WTP 2017 Winner: Ellen Koment

WTP 2017 Winner: Ellen Koment

Elizabeth Sloan Tyler Memorial Award

First Place for Fine Art

Interview by Jennifer Nelson, WTP Feature Writer

Jennifer Nelson

A native New Yorker, Ellen Koment earned an MA in painting from UC Berkeley and a BFA from Cooper Union Art School. She taught and exhibited her work in museums and galleries in the Bay Area for twenty-five years before moving to Santa Fe in 1994. There she started working in encaustic, which is paint made from pigment mixed with beeswax and resin and after application fixed by heat.  Photos and articles about her work have appeared in books and magazines, including Contemporary Art of the Southwest by E. Ashley Rooney, Architectural Digest, Encaustic Art in the Twenty-First Century and New Mexico Magazine. Her encaustic paintings have been shown nationally in numerous solo and group exhibitions. Since 1994, she has offered private encaustic workshops. In 2013, she was awarded the La Vendeénne award for excellence in Encaustic Education.

Nelson: More than twenty years ago, you moved from the Bay Area to Santa Fe, and started working with encaustics. What was your primary medium back then, and how did you come to transition to encaustics, painting with hot wax? How much of this was influenced by your moving to New Mexico?

Koment: I painted with oil and acrylic for many years, always interested in layering and line, and encaustic was a natural transition from that. I started with it slightly in San Francisco, had no idea what I was doing, technically, but loved the transparency and layering. The first pieces were clear wax with drawn lines between layers which were as thin as I could make them. Lots of depth. Then for a while I incorporated photos in the work. When I came to Santa Fe and began showing them to galleries people were curious about them, and many didn’t know what encaustic was. Not much information available then, either. But they liked them. But initially when I came here, I was showing oil paintings.

Nelson: The works you submitted to the WTP fine art competition are representative of your “pouring” technique—one surprisingly liquid, especially considering the density of your colors, and that encaustic colors to begin with, are very concentrated. From what I understand, to achieve a liquid consistency you would need to dilute the color further with melted wax—yet the effect then would be more of a wash or glaze. So how do you achieve these at once both fluid and concentrated effects in your work?

Koment: Yes, the poured colors are primarily glazes, although some colors, like black, I use very densely, opaquely. I make my own paints, although I also use the beautiful commercial paints as colorants, so I can control how dense the color is, and certain colors maintain their brilliance even when thinned as glazes. But wax is always liquid, having more to do with the temperature than the density of color. I like to play the denser colors against the more transparent ones.

Koment’s studio image, photo by Les Hancock

Nelson: Much of the manipulation of the wax has to do with heating and reheating of layers. How layered finally are these poured works, as opposed to encaustics where the wax is primarily manipulated with brushes or palette knives?

Koment: Many fewer layers, so that they maintain that brilliance. And it is only an additive process, unlike more traditional approaches, where you can add and subtract. With Pouring on Paper, you see all the layers…on panels, not so much so, you can be more traditional, and have more layers, change more, and apply more heat.

Nelson: In its simplest form, from what I understand, encaustics is the mixing of pigments with pure beeswax, but also other ingredients. How did you come to this technique of actual pouring—was it through experimentation with different variables?

Koment:The traditional mix, or at least the one mostly used now for the “medium” is beeswax and damar resin, the resin used to harden the wax.

You have to remember that I have been working with encaustic for twenty years, and the pours are fairly recent, only the last six years or so. I just began doing it for fun, experimenting, looking for new ideas. And initially combined with some brushwork…primarily on paper, and the paper means that I want to keep, overall, fewer layers. The composition of the paint wasn’t particularly relevant.

Nelson: What are some of the advantages and disadvantages to this technique?

Koment: Well, I love its immediacy, but that means there is no deletion, so you have to stay very aware of what is happening at each stage of the painting. This is the biggest difference for me, since I can have tendency to work and rework more than I should when working on panels, or canvas. It also means that some of them don’t work!

Nelson: Other of your works, like your Juxtapose series, seem to retain this fluidity but appear to be worked quite differently—worked into, rather, with more defined lines and edges. A work like “Lirica” is reminiscent of actual drawing. Can you speak to these divergent effects—if in fact, they are divergent?

Koment: Yes, they are very different,. I began the pours only in 2011, so the work before that was on panels, and involved many layers and often line drawing. In this I would include even the work I did in oil for many years. I have always started with a source of inspiration, sometimes something in nature, sometimes another image, and that has been true regardless of the medium.

Ellen Koment, Sky Madness. Paper, wax, pigment, 44” x 30”

Nelson: The works that won you first place in WTP’s 2017 competition are notable particularly for their complexitythe delicate balance of the nuanced against the bold. How do you know when you’ve achieved this balance, when a work is complete?

Koment: There really is no answer to that. The technique forces quick decisions, and occasionally you do go over the mark. But you need to recognize when a painting is complete, and sometimes that takes some time. They can get better, or worse, as you consider them.

Nelson: You’ve talked about the importance of differentiating between the accidental and the intentional. How is this actually addressed in your work?

Koment: Well, I approach them with a particular intention, I think about my palette, and the general idea of what I want to do, shapes, etc. And what I want to express…I spend as much time as is necessary mixing my colors, so that I establish a palette, a color feeling. But when you are pouring hot wax, even with a clear intent, even with a lot of experience, you can’t absolutely control it, so there is always an element of surprise. The necessity is to respond to what has just occurred, to always stay aware of what has happened, and that determines what the next move will be. Both are involved: Accident and Intent.

Nelson: Since 1994, you’ve taught encaustic art through private workshops and at community colleges. How does teaching art inform your own painting?

Koment: You always learn when you teach, the necessity to formulate your thoughts makes them clearer to yourself. I had many years of drawing in art school, but didn’t really understand many things about it until I had to explain them to students.

Nelson:  How do you see your artwork evolving in the future?

Koment: That’s always a bit of a mystery…I want to get back onto panels, with the same approach as I take to paper, well, the same feeling. And ever larger.

See Ellen Koment’s work in this month’s 2017 Special Winners Edition.

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