‘Big Bad Wax’ at Mount Dora Center for the Arts 

Powerful exhibit of encaustic works does Mount Dora proud


through March 2 | Mount Dora Center for the Arts, 138 E. Fifth Ave., Mount Dora | 352-383-0880 | | free

In the arts-and-antiques trade, tiny Mount Dora, just under an hour away from Orlando, wins for the most clogged-up sidewalks full of weekend seekers of treasure. But while much of the town revels in a mishmash of kitsch, the Mount Dora Center for the Arts currently offers an excellent show bringing national artists together. The Center, housed in a Victorian storefront facing Donnelly Park, has an old-school feel, with studios above and a gallery-shop combo opening onto the shady, tree-lined street. Hanging there through March 2 is Big Bad Wax, a juried exhibit of sensuous, delicious encaustic wax paintings and sculpture. “Of over 250 entries, our jury selected about 38 powerful pieces,” says Gary Hopcraft, an artist and board member of Mount Dora Center for the Arts.

Encaustic is an ancient art medium that gives the artist an opportunity to blend hot wax and pigment. The wax intensifies the coloring and softens the artwork at the same time, creating deep, fleshy textures and vibrant colors under a glossy surface. Kellie Weeks’ “Apparition I” has a soft, milky-white surface invaded by rust-colored threads and misshapen gray forms, abstract but gorgeously warm, like the memory of a wonderful dream.

Maria Lara-Whelpley, from Redding, Conn., is the only artist in Big Bad Wax who experimented with light in encaustic, creating “Nudoso” out of wax, paper, wire and an LED light string. (She actually dipped a whole bunch of coffee filters into the wax, strung them together like flowers on a lei, and tied them in a huge knot.) The ethereal light glowing through the filters changes their nature, making a ruffle-like solid, and heightens one’s sense of the fragility of this medium. Lara-Whelpley’s work was awarded second place in this juried show.

The blue ribbon went to Russell Thurston from Santa Fe, N.M., for “Schematic,” a wood panel covered with encaustic, paper and oil. Its flat composition of earth tones is not so much an abstraction of an otherwise dull flowchart, but rather a highly nuanced color field overlaying tinctures of ochre and rose, indigo and sienna. Inside some of the flowchart diagrams he hides skeletons, eyes and a child’s hand, a narrative lurking within luminous fields of color.

Encaustic produces wall-hung art that is not quite sculpture, but more than just flat painting, making it a fascinating enigma. Sculpture is in this show as well, with Laura Little’s “Seductive Alterations,” a strip of carpet dipped in beeswax and artfully undulating on a long pedestal. Next to that piece is Pamala Crabb’s “Turquoise Silk,” which is, of course, silk dipped in wax.

There is something so sincere about encaustic, it seems unable to produce a work with bitterness or irony. Even Judith O’Donnell’s “Wax Man,” a flayed, skeletal figure seemingly vivisected and on display, isn’t horrible; it evokes a certain bittersweet pathos in the viewer, the glistening wax somehow making this thing pitiable.

Too briefly on display, Big Bad Wax needs to be seen to remind us that the pure visual delight of fine art is enough in itself. These works are indeed big and bold, and the melted wax will touch even the coldest of hearts with a tactile delight that is sublimely refreshing in these jaded, cynical times.

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