Lisa Sisley-Blinn's artwork reflects an alliance between the hi-tech of digital imagery and mechanization, and the low-tech of printmaking and handmade materials. Studios 7 & 8 showcase a variety of series which marry these two worlds. Her encaustic work is a visual intersection of her passions: fine art and technology.
"Encaustics is not a new medium. The United States has just not been as consistent in its fascination or use of encaustics, as compared to Italy or Greece," Lisa explained as she toted a tome entitled The Mysterious Fayum Portraits: Faces from Ancient Egypt. It is an ancient medium, invented by the Greeks (from the word enkaustikos, meaning "to heat or burn in"), who used encaustics to paint their battleships in fierce hues. Encaustic use has thrived across the Atlantic for centuries but has merely ebbed and flowed in popularity in the United States. Jasper Johns reintroduced the medium to American Modern Art in the early 1950s. There were very few books and even fewer instructors to teach encaustics. There was even danger associated with the medium as it required the combination of highly-flammable solvents and an open flame to heat the pigments and wax. Since then, technology has advanced and regulations have been placed to ensure the safety of artists through the use of controlled temperatures and electric heating plates.
"There is now a Renaissance occurring for this particular medium," said Lisa. A recent poll revealed that there are approximately 5,000 encaustic artists in the USA, a number that is steadily rising as the medium's popularity spreads.
Lisa's artwork did not begin in encaustics but rather in printmaking, the influence of which can be seen throughout her body of work. Beginning her undergraduate degree with a full pre-med scholarship at Carroll College (now Carroll University), her interests shifted to art and teaching, which had always been a part of her life. "I grew up in a darkroom and our house smelled like oil paint," she recalled. "My parents were artists and photographers. Art was always there." She graduated with a BA in K-12 Art Education, Secondary Education in Science, with a minor in Biology. Lisa married her husband Jim, a molecular modeling chemist and an accomplished cellist. The two raised a family before Lisa returned to school, on a full scholarship once again, to earn her MFA in Printmaking at Western Michigan University.
During her graduate studies, her artistic style shifted from realism to non-representational art. She displays a watercolor pencil silkscreen print on the table as one of the last examples of realism in her body of work. Two large watercolor paintings Lisa created at WMU flank each side of her studio; both bear winding, gestural lines that foretell of an expressive body of work to emerge from her education in printmaking.
In the mid-90's, the internet was quickly becoming more prevalent and Lisa sensed a growing need amid her university and the art world to know HTML. "Three months and thirty pounds of Twizzlers later, I was redoing sites for the University, making websites for the art faculty, and then I evolved into the webmaster of the library." Lisa was chosen for the Alumni 100 at WMU for her accomplishments in combining art and technology. One of her greatest achievements was helping bring the third library catalog online in the United Sates after Syracuse University and Cornell University. Her expertise and aesthetic vision led to several webmaster roles, including one at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park, Saint Louis, Missouri.
The introduction of encaustics into her work was born out of curiosity and a desire to acquire new skills once she finished graduate school in 1996. Lisa lauds the capabilities of encaustics through her "show-and-tell" table in her studio. The main ingredients for encaustics - beeswax, damar crystals, and pigment - are displayed next to examples of encaustic work which range from work on paper, to panels and collage work, and even sculptures which Lisa is in the process of creating for a possible installation. These delicate structures resemble nightgowns and represent the young African girls whom were kidnapped in Nigeria. "These forms are very vulnerable," said Lisa as she gingerly picked one off the table, "You want to be safe when you're asleep. Sheltered and safe."
Lisa's central workspace is littered with oil paint sticks and blocks of encaustic wax. A heating plate, covered in a dozen brushes resting peacefully in pans, holds various blocks of wax that reanimate when heated. The muted hues of the oil sticks and the vibrant encaustic colors in the pans complement each other in Lisa's work.
She meticulously photographs and catalogs her work as she creates. These digital references help her see the work in a new light and Lisa studies the images to find new compositions to create by hand. With such an extensive library of images, Lisa could easily be a digital artist. "I could stop at the image and not make it by hand - but I feel like I am storing a gift for a future self. Maybe one day I cannot stand in a studio. This collection of images could help me continue to create." For now, a digital lens occasionally lends perspective to her handmade artwork.
Small squares of melded color are part of Lisa's "Moments" series. Intentionally loose shapes and lines portray perceived moments in this large series of work which is composed of 100 pieces. Lisa explored colors and trained her hand to relax as she created. "Moments" paved the way for her current series of work, entitled "Instances".
"Instances represents when a feeling hits us, the emotion of a moment; you glimpse something while driving or overhear a piece of conversation. My aim is to take out the realism and distill the moment to an emotion. These encounters are translated to mass, velocity, color, and texture."
Even while Lisa is working through a series, she is thinking forward to future pieces. "What if the shapes were less gestural?" she mused, and revealed her sketches for another series of work that is geometric and carefully composed, yet still reflects the spontaneity of the "Instances" series. "These careful shapes I make with my fingers, and the gestural ones, I make with my wrists," explained Lisa.
Her fluidity between series and projects allows for her to approach pieces again as new concepts emerge. Reworking art used to make her uneasy; she ruefully remembers throwing out pieces and burning them in a barrel when her family used to live out in the countryside. "They simply weren't in balance with themselves. Now I can wait for the piece to appear throughout its many 'done' states." Her attitude was cultivated through her practice of aikido, a kind of Japanese martial art which synthesizes energy and harmony that Lisa has studied for thirteen years.
"My piece of advice is this: when you think work is in a failed state, it is only in an unfinished state."
"This transfers to life, as well," Lisa added.
Life outside of the Foundry Art Centre can be busy for Lisa as she has many roles at home: wife, mother, grandmother, and caretaker. "I am very grateful to come here and strip off the labels and become art in motion, with my brain and my hand. I can fully be myself here. I love having a dedicated space where I can be an artist."
"I like the community interaction and I love teaching," she continued. Lisa began teaching encaustics classes at the FAC several years ago, as well as at Artmart and the St. Louis Artists' Guild. She saw the Foundry as an excellent stabilized location to teach classes and was juried into the studios in 2014. She waited for a studio with a view of the Missouri River to become available before she moved into the FAC. Studios 7 & 8 were then outfitted to suit an encaustic classroom setting with additional electrical outlets for heating plates and tools.
"If I know it, you can know it" is Lisa's teaching philosophy for relaying information and technique. "I've been stuck a lot and you can lose years and decades figuring something out. I would rather my students excel as quickly as they can."
Article & Photographs by Jillian Schoettle.