This month we showed the work of Lexington’s own Christa Bowden in conjunction with Methods (Alternative). Bowden, a professor of photography at Washington and Lee University, granted us an interview on her newest work, Roots & Nests.
Christa with her work in the gallery.
In your artist statement you discuss the roots and nests as metaphors for family life, please discuss this further.
My metaphors are pretty overt. I have never felt the need to make my work cryptic or difficult for the viewer to draw meaning from it. I am more interested in finding ways to explore ideas that are simultaneously personal and universal, intimate yet approachable. What idea could be more universal than family? A nest can immediately be read as a metaphor for home. A root, perhaps less so for family, but my hope is that the red oil pigment lines visually connecting those roots to blood vessels and veins will help the viewer draw those conclusions. One might ask why I do not just take photographs of my children, my parents, my spouse, and I have certainly done that. But those photographs are just about my family, and will always remain such. While the nests and roots are also about my family, they can also be about your family, or a general notion of family, real or imagined.
There are many steps involved in the creation of your pieces. Walk us through the creation of an image start to finish.
For the past 14 years, the majority of my work has been based upon "camera less" photography, utilizing a flatbed scanner for the initial image capture. This project is no exception. I begin by scanning my subject, be it a nest, a root, etc. The base image made with a flatbed scanner is typically comprised of a shallow depth of field subject against a deep black background. While many of my past projects remain in this form, my encaustic work is inverted to a negative image, producing a white background. However, it is important to me that the viewer not immediately read the image as a negative, or if they do, that they disregard that information relevant to the work. Much of the subject matter that I work with is naturally dirty, so I spend a lot of time in Photoshop retouching dust and debris out of the scan. I also do a good bit of levels and curves adjustment in an attempt to pre-visualize what the tones will look like with many layers of wax over them. I then make an archival inkjet print on a matte fine art paper. This print is then precisely trimmed and glued to a wooden painting panel, and dried under weights overnight. Finally, the panel is painted with the encaustic wax, generally about 7 or 8 layers per panel. Each layer is painted with a large hake brush and carefully fused with a heat gun. Once I am satisfied with the surface and depth of the wax, the panel is rested for the wax to cool and harden, at least overnight. Then the panel is buffed with a microfiber cloth. Some of my pieces are finished at that point, but others have an added layer of oil pigment line work. To do this, I carve marks into the wax with woodworking tools, and then rub oil pigment into the marks. The oil paint that is outside of the marks is carefully wiped away with q-tips and linseed oil, leaving the color only within the carved marks.
How were you first introduced to encaustic and what made you decide it was the right medium for this work?
I took a workshop at the Center for Photography at Woodstock in 2007 on combining photography and encaustics. I did not actively incorporate the process into my work until several years later, when I began the Roots & Nests project. I think that the delicate lines of the types of subjects that I am working with in this project lend themselves to the inversion to a negative, which is critical to the process. Encaustic does not look good when layered over the deep black backgrounds typical in scanography, and the white background that happens when the image is inverted works much better. The grayscale-on-white tone of the images also forms a connection with the idea of drawing and mark-making, which is simultaneously fascinating and technically elusive to me. Finally, a shallow depth of field is inherent in scanography, and adding the element of encaustic allows me to play with this phenomenon further. My hope is that when looking at the pieces, a viewer will question whether the limited focus is a result of the wax, or the image itself.
You have been working camera-less for some time. How did you begin using the scanner and how has it influenced your work.
In my second year of graduate school at the University of Georgia, I was really struggling to find my direction and voice as an artist. Almost in a moment of desperation, I tried making a self-portrait with my flatbed scanner. I immediately felt that I had stumbled across a good way of working, and was also encouraged to further explore this method by my graduate adviser. In terms of influence, working with the scanner caused my work to become more autobiographical and self-examining. I cannot go out and find photographs in the world with this process. I have to find the subject, bring it back to my studio, and create the photograph on the scanner surface. It's really a totally different working method than the way that I had previously approached photography.
At the time that I started working this way, in 1999, I was really unaware of precedents or contemporary artists working with the flatbed scanner. I have since discovered that there are a rich variety of artists working with this method, and I am careful to pay homage to precedents such as Sonia Landy Sheridan and Darryl Curran. I also connect this method of working back to the very roots of photography and contact-based images such as those by William Henry Fox Talbot and Anna Atkins in the 19th century.
Finally, we ask this of all of our artists, what does success mean to you?
I think that if you are able to spend your days doing something that you love, and can still manage to pay your bills, you are successful. I love making art, and I love sharing this through teaching. I've managed to find a career that allows me to do both, and by that measure, I feel successful. I would be happy to find critical success for my work, but I will not feel the least bit disappointed if I never land a New York solo show. I'm just glad that I have the resources and opportunities to make new work, and to share the magic of the photography with my students. I feel that I gain as much knowledge and inspiration from them as they do from me.
Roots & Nests is on view through the end of the week.