The first thing Elizabeth Guipe Hall shows me, when I pay a visit to her Harrison Center studio, is an encaustic collage she’s in the process of creating. The central image of the collage is a photograph of Mexican musicians in which colorful circular designs are embedded. Hall shot the photograph during a six-week-long trip to the Mexican state of Oaxaca last summer, a trip supported by a grant from the Lilly Endowment.
Many of the photos that she took on this excursion are incorporated into her collages that will appear at the Harrison Center for the Arts on Friday, May 6, 2011, in a show entitled Valley of the Zapoteca: New Work by Elizabeth Guipe Hall.
The photographs are the product of the class she took in Oaxaca with Mary Ellen Mark, a world-famous documentary photographer. But taking these photos was only the first step in her process. After working with her digital photographs in Photoshop and Coreldraw, she prints her images onto Japanese printmaking paper.
“It’s thin and it’s strong,” she says. “And it becomes transparent when I embed it in wax.”
Normally, Hall melds a photographic image with wax, using the heat from a heat gun, onto a plain white board. But for this show — “Because in Mexico the color is just in your face,” she says — she first drew and painted abstract designs on her boards in charcoal and in watercolor before melding the photographic images onto the board surfaces with wax.
“I also cut negative pieces out of the photos to bring the background forward,” she explains. “And then I start adding color on. And every time you add a layer of wax or a color of wax you have to fuse the colors. The wax is my glue and my paint. It’s everything.”
This process of adding clear and colored wax continues after a photographic image is fixed onto a board and gives her work a certain sculptural three-dimensionality into which she can, say, carve crevices in the wax surfaces.
Hall grabs a heat gun and demonstrates for me on one work-in-progress how the wax becomes soft under the stream of hot air. She has a pair of hot plates nearby on which she heats pans of beeswax and adds resin, which hardens and tempers the wax — either clear or colored wax — that she paints onto her boards with a brush. (Hall also works with a blow torch and you can see her doing this on her website, http://elizabethguipehall.com.)
“It’s all about layering and heat,” she says.
Stumbling into the encaustic medium
Encaustic painting stretches back to the time of Ancient Greek antiquity but it’s a method that seems perfectly suited for her process that incorporates 21st century digital photography. It’s a type of artwork that Hall, currently an art teacher at the Ben Davis Ninth Grade Center, stumbled into.
“I finished my Master’s in 2002,” she says. “That was in ceramics at the University of Indianapolis. I had been doing mixed media pieces of art, but I was also doing ceramics. So somehow, I had to figure out a way to meld the two. So I was taking slabs of clay and trying to make them look like mixed media paintings using clay materials. And along with clay you’re able to scratch the surface, have texture and things like that.
“I was working at a school that didn’t have access to a kiln,” she continues. “I didn’t have a way to fire anything. But I still wanted to have that sort of malleable surface that I could drop into and have lines in. And I was poking around in a supply closet and there was beeswax. I’m sure it was for batik because it was like dark brown. So then I was putting wax over acrylic paintings which is a big no-no. It doesn’t adhere. And then I started just researching.”
After receiving an Indiana Arts Commission grant in 2006, Hall went to Cape Cod and took an encaustic workshop. “And that sort of reinforced some things that I’d figured out through those years on my own and it taught me a couple of other techniques… And then I fell in love with the stuff.”
Teaching and creating art
Hall’s life as a high school art teacher and as an artist are, like the mediums in her finished collages, hard to separate. The grant that allowed her to travel to Oaxaca, in fact, was a Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellowship. These fellowships allow Indiana public and private school teachers to pursue projects that are "personally renewing and intellectually revitalizing," to quote the Teacher Creativity Fellowship website, www.teachercreativity.org.
“When I wrote the grant, my intent was to learn Spanish. I actually started taking some classes here in Indianapolis before we went. Because I have a lot of Spanish speaking students that come from all over Mexico, Central America and South America, I wanted to get some sort of feeling for their culture. I wanted to have some way to connect to those kids. To be able to say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve been there,’ instead of just things I’ve just seen in pictures or things I’ve seen on the Internet, to make them feel more welcome in my classroom.”
Hall, along with her two children, spent six weeks in the Oaxaca Valley, the home to the Zapotec people who ruled much of Mexico before being conquered first by the Aztecs and then by the Spanish. (Hall’s husband joined them two weeks into the trip).
During her photography course, in the village of Teotitlan de Valle, she captured an image of band members — two trumpet players and a trombone player — leading a procession of 100 or so young girls through the village announcing the beginning of the Fiesta de la Preciosa Sangre de Cristo (Festival of the Precious Blood of Christ) that lasted from July 1-5, 2010. That photo is the foundational image of the collage that Hall was working on when I first walked into her studio. Another collage appearing in her upcoming show relates to a dance that took place during the festival, “Danza de la Pluma.”
My favorite collage in her batch of new work is “Santo Domingo,” featuring a photograph of the interior of a Oaxaca City cathedral. It takes a few seconds to see the form of the dome of this church through abstract geometric forms and purplish reds that seem to shimmer like refracted sunlight. For me, the work conveys the kind of peace and serenity you might feel in such a place after stepping into such a sanctuary arriving, say, from a hot, crowded sidewalk.
But most of Hall’s works for her upcoming show are brighter than this particular collage.
“A lot of people complain that sometimes my colors are too dark,” she says. “Coming back here I didn’t realize how intense things were there… And now I understand [the Mexican-American neighborhoods of] East Washington Street and West Washington Street with the green and the red and the yellow.”
Editors note: Hall’s husband, Scott Hall, was a NUVO staff member in the ‘90s and occasionally contributes to our music section.