This artist conversation features encaustic painter, mixed-media artist and instructor Andrea Bird.
A personal note…
It was Andrea Bird who first introduced me to encaustic painting. I have taken many workshops with her from 2002 – 2018. Much of what I share on the All Things Encaustic Blog, I first learned from Andrea.
By way of introduction…
Andrea and her artist husband Daniel Beirne established The Hive encaustic studio, at the Alton Mill in Caledon, Ontario where they ran workshops and displayed encaustic art. They also started Waxworks Encaustic Supplies to sell encaustic medium along with other supplies online. In 2012 Andrea was diagnosed with breast cancer. Almost five years later, after having gone through all the recommended treatments, her cancer came back. In 2017, she received her stage 4 diagnosis. Andrea and Dan left the Hive to focus on the time they had left together.
My Conversation with Artist Andrea Bird
Welcome, Andrea! I’m so happy to be able to chat with you today about your journey with encaustic painting
Can you tell us about the first time you encountered encaustic painting?
In American Art Magazine, I saw a detail of Michelle Stuart’s Paradisi: a garden mural – and knew, deep in my bones, that I had to learn how to do that! Check out that piece if you can, it’s incredible. But I had young children, and it took over a decade to find an encaustic course, at the Ontario College of Art and Design. (When I was a student there, from 1980-84, there was no one teaching or even talking about encaustic.) I went back for a one day workshop that changed the direction of my life and art. Love at first sight/smell/blowtorch!
Open Source Images:
Why encaustic? What made you fall in love with the medium.
You know!! The texture, the smell, the luminosity, the transparency/opaqueness of the colours, the depth of it, how it can hold collage, natural elements, how it meets the artist where they’re at… and yet also gently guides them forward into new territory. Oh – even the laborious process makes my heart sing! The blow torch, how cool is that? The iron, heat gun, the flowing spontaneity of what the wax will do, pulling us into new territory. The process of building up and scraping back, love that. It is a beautiful, sensuous, sensory medium, that – 20 years later, still makes my heart sing. I still love it, but with less energy, I am now finding ways to simplify the process, so that I can still do it.
How did you go about learning the encaustic painting process?
After that one day workshop, I just dove in… experimenting on my own for months, a year. There was no one around me using it, or teaching it, so I was on my own. In retrospect, that wasn’t a bad thing. I completely immersed myself in this medium, and made lots of mistakes/missteps…. but that is all part of the learning. In 2007, I went to the first-ever International Encaustic Conference and started teaching there the second year.
How did you earn the title Grandmother of Encaustic?
I started teaching soon after learning… as soon as people saw what I was doing, they started to ask me to teach. Before that, I’d been casually teaching collage, and so I began to teach encaustic as well. Eventually, I was really teaching mixed media workshops focusing on encaustic, in our beloved art school, ‘the hive’ (which ran from 2010-2018). I started teaching encaustic in 2001 and stopped in 2018. I’ve taught a lot of students, the last count was around 5,000. Many of them have gone on to teach as well. That gave me the title: grandmother of encaustic! LOL. Truly, I was one of the first doing this in Ontario, so became known.
What/Who have been your significant artistic influences?
My husband Daniel (www.danielbeirne.ca) has had the biggest and most lasting and important influence on me. Collaborating with him on mixed media and then encaustic pieces taught me more than I can express. I highly recommend collaborating with other artists… it’s a great exercise to have to articulate, out loud, your own artistic process. And listen to another do the same. His artistic sensibility is so finely tuned, I’ve learned to see with ‘Daneyes’, not only art, but the natural world as well. His art, both for walls and environmental sculptures, inspire me.
Michelle Stuarts work still makes my heart beat faster, and I like to go back and revisit it. She’s incredible! I also love the work of Richard Diebenkorn, Paul Klee, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Joan Mitchell, environmental artists like Richard Long, Nils Udo, Andy Goldsworthy, Chris Drury, Christo and Jeanne-Claude… oh the list goes on. There are more, and many of my students and teachers brought into the hive have inspired me as well. Too many to mention.
Artistic influences: life itself.
Have there been recurring themes in your work? Can you talk about what inspires your work – how have you set an intention for your own work or for shows you have organized?
Yes, there are recurring themes… our shared humanity, what it means to be alive on this planet at this time, the cycles of the natural world. Love, in in all its forms, beauty found even in what is difficult, and now, impermanence, dying, the cycles of life/death/life, vulnerability, finding beauty even now. Whatever is going on in my world is reflected back to me and others – in my art.
