Sarah Petite was interviewed by Mark Kilfoil on July 3rd, 2019. Listen to the full interview here.
MK: So, welcome Sarah. Welcome back to the show, actually. We spoke a couple of years ago in-studio I think, and you’re back in the Barracks this year doing more of the encaustic painting, is that right?
SP: That’s right, yeah.
MK: So I verily remember what that is, but for those who don’t know, what is encaustic painting?
SP: It’s paints whose medium is beeswax, melted beeswax, whereas with oil paints it would be linseed oil, which is the sticky stuff that holds it together and makes it paint.
MK: Is it a paint though? The stuff right in front of me here is really thick. Is it more like a sculpture?
SP: When it’s hot, it’s like wet paint. And when it’s cool, which happens within seconds, it’s dry. You could paint it instantly on a wall. When it’s cool, it also behaves like wax, so you can do this sort of cutting and sculpting stuff; intermediate between, you can go hot, cold, hot, cold. So what I’m doing here is I’m working on plywood, and I began by painting five coats of a base colour, which brings it to about a millimetre thick or more. And I can cut out lines and little tiles right back to the wood, and then I go to the hot wax, which is melting in little cans on my hotplate there, and pick another colour, fill the places I dug out, and then with a scraper, you take off the top layer so that it gets down to where the join is. It ends up looking like inlay. And that’s the basis for most of the initial execution of the painting. There’s other stuff that happens along the way, but that begins it all; that makes the picture.
MK: So do you approach it like a painter, or do you approach it like a sculpture? Because you’re really building layers and taking away things as you are putting them in.
SP: I would say I approach it like a painter because, in the end, it isn’t particularly sculptural. The brushwork stands out a little bit, and is very beautiful; it’s unique to encaustic, it has a nice lustre to it, and you can see the brushwork. But I don’t try to do anything that sticks out or has a three-dimensional aspect to it.
MK: You sort of have this unique ability to be able to carve it a bit, and then do inlays. I’m sure in the painting world, that has to be something looked upon with jealousy, because now you can literally carve into your painting and put these layers in later.
SP: As far as I know, I have met a fair number of other people who work in encaustic. But I have never met anyone who does it like this. People love the colour of beeswax, and most of the encaustic painters don’t put a great deal of pigment in, and really love the semi-transparent look of painting. So, it becomes an aspect of the paintings, but I’ve never met anyone who has… I may have distantly heard of someone’s practice that suggested they had fallen onto the same thing, but I have never actually seen any others, so so far I’m alone in my field, as far as I know.
MK: This seems to be something that an artist would be looking for, as a way to be distinguished among many different artists.
SP: Absolutely. It shouldn’t be the number one goal, but it is handy sometimes to have a party trick, if you will.
MK: How did you start down that route if no one else was doing it?
SP: We’re going back thirty years, but I liked encaustic because of its antiquity, and its purity and simplicity. It goes back to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. It’s one of the first methods of painting that was devised. You do this painting, and it makes you feel curious about “could I do this a little differently?” And you get drawn on and drawn on from painting to painting, and mistakes can lead to developing a technique. You see something, and it does have a mind of its own. You say “Hey, look at that. I wonder if… etc,” and you go from painting to painting, and so it kind of spaced out all the other media, and I became completely devoted to working with encaustic. One of the reasons an artist will stick with on medium is that the medium requires the accumulation of a lot of interesting gear. If I woke up one morning and said “I want to go back to painting in oils, I’d have to change my whole studio, get a whole new set of supplies, and stash away all my hotplates and everything like that. When you’ve got a studio that’s set up for doing another encaustic painting, that’s one of the practical reasons why you keep going. And you probably became curious as you were working on the one painting to take it another step, and do another variation on the theme. It leads you from painting to painting, year after year.
MK: And so are you then pigmenting your own wax?
SP: Yeah, I get powdered pigments, which other artists will use if they’re making home-made paints. You can make your own oil paints, and your own egg tempera, so these are powdered pigments that I’m currently mail ordering from Montréal, and so when there’s an occasional trip to London, England, there’s a tiny little store over there. If I happen to be there, it’s my treat while I’m there. And you don’t go through them very fast, so I’ve got jars and jars that I’ve had for years. Beeswax I get from the Bee Store down in Majorville here, and it’s rising in price; we all know that the bees are not in very good shape. Nobody knows how long I will be able to keep getting beeswax that I can afford. So there may come a time when I have to find a new medium, but so far I’m doing alright.
MK: It’s an odd environmental effect on having to do art.
SP: Yeah. It really hangs on whether we manage to defeat Monsanto and save the bees.
MK: So describe the work you’re working on. You’ve got a piece of plywood here, it’s cut into a very particular shape. What is that shape meant to represent?
