic is a medium that can be worked flat or sculpturally. One of its many attributes is it can retain any stress mark or scrape once it cools. It has an innate feature for documentation. These letters; represent a period of suffering, loss and endurance in our country, and for me, the intricately-worked encaustic shrouds became metaphors for struggle and change. Layers of wax literally cover up the past.
I peel them back to reveal a portion of what once was. Revealed, exhumed, manipulated, up-ended, exposed-all of these actions give me a sense of freedom, and the ability to step outside myself. Seemingly destructive to the surface, the peeling plays a positive roll in removing a build up and seeing what has been lying dormant. It holds a stratum of time much like the earths core. The depth created working this way is jarring to me, confrontational, alluring and frightening. There is risk involved, but the presence of this relief work conveys a sense of resilience and life which keeps me returning. It speaks with a boldness and beauty which is also fragile. This opposition between image/content and material is the catalyst for the development of my encaustic relief series. This work continues to evolve as I find new ways to shed light on the past that enlightens and informs the future.
Stephanie Roberts-Camello earned a BFA in painting form Rhode Island School of Design in 1985. She was awarded a residency at The Vermont Studio Center in 2016 and 1997. The article "Thriving on Experimentation" by Flavia Cigliano featured Stephanie's encaustic relief work in the March/April 2018 issue of Artscope Magazine. Her Painting "The Breakaway" won the Centerfold in the March/April 2016 issue of Artscope magazine. Her work is featured in the 2015/2016 winter issue of The Surface Design Journal in an article called "Memory, Spirit, and Gender: Existential Themes in Fiber and Wax" written by Joanne Mattera. In 2016 and 2013 she was awarded scholarships to attend the International Encaustic Conference in Provincetown, Ma. She has shown extensively in the Northeast, winning many awards in juried shows. Her paintings are in the collection of Meditech and Minz Levin,Enkaustikos, as well as many private collections.