Pictures Worth a Thousand Words
Artist Adele V. Sanborn’s mixed media art with text reflects the way she sees the world — complex and ever-changing.
In nature, organic materials mix and mingle. Dead leaves sit among fresh green ones. A smudge of dirt mars a bright yellow leaf. Bugs crawl in the dirt. Somehow, from disarray harmony is created.
Encaustic painter/mixed-media artist Adele V. Sanborn combines words and images that when put together create a balance. It’s difficult for Sanborn to say when a piece feels right; for her, it’s more of a journey.
“Combining images with words creates the challenge, which I find exciting and invigorating,” she says.
The Boscawen resident is owner of Cornerstone Design at Twiggs Gallery, a nonprofit that seeks to expand the appreciation of fine art, offers classes and helps artists produce and display their works. The technique she often uses, encaustic painting, is one where colors are mixed with hot or cold wax, then painted on a surface. Adding materials like resin or oil can change the wax’s consistency.
Sanborn’s credentials extend far beyond her gallery. A member of the League of NH Craftsmen, she is a photographer and poet and also has about 45 years of experience as a calligrapher, practicing Italic, Old English and Uncial fonts. She is one of just two juried calligraphers in the state.
Recently, Sanborn talked with New Hampshire Home about her art and inspirations.
New Hampshire Home [NHH]: Tell us a little about your work and what you do.
Adele Sanborn [AS]: I’ve always been interested in words and how people say things. My challenge is to find words and images that work together. I might find an image of mine that I love, love, love. And then I try to find words that go with it. I do a lot with fine art materials like cold wax, acrylic paints, pastels — I use them as backgrounds for my photographs and my calligraphy.
NHH: What’s the difference between cold wax and hot wax?
[AS]: Hot wax, which is encaustic, is Damar resin and beeswax melted together. That is what you paint onto the surface that you’re going to work on. You can also add colors from wax that you melt. The cool part about hot wax is you can embed things in it and then scrape off or add marks onto it, which makes a 3-D presentation. Cold wax is a paste. You add oil paint to it, and then you paint with that. It dries much faster than oil paint, but after five or six days, you can manipulate it, so you can do layer after layer after layer.
NHH: How did your piece “Birches” come together?
[AS]: I love to manipulate images. “Birches” includes a photograph of a birch grove that’s on the way up to Mount Kearsarge in Warner. I take my original image and digitally manipulate it for different variations in color, size and transparency. Once I am happy with all the images, I print each one out on individual sheets of acetate. When layered one on top of the other, the final image appears. And I flip some of the layers of acetate that have the image. Not all the acetate sheets are the same size — some are smaller, some bigger. All these steps give the piece real depth. It looks like you actually could be walking through this particular birch grove. Next, I layer transparent sheets of acetate with transparent sheets of acrylic. Lastly, I put tape around the edge and seal it up.
NHH: Why did you choose a Robert Frost passage for that?
[AS]: I thought these were the perfect words to go with that piece. Sometimes I start with the words and look for an image or create an image, and sometimes it’s the image that dictates the words I choose. I thought that using this passage as the background picked up on the fall leaves that the birches are sitting in. I liked the texture of the bottom layers of paint, which I was able to manipulate using a credit card. The background on the panel probably has five layers of acrylics, and I remove and manipulate the paint so the bottom levels begin to appear. I added water-colors to the calligraphy because I thought the white paper was too stark. I added a little edging to it, too.
NHH: How do you choose what poetry to use?
[AS]: I read poetry all the time — I’m always looking for words or passages that really mean something to me. I’m in love with [poet] Mary Oliver. So I’ll find something of hers. And then I’ll go through my images and see if I can find something that will work with it. There’s a wonderful, wonderful poem by Wendell Berry called “The Peace of Wild Things.” I love Amanda Gorman, who spoke at President Biden’s inauguration.
NHH: Your art seems very labor intensive.
[AS]: Sometimes I’ll be working on a piece and I’ll get really bogged down by it — I just don’t think I can solve it. So I walk away from it. It might be weeks before I go back to it. But if I work on two pieces at a time and think I’ve screwed up one, I can just go work on the other. It takes the pressure off. And 99 percent of the time, it’s really fun. I’ve got work that might stay in my flat file for nine months, 12 months, a year and a half … then, I’ll pull it out.
NHH: Can you tell us about “Yes … Life Is Fragile”?
[AS]: That’s encaustic, hot wax. I started off with a watercolor sheet mounted on a panel. I made the edges blackish. The trees and birds are from photographs of mine that I transferred onto the wax. I literally took the image and put it in upside down. And then I took a spoon and rubbed it off. It’s a cool technique that really works best with graphic images. I did the calligraphy on my handmade Unryu paper.
NHH: What is Unryu paper?
[AS]: Unryu is a plant. You beat the living daylights out of it, and then you’re able to grind it down into a paste and make sheets of paper out of it. It’s a difficult surface. It’s very porous. I have to paint the paper with gelatin so that the gelatin seals the paper before I can write on it. It’s got a very fuzzy edge to it because I tear it. And then I mount it between acrylic to keep it safe.
NHH: What’s it like to work with different materials in a single piece? Are some materials affected by others?
[AS]: The transparent sheets of acetate I use are the same things used to write on for overhead projectors. The sheets print, really, really well. In “Birches,” you can really see that I flipped the sheet of acetate with the image of the birch on it, because if you look in the middle it’s the same image but flipped. I might flip the whole image and lay it over the image below, creating a new visual. Then, of course, the calligraphy is done by hand. There are probably four layers of images on acrylic with a full photograph underneath it.
Some of the backgrounds are just plain old acrylic. Some of them are cold wax, and some of them are hot wax. It just depends on what I have in my brain at the time. And sometimes I start with a background, something that I love. I’m working on a series right now in cold wax that reminds me of Japanese painting. So I’m working with haikus too.
Cornerstone Design at Twiggs Gallery
League of NH Craftsmen