Between Hot Wax and the Drawing Board
Amatoritsero Ede in Conversations with Artist, Zane Turner
Amatoritsero Ede: Zane, we are happy to have you on MTLS. Our pleasure is in the fact that you are quite different in style and focus to most of the artist we have chatted with so far. For example, you seem to be setting a trend in terms of extending form or media in the visual arts. This led to a feature of your Encaustic Wax style in the magazine, Trend Hunter. Can you tell us about Encaustic Wax in more detail, and how it has impacted your work?
Zane Turner: I am happy to be a part of the discussion. The thing with wax is that it can never really be completely controlled. I work with a hot brush to apply liquid hot wax, building up the image layer by layer. I use a similar process to water colour, with transparent coloured wax, the difference is when the wax touches the surface of the board it hardens instantly so there is no blending possible. It’s a limitation and a challenge. To be honest, the first time I worked with encaustic it was a disaster. The whole process just seemed dangerous and time consuming. It would serve a better use sealing the cracks in wooden ships than making a muddy mess on my boards. It was when I scraped off the wax off my board that it struck me, I understood how it could be used, or rather made to transform art into something life-like. The second try was a success and I have been hooked ever since, pushing the medium, playing with its transparent qualities and building up textures just to see how much life I can paint into a face or a piece of wood. A particular setup is necessary, hot plates, good ventilation, heavy-duty gloves and a respirator mask, sometimes I feel like a warrior painter. I liken the process to a dance where I am always moving back and forth between the table of hot waxes and my tableau. My movements must be swift and direct, without hesitation.
A.E.: What is the relationship between Encaustic Wax and your facial portrait series? There seems to be a mix of media at work here; this is with the face-painting and Encaustic Wax blend. Tell us more about this.
Z.T.: The face painting is a performance of sorts between the model and myself. I put paint on their face and ask them to give me as many different expressions as they can. I ask them to reflect on their personal experiences, everything from joy to sadness, converting them into a gesture. What I find interesting is that the wet paint becomes a mask that allows them to be themselves, inhibiting any social impediments. Such as, a shyness to laugh, cry or scream out loud for no reason in front of strangers. Seriousness gives way to self-mockery. The result is true uninhibited emotion accompanied by colourful paint. Encaustic, I use simply because it is the most technically challenging medium to work with and therefore, to me the most interesting. It is perfect for capturing or recreating textures. Playing with the different transparencies of wax and the brightness of pigments can have a very life-like effect. Especially when layering the wax to build up the texture of skin on the figure. Perhaps the connection is best found in the concept of painting paint. This idea has interested me since my beginnings as an artist. Encaustic just intensifies the physical appearance of the image weather its paint or flesh, the result is always objectively bold.
A.E.: You have talked about the ‘tribal’ ritualistic or spiritual dimension to your painting of faces. It is not just that the body becomes your canvas; can we say your work in this direction is a modern re-enactment of how traditional societies modify the relationship between body, space, and inner life (or subjectivity)?
Z.T.: Perhaps we could say I am using the hipsters’ approach to exhibiting relationships between the body and our social surroundings. Right now I think hipsters find themselves in the cannon for exploring modern social behavior and, more importantly, trends. What’s old is in and what’s new, looks like it came from la Belle Époque. In that respect the face painting is the blast from the past, casually applied and unintentionally serving a purpose. It is freeing us of social conformism. Native tribes understood the power of painting the body. It is a mechanism to simplify the relationship between our physical appearances and our emotions, to give a boost to our inner spirit. Art on the body should be congruent with the art of being human, profound and vibrant, taking in all of the influences of our surroundings. So yes, we might say that this ritual of applying paint to body is a reoccurring societal trend. This practice helps us to examine the relationships between the physical, the spiritual and the conditions that affect them.
A.E.: Can we say that the ritualistic aspect of your facial paintings differentiates it from body art, which is purely aesthetic with little or no symbolism?
Z.T.: I think the paint that I put on bodies refers to an abstract symbolism that is open to different fields of interpretation depending on who receives it. As opposed to body art that is often more of a direct message to the viewer.
A.E.: Turner is a powerful name to go by as a modern artist due to the associations it is likely to evoke in the minds of a historically sensitive art public. I don’t know if you are aware of the 18 and 19thth century English painter and abolitionist, J. M.W. Turner, whose painting “The Slave Ship” or “Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon coming on”, is said to have contributed to a more widespread and total abolition of slavery in the Europe and the Western hemisphere. Any comment on this?
Z.T.: The first time I heard about Turner was in high school. My art teacher presented his romantic seascape paintings, but not a word about the historical background or nothing about his abolitionist ambitions. Of course I am not related to him but my family’s history is partial to this. I am intrigued that you chose to delve into the subject of slavery and abolition. My mother is Jamaican and there are strong memories of slavery still surrounding our lineage. My work was always driven by questions of race, acceptance and human relations. I find it interesting that J.M.W. Turner was an active abolitionist artist.
