Interview: Debra Van Tuinen at Butters Gallery, Portland

by Sarah Vaeth, April 2012

A week before the opening of her April show Candescent at Butters Gallery, I sat down with Debra Van Tuinen in her studio at Everett Station Lofts. An established encaustic painter with an international reputation, Van Tuinen has lived in Portland, Oregon since late 2010. In preparation for this show she immediately started a new body of work—in an unfamiliar medium.

SV: Let’s talk about the paintings you’ve made over the last year. I’ve noticed changes in palette. There’s a lot of darkness, there’s a lot of movement, a lot of turbulence. I can’t help seeing that as psychological.
DVT: I’m sure it is. It certainly has not been easy. There have been times when I’ve just felt like, “Am I still an artist?” and I’ve never really felt that before. I was open to different subject matter, I was open to painting oil on canvas. I knew that, but then I had to relearn how to do it.

You haven’t worked in oils in twenty-three years; when did you pick it up again?
When I moved to Portland. I had to do some reading and I had to get the materials, so I probably didn’t start until November [of 2010]. I even got books like, “How to be Inspired as an Artist.” I’m not kidding.

Moving to a new medium opens up the possibility that everything could be new.
No boundaries. It threw me in a funk.

And we need boundaries.
Definitely. I was in a bad spot. I was in a book club at the time, because I was trying to meet people here, and I was listening to Sue Monk Kidd, from her book Traveling with Pomegranates, and she was having a hard time at that point writing this book. She couldn’t write and she called it “the unholy darkness” and I’m walking along the river and I hear this and I think, “That’s it! Unholy darkness!” That gives you an idea where maybe the darkness and the turmoil are coming from.

When was the turning point?
Most of these paintings, the bigger ones, have been painted over since that time in November. They’ve been painted over maybe six, seven, eight times. The underpaintings have now created texture, which is kind of interesting, and it’s rich. I love the heavy paint now. Before, I was doing very thin layers, almost a wash. Now I’m seeing that using the thickness of the paint—the painterliness of that.

Looking at your previous encaustics, and looking at the newer oils and the newer encaustics, which I think are influenced by the oils, I see a lot more movement in subjects that are ostensibly the same. Is using a different medium changing the way you see this imagery?
Yes, some of the imagery comes back, but in a different way. They used to be realistic, then they were abstract. The oil-on-clayboards from the late ’80s were of sunsets and reflections in water, but they’re totally different fromthe new oils. These were very thin because, with clayboard, you put the oil on and it would absorb and dry right away and you could scrape away back into the board.

Chinese Gardens Winter Reflections [a new reflection painting] is about having tea at the Chinese Gardens, looking at the water. I got to do some meditation at the gardens and I took a lot of pictures and came back with the pictures. I usually don’t put the photographs on the wall; I look at them and meditate a bit, and then start painting. When I first moved here I went to the Japanese Gardens, and now I’m going to the Chinese Gardens. The water reflections have really helped me bring back what I was doing before, but these are different.

How are these reflections different from previous reflection images?
I think the other reflections were more calm and they were mainly sunsets in water, maybe clouds in water, but calm. These are active. I’m there painting, full-arm painting, on these canvases and loving the strokes.

It’s an active gesture depicting active water, a metaphorical mark-making.
Yeah, and even with the encaustics now, it’s the same thing, flinging the paint, doing many layers, I don’t know how many layers. Sometimes I’m flattening it out with the iron, but oftentimes I’m using the hot air gun so it doesn’t flatten.

For example, the Alpenglow encaustics and the Lake Louise and Mountain encaustics. It’s the ruggedness of stone and ice.
Yes, that was the fall. I was going through that mountain area and teaching up in Banff, and coming back through Glacier National Forest. Some of these certainly show the fall time as I was going up. Some are from Lake Louise. The Alpenglow series I added a little bit later because I saw it up there, but I saw it when I was skiing.

I think it’s significant that you get immersed in the mountains, in the environment surrounding you, and you are active in it.
Absolutely. You’re up in the mountains skiing and you just stand there, just mesmerized by the clouds floating through and the sun hitting certain areas, white on white. It’s a huge influence on me.

I see your color palette changing through different series. What does it mean that the palette is changing?
Well, the colors were so bright. The encaustics werebright with a lot of reds and oranges and purples. Because of being open to different things, I really became open to different colors as well. You know, some of the oil pigments were really different from what I have in the encaustics. Possibly too, it was because of the reflections in the water that I was really focusing on. Being in Portland probably affected me as well, walking along the river a lot; the Willamette River’s pretty dark.

Is there a seasonal element?
Could be. All of a sudden I’m getting brighter again.

The days are getting longer.
That could be part of it. I painted these blue ones and I’ve just been adding white to them because they seemed so dark. I thought they were pretty light before. I’m thinking, “Did these get darker?” But I think what happened is that my outlook is changing; I’m happy, I’m glad I’m here in Portland, I’m feeling more control about what I’m painting now,  being more empowered by it. Then I realize, they’re pretty dark, and today I’m putting all this white in them.

You’ve titled your upcoming solo show Candescent.
That came from the waterfall[of the same name]. The waterfall has that light.

That creamy glow inside of that darkness, that dark gray-green.
That was one painting of a waterfall over another painting of a waterfall, over another. And then I turned it upside down and painted it white, and then I painted it dark and then I put this white paint back on it. Then a day later I’m wiping the white paint off, and all of a sudden I realize I should just stop, because wiping it off was creating this real luminosity that was coming through, and because it had metallic graphite underneath it, that came through. And so, Candescent. The waterfall is the one that brought the name. And it seems a little dark to some people, but I don’t see it as dark; I see it as light, and that’s the one that really got me moving forward.

Debra Van Tuinen: Candescent
5–28 April, 2012
Butters Gallery