If you’re looking for Theresa Stirling, you’ll likely find her frolicking in the woods of the Pacific Northwest or paddle boarding on the canal near her home in Washington state. This is the world outside her studio and the source of inspiration for her gorgeously layered encaustics which have graced the walls of our furniture store. The Architect’s Wife recently had the opportunity to chat with Theresa about her work.
How long have you been working as an artist? 15 years, with a more serious emphasis in the last 6 or so years. Prior to that, I had a career in the biotech world.
Where did you learn the encaustics art form? Why are you drawn to this technique? I had seen it around (and loved it!) and learned encaustics from other local wax artists who were willing to let me learn in their studios and from intensives through Pratt Fine Arts in Seattle. I am primarily drawn to this technique because of its beauty and texture. Wax layers have a luminosity that you don’t see with other art mediums, and after 13 or so years, I am still learning, still playing and trying new techniques. Wax is wonderful to manipulate, you can melt it and layer it, sculpt it and then add fire with a blowtorch. It requires a certain finesse which I love.
Can you walk us through the encaustics process? I melt high-quality beeswax in cans on hot plates. Next I add color to the wax with pigment sticks and oils. At any given moment, I will have as many as 20 colors to paint with. I use a photo-encaustic technique, which means I adhere an image to the substrate first, then slowly add many thin layers of pigmented wax, sometimes up to 20 or 30, fusing each with an industrial blowtorch to the layer of wax below. The original image is my guide until it is slowly submerged in sheet upon sheet of wax, then I go freestyle! I have also been experimenting with a cold wax medium in conjunction with hot wax (a technique I haven’t seen anywhere else). This combo along with the use of oils in the wax, has opened up exciting new possibilities in my work. The beauty about my approach is that it is so flexible. If you want a painting of your horses bounding through a field I can recreate that. If abstract art is your thing, I can do that as well. (See below for some great videos on Theresa’s process!)
Is encaustics your first love? Or are there other mediums that you like to work in? Encaustics is my first love. It has captivated me for many years, in part, because the applications feel endless. It also has a sweet fragrance, which is intoxicating. I have been dreaming of adding encaustics to ceramics, but have not yet begun to experiment with this technique. Stay tuned! I have a fondness for all the earth’s elements- clay, found wood, natural fibers, rocks. One day I would love to incorporate these natural elements in my work. My kids keep trying to teach me to knit, but, thus far, it hasn’t stuck!
What is a day in your studio like? A day in my studio is quite cozy! The fire is on or the windows might be open, and the sweet smell of wax and natural dammar [resin] waft through the space. I try to create a tranquil atmosphere to inspire my work, which means the candles are lit, the tea kettle is warming and my favorite music is turned up. The applications of wax are almost hypnotic — the technique creates a rhythm by which my art flows from. We live in the woods near the water and this process truly mimics the world around me. The space is generally calm until our sweet rescue dog wanders through followed by the pitter-patter and laughter of our kids ambling through with an urgent plea for help in their quest to find frogs. All in a day’s swirl! And I love every minute of it.
Where do you draw your inspiration from? My primary source of inspiration comes from time spent in nature; walks on the beach, hiking forest trails, paddle-boarding and observing art in nature. My husband and I built our dream home here in the Pacific Northwest on a gorgeously pristine, forested canal where wildlife still roams freely. It is our sanctuary. Our deliberate choice to slow down, do things with presence and care is also a cornerstone for my work. Not only that, but I draw inspiration from good health – feeling healthy is the foundation for everything I do. The daily arc of parenting; great, solid relationships, studying others’ work and their creative process informs my work as well. Another important way I draw inspiration is by doing good in my community. I give back thousands of dollars each year with proceeds made by my art and donations to animal shelters and schools. That feels good and is energizing to me.
What advice do you have for young artists? For young artists exploring, my advice would be to have as much fun as you can. Surround yourself with patient makers who are willing to teach. Be boundless with your willingness to try different styles, mediums and multiple techniques to create. Explore and try it all: watercolor, soldering, metal-smithing, ceramics, foundry work, sculpture, oils, fiber arts. Don’t be too concerned with finding your own voice right away. Now is the time to immerse yourself in experimentation so you can figure out what you are passionate about. Staying open is where inspiration and direction are born and it’s fun! And, don’t forget to make time to create!
What are some of the challenges of working for yourself and what advice do you have for young artist/entrepreneurs? One of the challenges I’ve faced is having faith that there will be steady work ahead. I try to remind people that a good portion of the business of art takes place behind-the-scenes and is pretty mundane — think email, photoshop work, inventory lists, pricing, social media, PR, website maintenance, outreach, networking, finding venues to show my work, shipping, etc. I would suggest young entrepreneur artists be aware that it takes business acumen and dedication to be in art as a business. Following through with people is of utmost importance me. I want people to know they can rely on me and that I will follow-through on my promises. My motto is: under promise and over deliver every time.
Be willing to fail spectacularly. Failures can be tough (and humbling) in the moment, but inevitably you learn so much from those missteps. Stay with it and don’t give up. I meet many people, often women, in the midst of successful careers who ache to do something more creative, but they aren’t sure how to take that leap from hobby to making their creative passion in to a business. I’m a great example that it can be done, it just requires focus and determination. There’s a great quote from Chuck Close that says it all, “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.”
On average, how many hours do you put in to a piece? Such a great and loaded question (laughing)! I once heard an artist say, and I agree, “A piece literally takes a lifetime to create; that is what I bring to it, from all of my experiences and intentions. You, the viewer, also bring a lifetime of your own to appreciating it…” On average, I spend about a week on a medium sized piece. I have a couple large pieces for a corporate client that I’ve worked on for a couple months now. Each piece is deeply nuanced. The process is a labor of love which cannot be rushed. That said, I try to manage my studio time well and efficiently.
Because I have a full life with two young kids and own a health-care business with my husband, I tend to work intensively on projects.
Is it difficult to part with some of your pieces? (smiling) Mmmm, sometimes, but I am so happy and honored that another person likes them that the joy of sharing my work with others mostly overshadows my desire to keep them. I always tell myself (and my family) “there is always more where that came from…” And, yet, ironically, guess whose home is lacking current art? It’s a classic case of the cobbler’s children having no shoes! My family teases me about this incessantly and feigns tears when a piece walks out the door. To be honest, the last 3 collections I have made in collaboration with you all are so dreamy! I could easily see them living on my walls. The projects I’ve worked on in collaboration with AW have been incredibly rewarding. I love the fresh and raw sophistication these abstracts possess.
The Architect’s Wife is fortunate enough to have six new pieces from Theresa here in her Bozeman shop. Make sure you stop by to appreciate her work in person. Love Theresa’s work as much as The Architect’s Wife? Ask how Theresa can make a custom piece to perfectly coordinate with your space!