May 13th, 2020
NOTES FROM THE STUDIO CHAIR—”SALT PILGRIM” by Shawna Moore
I had a frustrating experience recently involving the purpose and meaning of my work. A family friend who lives at the edge of Kaneohe Bay on the island of Oahu had commented to my husband that he just didn’t “get” my art. This is a man who has spent his life on the water, gazing across wind ripples, surfing and sailing blue waves, managing a home on the water over a lifetime and even he didn’t “get it.” What?
My husband, in his loyalty, told his friend that for many years even he hadn’t “gotten it” either — until he saw photos of the paintings in beautiful homes. He told his friend the paintings really look great once you get them in houses. This got me thinking about what I do, and if I am doing enough to help people “get it.”
Would these guys understand what these paintings were about if I gave them a bit more information?
First of all, I am going to give myself a huge pass as I realize it is not my job to make sure every one “gets” what I do. These guys are athletes. They watch sports on TV, they didn’t have an art teacher mom (as I did), and did not go to art school — and they spend their time planning their next adventure. Maybe they won’t ever “really get it.” The discussion of art can easily becomes esoteric with words like sublime, liminal, and formal dropped like smart bombs into causal conversations at gallery openings. Not everyone even wants to “get it.”
I also must admit that I have always known that not everyone understands, “gets,” or even cares about what I do. Knowing this, I have pushed against the dismissal that things must have an easily understood function or must be useful.
My art has been my secret language, a fetish, a clandestine relationship that doesn’t make sense to almost anyone in the small ski towns where I have lived.
Do you know someone who is obsessed with mountain biking, skiing, or purchasing outdoor equipment? Well, it is kind of like that. I don’t ask why a person can ski almost everyday without getting bored, I try to “get it” for them. It is how they scratch that itch, and feel most alive.
So with all that being said, and in preparation for the new work being created in 2020, I am offering detailed descriptions of each painting I make. Real or imagined, each piece has some narrative structure that carries it from its origin as an empty wooden panel waiting patiently in the studio to a piece which feels like water, or an Indian blanket, or once I even made a painting that reminded me of the inside of my Grandmother’s purse.
I am starting with “Salt Pilgrim,” a 60″ x 60″ encaustic painting currently on display at Gallery MAR in Park City, Utah.
For the last several years I have taken my fascination with the horizon line, and I have structured my panels with multiple horizontals that imply the repetition of waves, the swell of the ocean, which are simple rhythms of ordering space or the evaporation of water in a salt flat.
Recently, I was listening to a story about the possible effects of an increased and hardened southern U.S. Border with Mexico. Those impacted by this would be indigenous people who had crossed the “border” for centuries to collect salt. This process had become ritualized and the story described these people as “salt pilgrims.” That term stuck with me as I contemplate hard borders, and what being restricted feels like. Indigenous people once viewed the land as “one robe” — not individual separate pieces.
This curiosity about division, unity, human movement, seeking essential elements and what borders or obstacles we overcome to become our true selves is interesting to me. As I thought about this concept, I realized I too have become a salt pilgrim. I have fallen in love with the ocean, warm salt water, speaking Spanish, and the culture and thrill of surfing. Does immersion in salt water actually make me younger, or does it just feel like it? Salt therapy is a new treatment for respiratory aliments and skin issues. Gandhi’s anti-colonial salt harvesting protests in India directly confronted the taxing and restriction of elements necessary to basic life. They don’t say “salt of the earth,” for nothing!
I started my painting “Salt Pilgrim” by painting with layers of white encaustic and gesso on a custom-made birch panel. Horizontal divisions are drawn onto the panel, and then built up structurally with wax; there are actually gaps and ridges which hold the colors. Encaustic paint is a mix of beeswax, damar varnish (a tree sap) and highly-concentrated premium pigments. I used blues, light greens and grey as I built up the color relationships — with the evaporation of water in my mind. Each layer is painted, and then fused with a torch to the next, so that they adhere to one another.
Once the gaps and ridges begin to fill in and hold these layers of color I add the “salt.” What I mean by this is that I cover the entire panel with white. I use thinner, more transparent cool whites and heavier bodied warmer whites to make this top surface ripple. From start to finish, this can take up to three weeks. I use about ten pounds of wax. The most exciting and risky part of the painting process is the gradual removal of the “salt,” or white layer. I excavate back into the history of the built-up colors. Bit by bit the flecks of blue and green come to the surface. I scrape and fuse and scrape and fuse until there is enough color showing, and the surface becomes smooth and glossy from the pressure of scraping and the effects of heating.
Locked inside my studio, I have become the salt pilgrim.
I have shared an experience with the native people of Arizona and Mexico, understood the drive to find the Endless Summer, and created something that is deeply personal and expressive. Even writing this, I have a deeper understanding of what my work is about. I am starting to “get it!”
Editor’s note: Shawna Moore is also a practiced yoga instructor. Take a class yourself, with Moore as your guide: https://shawnamoore.com/2020/04/19/creative-practice-at-home/