SP: This shape has a twin that fits into it. And they’re sort of like two puzzle pieces that fit in together. I’m working with 3/4-inch plywood, and a few years ago, I got tired of what I call “The Tyranny of the Rectangle.” Paintings are square, or rectangular; a painter doing a landscape on a canvas has got to obey the outlines of the canvas to fit the trees and everything. It has to obey the drop-off at the top, bottom, and sides. Using that principle, and being very bored with rectangles, I started cutting out some really interesting, beautiful, basically geometric shapes; things, for example, with a triangular hole in the middle of them, with a triangle piece that fits in. And all hunked together on the back with little mending plates. The project I call it is “The Line with the Cannon,” which means that the line, being the outward shape of the panel, along with various cutouts with the saw… The line that you can’t erase, it establishes the beginning of the painting, and then the rest of the painting, which in most cases is a geometric abstract, has to work with that and do something interesting with it. Sometimes you’ll have a shape that comes to a crack in the painting, and it shifts a little. It slides down the slope a little, or something like that. So the line becomes part of the painting, and all the shapes and effects in the painting are sort of bumped up. It’s as if you came to a fence and had to jump over it, and you were a little different, or a little off-centre, or a slightly different colour when you got to the other side of the fence.
MK: The parkour of painting, almost. Where you’re trying to find the path you want, and the intention is there, but it’s modified by the terrain.
SP: Yeah, and I suppose if you made one statement about my approach to making art, it is that it’s kind of a study of the human will. It’s a study of how we negotiate, not just with other people, but within ourselves, as if we were two people. And what is it that makes you decide to do the next thing? Anybody working on a painting, every time they add to the painting, it changes the painting, so you’ve got a new painting to react to, so it’s reaction, reaction, reaction all the way through. And the painting gradually builds up, and back when I was doing paintings that were based on game-boards, because I like the dynamic of a game of chess, for example, I would say that building the painting up was like playing chess against yourself. Every time a piece moves, you have a new kind of reaction you have to make, and it gradually gets more established and complex and balanced. So you move through a painting in that way.
MK: Do you take a long time sort of meditating on what’s gonna go forward? Or are you looking and reacting to qualities of the wood or accidental cut? How does that process play out?
SP: It’s complex, and there are periods when I’m really keen to start a painting but other things that are going on in life keep me out of the studio for a while, so I’ll be taking a walk and sort of sketching in my head. These paintings I’ve been doing recently require a good deal more pre-sketching and planning on paper and printing things out in the printer and making master drawings and things like that. Because you don’t want to just let yourselves be spontaneous, it just wouldn’t work. But you get to a certain stage halfway through the painting when you’re content with the way it’s going, and you can begin to loosen up, and be spontaneous, and put the music on, and really feel the way the paint is going. I was saying that when encaustic is hot, it’s wet; it’s very wet. It’s sort of like painting with poster paints or house paints. It’s sloppy, it’s very wet, and it’s beautiful to watch going on, and it’s dry within seconds. So, you tend to work rather frantically and fast when you’re doing that stage of it. So encaustic is a lovely combination of planned, carefully thought out pre-sketches, and then the spontaneous can kick in, so it has these nice stages to it.
MK: So you’re keeping your wax hot this entire time while you’re doing this process too, right?
SP: Yeah, what I’m doing right now is carving out all these little triangles back to the wood, and one of the interesting things about encaustic is that it doesn’t matter how humid the weather is, but it does matter how warm it is. It’s very sensitive to just a few differences in degrees in temperature. It’s cool in here today, and these little triangles are just coming up quite brittle, so I have to be very careful. So what I’m doing is keeping the hotplate on with the filling colour. The base colour is a dark grey, and the filling colour is a really pretty pale blue, and I am filling it as I go, so I’ll do a few inches, cut out, and then I can paint the hot paint in, which stabilizes the thing in case I drag my elbow across it or something.
MK: And how big a pallet do you typically work with? Right now you have two colours; is that typical?
SP: One of the interesting things is when I started thirty years ago with encaustic, I was moving from oil paints, and I just thought of encaustic as being like oils, and all these other cutting techniques that introduce themselves later. But one of the interesting things was that I would have a hotplate which will hold twenty little cans of colour, and the pallet was very large, I was just picking colours. But now it’s just been part of the recent practice that my pallet is a whole lot smaller, and if a painting has four colours in it, that’s extravagant. So far I’ve just got two colours on this, and maybe this will be the first two-colour painting I ever do. But I imagine a third colour, or some sort of modulation of colour will begin to come about. One of the interesting techniques I came on to a couple years ago was that one of the pigments is very fine graphite, which you can mix with hot wax and make a dark-grey colour, but that would be kinda boring and it doesn’t work terribly well that way. But if the painting is cool and still a little bumpy, you can use a make-up brush and brush the dry graphite onto the painting, and scrub it back a little bit with very fine steel wool, or rub it in with a soft cloth, and you can get quite a beautiful effect. It’s a recent discovery, and some of the other metallic pigments like silver, which is really coloured aluminum, but with which I have to wear a mask, and the gold colours, which are made of powdered bronze I think. You can do those kinds of effects as well. That’s one of the most recent discoveries I made; I’m sure there’s gonna be more.
