Wax layers reveal beauty and complexity in Kim Covell Maurer’s ‘Points of View’
The artist's new body of encaustic work is on display at Studios on High Gallery in the Short North
As a medium, encaustic painting can have a mind of its own, which is part of what drew Kim Covell Maurer to the art form. “It can be really cooperative, but it also is full of surprises,” she said. “That's what keeps me coming back to it. I've never quite figured it out, and I love that.”
Encaustic, which involves painting with heated, pigmented wax, is one of the oldest painting methods, dating back to ancient Greece. "The Greeks went over into Egypt and started doing funeral portraits on coffins, and that's how we really know about encaustic, because those were preserved. They don’t deteriorate with moisture,” Covell Maurer said, describing what are now known as the Fayum mummy portraits.
Encaustic saw a revival in the 20th century, partly thanks to American abstract artist Jasper Johns. Covell Maurer, who teaches art at Thomas Worthington High School, didn’t discover the medium until she went to grad school at the Art Academy of Cincinnati about 20 years ago. “I started studying it on my own because there was really nobody that knew anything about it. Nobody actually did it where I was studying,” she said.
After graduating, Covell Maurer attended encaustic workshops at R&F Paints in Kingston, New York, and studied with an encaustic artist in Queens. “It’s all about heat. My brush is a torch,” she said. “It can go very wrong or very beautifully in unexpected ways depending on the amount of heat, the closeness of the torch. Even on a warmer day or a cooler day it behaves differently,” she said.
Covell Maurer’s most recent body of encaustic work, “Points of View,” is on display now at Studios on High Gallery in the Short North. Working amid the pandemic, she began most pieces in the series by applying a paper map of Franklin County onto a wooden base, which she then covered with layers of beeswax. Sometimes the map substrate is clearly visible, sometimes barely visible, and sometimes it’s completely buried beneath the opacity of the wax. “One of the things I love about encaustic is that it can cover up and reveal at the very same time,” she said.
Much of the yellow-tinted beeswax comes from Deer Creek Honey Farms in London, Ohio, though sometimes friends will gift Covell Maurer beeswax from other states, which smell different and sometimes behave differently under heat. To make her own paints, Covell Maurer adds pigment to a white beeswax and resin mix from R&F Paints.
In “Points of View,” beautiful, vibrant, red-purple orchid shapes pop on the textured, green-yellow gradations of wax. “Orchids grow in almost every environment in the world. ... I'm interested in how they are thought to be these really delicate, difficult things, but they're actually very adaptive,” said Covell Maurer, who described an orchid of her own that seemed like it would never bloom again. And yet, while working on this series, new flowers appeared, though not because she did anything special to it. “I kind of left it alone,” she said. “I put it outside and just didn't fuss over it too much."
Covell-Maurer outlined the orchids with India ink — a new technique prompted by the anxious mood of the pandemic. “I needed something that was very calming,” she said. “The India ink on the wax is super fluid and super smooth. This is a very physical process and, you know, it's just been a tough year and a half.”
Out of that calm place, new ideas began emerging. Orchids started to suggest the shape of a uterus. In one piece, India ink outlines the shape of one of the most gerrymandered districts in Texas.
Still, Covell Maurer doesn’t want these more politicized undercurrents to define this body of work. Rather than representing the principal thrust of the pieces, these aspects act more like allusions or hidden-in-plain-sight Easter eggs. “I felt like I needed to work with the ideas, but I didn't want to be overt about it,” she said. “I’ve always been more on the side of abstraction, even though there's some representation in the work.”
The ideas and imagery that began creeping into Covell Maurer’s ink and wax speak to an ever-present tension in her work. “I don't mind if somebody else makes art that's just beautiful; I'm attracted to a lot of that artwork. But I also love work that has something else going on in it. It’s an issue for my work. I'm always thinking, can it just be beautiful?” she said. “I think I have to have something else going on in it.”