The Pacific Art League is offering a wide range of classes this fall in traditional media like painting, photography, watercolor and pastels. But there is a medium you may have never heard of: encaustic monotype. A relatively new process that involves the use of heat and beeswax-infused pigments, encaustic monotype will be a major focus at the venerable art center with workshops, a class and a solo exhibition of work by Los Altos artist Lonnie Zarem.
The exhibition, entitled "Footprints of the Ephemeral," is on view from Sept. 9 through. 26 throughout the PAL building, located on Ramona Street in Palo Alto. The show will feature 20 new prints by Zarem, many of them large-scale. During an interview with the artist at her home studio, it became apparent that both the technique and size of her work are pretty groundbreaking — and that she is passionate about sharing her love of the medium.
Although she always loved to draw and "make things with my hands," Zarem became an artist fairly recently. She laughingly described how she would have a crafts table always on hand for her three sons and would wait until they were in bed to create herself. Her early career as owner of a technology marketing company in southern California made use of her undergraduate degree in Economics from UC Irvine. In 2002, she decided to pursue her love of art by getting another undergraduate degree from San Jose State University. Since then, she has been working steadily, participating in group shows and also teaching at the Pacific Art League.
She had used encaustic materials in her abstract paintings but was looking for something else to inspire her. When she heard of the encaustic monotype process, she knew it was something she had to try. "I liked it right away," she said. "It has so many elements that I like: it is like painting in layers, there is a full range of magnificent colors and I like to draw."
The process is, however, dependent upon having the right equipment, mainly the 16-by-32-inch hot box that is used to melt the pigment sticks. Zarem was happy to demonstrate exactly how the process works.
The hot boxes rely upon simple light bulbs to create the heat (around 175 degrees) under the anodized aluminum plate surface. Pigmented wax blocks are rubbed on the hot surface, melting and creating pools of color. Rice paper is then applied onto the surface, where, after gentle pressure from the hand, it absorbs the colors. The paper is pulled off and the result is a unique print. Zarem explained that, because she is so experienced in the process, she can plan an image in advance but, "The beauty is you always get a little surprise when you pull off the paper."
Zarem soon began to experiment with different pigments and papers and decided she wanted to work on a larger scale. She found someone who could build a very large box (the size of six standard boxes put together) in order to pull prints that reflect her memories of a recent trip to Iceland.
Capturing the fleeting moments of beauty found in nature is a continuous theme in Zarem's work, and Iceland provided nonstop inspiration. "People live their days by what the sky looks like," she said. The vastness and variability are expressed in layers of cool pastel tones in "Iceland Sky." In "Waterfall," undulating vertical strokes of blue and yellow form the downward rush of water. "There are millions of waterfalls in Iceland," she said, "I wanted to capture a sense of it being all over you, with colors underneath it." And in "Low Tide," she employed corpuscular daubs of translucent blue and bold shades of scarlet to portray the red seaweed that is particular to this region. "It was so beautiful and refreshing," she recalled.
She also finds inspiration close to home. "Tomato Starts" reflects the emerging fruit found in her own backyard garden. "Blue Thistle" resulted after a hike in Hollister at dawn and makes the common weed appear gloriously blue against a golden background. In this print and in others, Zarem is able to express herself in a more representational way by using graphite wax or charcoal to draw clearly defined lines. In "Rare Bloom," the leaves and stems of a potted plant are limned with realistic detail. The red flower, Zarem explained, appeared very unexpectedly one day after years of never blooming. "I had to capture the magenta blue in this flower."
Zarem is most animated when she talks about sharing her love of encaustic monotype with others. "It's a great medium for teaching because people get great satisfaction right away." She has taught numerous classes and workshops both at PAL and in her home studio but has always wanted a dedicated place for instruction. Thanks to a grant from the International Encaustic Artists Project and funding from PAL, she will inaugurate the first encaustic center on the West Coast this fall. Ten hot boxes will be available for student use and the first six- week class at the art league, scheduled to begin Oct. 18, is already completely filled.
PAL Executive Director Aly Gould said, "Our decision to establish this center stems from the increasing popularity of this unique art form in various parts of the country. We noticed that many of our artists were traveling outside of the area to attend workshops focused on encaustic monotype printing, and we saw an opportunity to bring this center to PAL as a way to cater to their needs and to attract new artists to this exciting medium. It is a true honor to have Lonnie Zarem, a nationally esteemed encaustic monotype artist, help us launch this endeavor."
Zarem predicts that students will find the process "quite addictive." "It brings out the creativity in people without them knowing it." Zarem said that her approach is to focus on the basic technique at first but then let students experiment with color, line and form. "I think the process in this medium can really work for so many people and add a lot of joy to their lives."
The growing interest in encaustic monotypes clearly pleases Zarem. "I am having the time of my life in my studio," she said. She frequently offers salons in her home and has a growing number of collectors of her work. And she continues to find inspiration in the quotidian. When asked to explain the title of her exhibition, she said, "I look for that one little moment when something is going on in the world that I might never see again. Beautiful things: that one sunset, the sky in Iceland. A moment there and gone. I find that in my fingertips and share it."
"Footprints of the Ephemeral" is on view Sept. 9-26 at the Pacific Art League, 668 Ramona St., Palo Alto. For more information about the exhibition or classes, visit pacificartleague.org.