MK: Again, it sounds like this interesting cross between painting and sculpture; there’s the surface sculpture, and the surface manipulation elements.
SP: The surface is never absolutely smooth; they’ve always got some little grooves and bumps and things, so you can actually make that more visible by adding something like graphite.
MK: Why plywood? Is there a particular reason? Just happens to be inexpensive and easy to work with?
SP: Well, wood as opposed to canvas, which oil painters paint on. Because of all the cutting and gouging, of course. In the beginning I worked on pine boards, and they would have a tendency to bend and curve and warp, and sometimes that’s really wonderful, but for these cutout-shaped paintings, recently, it’s just been that plywood make that kind of thing possible. I get good one side, nothing too fancy. In fact, if you got a plywood with a really hardwood veneer on it, it would not hold the paint as well, so I go a little down-market, which is good. Artists always like to buy something cheaper.
MK: Art can be inexpensive, but now with the beeswax going up in price, saving money can definitely make a difference. You say there’s two pieces to this one. What is the vision of this piece?
SP: Well, they wanted us to do the theme of “Trees” this year, and I said well, I’m used to doing completely abstract work, I think I could find a way. I’ve got these three paintings, where the patterns are all prepared, and one of them is going to be a palm tree, and the one I’m working on is going to be a boreal forest with all the spruce trees, and the third one will be a big spreading oak, and the pieces are all cut out and ready to go, and they suggest these three trees, and I will allow myself to be quite abstract in my expression of them. But I think they’ll be recognizable, and I think they’ll be kind of fun to sidestep from the original abstractions too.
MK: So we’re coming towards the end here, and not surprising at all, we had a conversation several years ago that was entirely different, and I think that’s amazing. How much has changed for you in this practice since we last talked four or five years ago? Has it been one of those things where you knew elements had been added or is it more refinement of skills? I think you were doing the game-boards.
SP: Yeah, the game-boards were my introduction to abstraction, which I had always wanted to do; it was sort of a heart-and-soul thing, which I had always wanted to approach. And I didn’t know how to make an abstract painting, and I, probably like a lot of artists, would be doing figurative work, still-life’s and cityscapes, whatever, and say “I think I’ll do an abstract, and you thought it was gonna be like a holiday; a moment of play when you didn’t have to make that building look like a building and you could relax, but it’s not like that at all. Abstract paintings I did in that spirit were… I didn’t know what I was doing, I felt really sort of unmoored, and I wanted to know how one does an abstract painting with real authority, so I had to teach myself how to do it, and I always loved the game-boards; there’s an antiquity to them as well, and clearly, geometric shapes were important, so they tied together. So I started marching my way through one chessboard and some of the other ancient ones one after the other, and it was a really wonderful period, and it did begin to ground me in what goes into the thought process and the structure of an abstract painting, and then there was a period which I called “The Ghost Games,” which meant that I was starting to cut loose a little bit, but the thought of the games kept kind of hanging over me, and some of them sort of looked half like game-boards, but not quite. And then you drift a little farther, and shortly after that… Well, game-boards are rectangular; they tend to be square, and so the old reaction to all those rectangles reared its head again, and I said “this is what I’m gonna do next, I’m gonna start cutting out beautiful shapes.” And you cut out one of these shapes so beautiful, you almost don’t want to paint it. It’s a really wonderful start to a painting. That’s the trajectory, that’s how it kind of works.
MK: And now you’ve come full circle to abstract being the way that you do everything.
SP: And here this week, abstract is trying to look like a tree.
MK: So where can people find out more about your art? What’s the best place, either online or is there a gallery somewhere?
SP: I have a kinda-nice website which narrates much of what I’ve been telling you, with some nice artists statements and things. That’s www.sarahpetite.com. And I’ve got some painting over at the gallery on Queen St. as well, and I’m one of the artists who is going to be featured at the Marion McCain Atlantic Art Exhibition in the fall, sometime in October I believe.
MK: Very cool. Well thank you very much for sharing the art and scraping below the surface into some of the ways this stuff has created, thank you.
SP: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.
Charlotte Simmons, FAA Summer Events Coordinator 2019