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Meet the Artist: Mark Lavatelli

A conversation with Mark Lavatelli

What is Encaustic art and how did you get started in it? What makes it unique?

Encaustic is an ancient and permanent painting technique in which the binder is beeswax. Unlike linseed oil or synthetic resin (e.g. acrylic) binders which dry to harden, the beeswax is heated until molten, mixed with dry pigments to make paint, and, when applied to the painting, cools and hardens instantly. This is why it is unique. When the painting is completed, the entire surface is reheated to fuse the layers and bond them to the support. This is called burning-in, which is the literal meaning of encaustic. When I lived in Dallas over thirty years ago, I decided to make my own oil paint. Beeswax is mixed with linseed oil as an emulsifier and grinding the oil and pigment is a lengthy process. I realized I was never going to have the time to use all the dry pigment and I found a description of encaustic. I tried it and was hooked.

What inspires your art?

The action of applying paint to a surface, whatever the intended outcome, is enjoyable and addictive. 

What do the landscape and geometric abstractions in your art represent for you?

Nature and the man-made environment.

Why are these your most prominent subjects?

Seeing the combination of trees and farmhouses in rural Illinois where I grew up may be one reason. Discovering an area of deadfall timber over a rocky streambed in the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico is another. Art history studies of the color-square paintings of Paul Klee and the work of Richard Diebenkorn are also influences.

What is/are your favorite works of art you have created over the years?

One favorite is an installation of hanging, rotating, colored, abstract “trees” at UB Anderson Gallery in 2011.

As a professor of humanities and visual and digital arts, how has your art and teaching influenced each other?

My current and more accurate title is Professor of Art. The relationship between teaching and art-making is complicated and indescribable.

What makes this relationship indescribable?

I’ve had a very long teaching career and the circumstances (what and where I was teaching, the kind of students) have been quite variable. There is a big difference between tutoring graduate-level painting students one-on-one and teaching art appreciation as a general education requirement. There are occasional connections. As a teacher I continually learn new things, but it’s difficult to pinpoint any direct connections to art-making as they are very different activities.

How did you become a part of Western New York Book Arts Center and what does it mean to you to be a part of this community?

When I started having my students make artist books I began taking them to papermaking, letterpress printing, and bookbinding workshops there. And presenting encaustic monotype printing workshops there has been very rewarding.

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