A.E.: J.M.W. Turner’s 1840 exhibition of “The Slave Ship” was accompanied by a poem on the injustice of slavery written by the painter. The British-Guyanese Poet, David Dabydeen, published a well-received long narrative poem, simply titled “Turner” as part of his 1994 collection Turner: New and Selected Poems. J.M.W. Turner himself was inspired to paint the said work due to his reading of a literary work, The History and Abolition of the Slave Trade. Here we see a brisk cross-influence between literature and art, and not in the least, politics. Before we get to the matter of politics I want to ask if your work is influenced by or influences/has influenced other art forms – literature, dance, music, etc.
Z.T.: “The Book of Negros” from Laurence Hill, was a considerable influence for me during the time I painted both the Rusty Boat series and the “Negro Colourful” series. The imagery in Hill’s description of the great voyage propelled me to create a body of work that could depict a visual sentiment of many ruff and unforgiving journeys. I enjoy the ambiguity in these decaying facades, although we might not consider them accurate depictions of a slave vessel, they could be anything from a fisherman’s boat to an old merchant schooner. Their colourfulness is reflected in the people that traveled on these vessels, remembering the souls lost and the strength of those that survived to pass on their stories. The colours used on the boats are the same colours that I used to paint on the face of the “Negro Colourful” series. My goal was to have a visual connection between the two series so that, side by side, they could reiterate the sentiment of hardships endured by African slaves. I think my best example of this is seen with the paintings “Thinking Colours” and “Lucia”. I was inspired by those sad chapters of black history but I wanted to express it in a lighter way, doing a “pied-de-nez” to racism and intolerance. Politically, I feel my work with portraiture and face painting culminates into a universal message that has been at the heart of all abolitionists, human rights activists, and anti-discrimination groups since forever. We are a global community, the boundaries between different races are steadily washing away and we are all in a cultural melting pot. My subjects include Indo-Canadian, Jamaican Canadian, and Chilean- Quebecois. I try to denude them, remove any cultural references, and then I paint a mask of colour on their face. In the end, the colour of their skin is irrelevant. They all look like they come from one global tribe. A colouful tribe that let go of the seriousness of life and expresses what it’s like to simply be human.
A.E.: In his poetic response to the artwork, Dabydeen seeks to highlight the irony of “The Slave Ship,” in which the subject of the painting is only a footnote and insignificant, defeating the avowed political purposes of the artist. In that painting seasick Africans are being deliberately drowned on the high seas by slavers in order for the latter to cash in on insurance money for ‘lost goods.’ These subjects are nevertheless a footnote in the painting, barely visible and submerged in water. All you see, as another prominent intellectual, Mark Twain, remarked, is water and a ship in a storm. This irony is repeated in the renowned English public intellectual and art critic, John Ruskin, who in his essay in defense of Turner’s works, Modern Painters (1843), focused on the aesthetic sublimity of the painting but relegated “the shackling and drowning of Africans” to a footnote as well. Now there is a lot of politics going on here, conscious or unconscious. Do I see some unconscious politics of a different kind in your painting of black faces? Beyond tribal or spiritual significance, what else are you trying to say with your painted face series that might not be immediately clear to the viewer?
Z.T.: I used the color green in the series “Negro colourful” also to symbolize hope. Hope for all the oppressed people, but also for the environmental issues. For example in my works “A better tomorrow” and “Green humility”, the colour green connotes positive growth, health and environmental consciousness.
A.E.: What challenges, if any, do you think young visual artists like yourself are likely to face in Canada today?
Z.T.: It’s not easy for an emerging artist to claim their place in the glamorous world of art. The challenge will always be to stay true to ones own artistic ambition. Not letting others dictate what you should do, trying to meet financial obligations in a world that is dictated by productivity.
A.E.: And how do you deal with those challenges?
Z.T.: Follow your dreams, stay focused and let your experiences guide your artistic creativity. I think this results in art that is real and true to who we are as artists. Also having a good support system such as family and friends, or a network of other like-minded artists really helps to keep an active sense of purpose.
A.E.: How would you describe your work and what are your set artistic goals and targets?
Z.T.: I see my paintings as making a playful comment on ethnicity and race. They are the tribal masks of today’s fashionable fellow. They snook at intolerance and at the constant need to control our appearance to remind us of what it is like to express our humanity. My goal is to continue to explore portraiture and by the way of human nature. At the same time make a comment about ethnicity and the relation between race and cultural identities in our modern time. Technically, I seek to push the medium of Encaustic to new levels and find new ways to bring my ideas to life. Next year I would like to have a solo exhibition with Thompson Landry Gallery in Toronto. As well as find representation in some other Canadian cities. I am also interested in participating in artist residencies, to challenge my creative process by being in a different environment.
A.E.: Thank you very much for taking time away from the hot wax to talk to MTLS.