Monday, June 24, 2013

SERENDIPITY IN NORTH CAROLINA

The first summer we set out for Asheville, North Carolina, a friend told me that we were embarking on a busman’s holiday–after all, The Mountain here at Sewanee is 2,000 feet, and we enjoy the same type of scenery in Tennessee. What she didn’t understand was that we needed a “shot of the city” and its culture after living four months in a village of 2,000 people.
For writers who need stimulus, Asheville offers the best of mountain destinations. In 2010 and 2011, The American Style Magazine named Asheville among ten top artists’ destinations, and in 2010, the city claimed the top place on this list. Our first visit to the River Arts District in Asheville confirmed that report, and our visual senses were treated to a plethora of unique art work in ceramics, fiber, glass, jewelry, metal, paint, prints, photography, stone, and wood.
For four years we’ve haunted the district where 175 artists display their work in 24 different historic buildings, most of which are warehouse type studios where artists engage visitors while they work at their craft. Many of the artists have been drawn to and inspired by the Blue Ridge Mountain landscape, which is represented in paintings, sculptures, and photographs.
We wandered into the studio of Constance Williams, an expressionist encaustic painter whose work fascinated me, and within five minutes, the artist and I had connected–as poets and artists often do. Constance, eager to instruct us about the encaustic process, gave us a short course on the luminous art pieces in her studio, explaining that she uses hot fluid paint, a blow torch, and fireproof tools to create conceptual pieces that appear to have captured her subconscious for a complex, poetic effect.
Constance is originally from Somerset, England and dropped out of a course in advanced art because she wanted to veer off course and try new approaches to art. She moved to London, and later migrated to the U.S. where she found her way to the mountains of North Carolina in 2004, working on clay sculpture, then began rendering encaustic paintings. As she had a background of working with clay and knowledge of firing glazes and stains multiple times, encaustic painting was a natural medium for her. She uses a blowtorch to fuse and work on dozens of layers of wax, damar tree resin and pigment, and a brush on birch wood substrates, to achieve an impression of reflecting light out to the viewer from translucent layers. She moves the blowtorch flame continually and manipulates carving and incising tools to create arresting designs.
The technique of encaustic painting was used in Fayum mummy portraits in Egypt in 100-300 A.D., and the word “encaustic” derives from the Greek word “enkalen,” meaning “to “burn into.” Encaustic artists painted on walls and statues, even hulls of ships to waterproof them and to enhance the ships with artistic design. During the 17th century encaustic painting became a popular medium for the indigenous tribe of Samar Island. Also, during the muralism movement in Mexico, Diego Rivera sometimes used encaustic techniques in his paintings. The technique has burgeoned since the 1990’s, and Constance is among the top artists working in this medium.
Her artist’s statement is a simple one: “Inspiration always exists for me, and it finds me working every day…to create a tactile and emotional response, to open the mind to a world beyond the obvious…” A conversation with her is an adventure in learning about incising, scraping, burning, making luminous sensual effects. A warm, affable person, Constance initiates lively conversations with viewers and gives them lessons in encaustic technique, as well as the story about the artist who created the work. She has created both small and large art forms, some of which can be found at the historic Grove Park Inn in Asheville. A world traveler, she spends most of her time in Asheville and has a second home in Bermuda.
Constance has been featured in Verve Magazine, The New York Times, North Carolina Home and Garden Magazine, and various other publications. Her gallery was filmed in 201l for the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau’s tourism campaign, and she served as president of Asheville’s historic River Arts District from 2010-2011. In addition to these credits, she’s a wonderful “people person” and believes in engaging with her viewers when they visit her gallery. I came away from the encounter with a small abstract encaustic painting she gave to me and which is now displayed in the living room of our cottage here at Sewanee.
As I often write ekphrastic poetry–poems that are a response to viewing a painting–I was inspired by this gifted Asheville artist to write the following poem about my prize encaustic painting:
  
UPON VIEWING AN ENCAUSTIC PAINTING BY CONSTANCE WILLIAMS

We swim in the open sea,
gnarled outlines of moon shells,

organ and bone within a dream,
raised sludge forms

revealing contortions of the brain
from which we sprang.

And what are we?
How do we enter the doors

of narrow houses carved
at the bottom of the frame,

saved from solitary life?

They are the frames of places
where we have dared to come on land,

shapes pushing through to another world
to find holiness in everything,

where the air is celestial green,
the ocean, a flickering light,

and the Infinite indulges his play impulse,
his spidery lines defining many lives,

the world we lived in,
the world we live in.

And we will go on and on
despite the shadows whispering,

What are we doing here?
Why have we been summoned

to this provisional place...

this box of translucence on a wall? 
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