How these themes show up is in series: use of the grid/grid breaking apart, use of natural items (seeds, fasciae from trees, plants, soil, earth, found objects), carving in ‘X‘’s (which represent blowing a kiss through time), colour experimentation, from subtle to exuberant explosions of colour, putting things in and taking them out, using facsimiles of items by photographing them with the actual thing, dancing on the wax with charcoal on my feet (to get me out of my head and into my body/subconscious), embedding clothing into the wax (started with my grandmothers wedding dress and continued with many other pieces including my christening gown/underslip), another series involved photocopies of photographs of trees with the ‘roots’ visible, using real roots embedded in the wax. Not sure I covered all the series and themes here, but you get the idea!
Encaustic painting has undergone a resurgence in the past few decades. You have been central in building a community of encaustic artists in Ontario. Can you tell me about your motivation in nurturing this community and the importance of this supportive community for new and emerging artists?
I didn’t set out to become ‘the grandmother of encaustic’ in Ontario, it just happened. I just kept following my inclination – someone asked me to teach: ok. Then showing my work: ok. Then opening a school: ok. Then exhibiting students work: ok. Co-Curating (with Lisa Beth Glassman) a group show at the Propeller Art Gallery in Toronto, the whole ball of wax: ok. Curating smaller shows at the hive: yes! Then nurturing the community of artists that gathered in the hive: ok! With abundant pleasure: ok! I just kept saying ok, and yes! Daniel supported this behind the scenes for years, and then started teaching when I could no longer do as much, when first diagnosed. He’s always so supportive of my dreams and goals. The hive was what it was in large part because of his belief in us and all the work he did to make it happen.
It became clear at some point that the artists returning to the hive for workshops – was a core group who were committed to and sincere in their artistic journeys. We brought in guest teachers to expand the kinds of courses available, and the students (and me) thrived in the rich soil that the hive provided. The women in those courses bonded, and especially so in the Connect + Create (C+C). This was a monthly gathering in the hive, limited to five students. Two groups met once a month with me, for a season, or a year, to talk about various aspects of creativity: inspiration, failure, vulnerability, showing/selling, you name it, we discussed it. These conversations were juicy, informative, transformative and healing for all involved. We gently supported each other in our individual creative processes, with positivity, kindness and a generous sharing of our encaustic ‘secrets’ (techniques we’d ‘discovered’).
The C+C’s were the hardest thing to let go of. My heart still aches and rejoices when I think of those Sunday morning. It was the work I was born to do. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to have said yes to so much that came before it. Paving the way for C+C to be a reality. To change all of us so profoundly.
In the Spring of 2019, you had a 35-year Retrospective of your work. It was a beautiful show. As you saw your older works hanging with your newer paintings did you notice any surprising threads, connections between the works?
Yes, I noticed recurring connections… it was like being at a party with friends from all different parts and times of my life. I loved it!! It was so healing, and the most beautiful present Daniel ever gave me. Anyone ever gave me, for that matter. The threads were surprising and also not surprising. Of course, these ‘friends’ are connected, are part of a larger story that takes in the decades and runs alongside my life – all the various stages that I was going through are visible in the art. Art reflects life. Who said that? Someone wise. I stayed overnight in the gallery during the retrospective, and this experience changed me deeply. By seeing, I felt seen. By acknowledging, I was acknowledged. By loving, and letting in love, I was loved. It goes way beyond words, this experience. I’ve taken to writing poetry as it is a way to express and understand what this time is both teaching me and asking of me. Poetry is so healing, so helpful. I think I need to write a poem about the retrospective.
How much have you been able to paint during your dying time? Can you talk about what painting brings to you at this time?
Good question, Ruth. I’ve not had the energy to paint much. The process is different, much, much slower. Simplified. I have to ask for help every step of the way, and as I’ve described, there are many steps to encaustic. Daniel – and now Conor (our 29-year-old son) are wonderful ‘studio assistants’. I could not do it without their help. Humbling to admit this, but also very grateful beyond measure. I’m finding that creativity is coming out in other ways, like writing poems. I’m working on a new piece right 4’tall and 2.5’ wide. It’s about moving from being well, being in our roles, to letting go, free-falling – like a leaf from a tree – until we return to the earth. I’ve collected hundreds of lacy magnolia leaves this spring from the tree I planted 20 years ago in memory of my mom. I hope that I get to finish this piece, it will take me a while. It’s big and complex… but not as complex as they used to be!! Good thing about not much time: simplicity.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Just this: I still love life.
If you have a comment or question for Andrea, please leave it below.
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