a (very) brief encaustic history

collage ancient encaustic

As modern as collage is, encaustic is equally ancient; used by Roman era Egyptians in the first few centuries A.D. to create funerary portraits that they would then fix to an enshrouded mummy. These are three examples of many that have been found (images taken from the British Museum), the beeswax and resin used in the process provided their remarkable longevity. If you don’t expose encaustic artwork to excessive heat or freezing temperatures, they’re reasonably indestructible.


Encaustic is not a popular contemporary fine art technique, though it is enjoying (I read somewhere) something of a revival. A famous example is Jasper John’s mid 20th century iconic Flag (above), or his equally famous, and I think supremely unsettling, White Flag (below).

white flag

I’ve never seen either in person, but I would very much like to, so that I can see for myself the collaged pieces of newspaper and other quotidian detritus he used as background before painting on the wax.

flag detail

Here it is in closer detail. I love that. Though I suspect if a female artist had done it, it would have been categorised as craft rather than art, but I’m just a little bitter because 44 years of living as a said female does that to you on some days. It’s a fabulous piece of art. I believe it is also a more fragile one than the ancient encaustic examples because Jasper did not mix resin into his beeswax, oops.

I like that as a technique it was developed to enshrine portraits of the dead, and I like that it will leave me with my own set of reasonably permanent research relics that my children will then have to decide what to do with after I am gone; their inheritance a story of other people’s ghosts.

Apropos of nothing, I have set myself a task of reading half a novel tomorrow. Over the course of my Psychology studies I’ve lost something of the concentration span needed to enjoy novels, especially the more literate ones, and it’s to my regretful loss – Kerry once asked me if I read everything, and my current reply would be that I used to. I did make the rookie mistake of asking my much more literate friends for a recommendation, however, and now have an enormous book mountain sitting next to my bed. Bummer that I also have a new semester about to start.

some more examples

collage encaustic 2

These lean more toward encaustic photography than encaustic collage in general, which would work too. The key, for me, is the shadowed, ghostly layer the encaustic process adds. You could get it with digital effects, but it wouldn’t have the same textural quality, the same feeling of both time and memory layered over the original moment, or object, or relationship.

I’m signed up to a 2 day workshop in August to learn the process. Also this coursera course, courtesy of Kerry (say that ten times fast), and I now have (did I say?) the bare bones of the first article I need to write sketched down. It will be about this process, about creating method rather than imposing it, and not just a theoretical argument on why that’s important, or at least useful, but also how that can work at a pragmatic level.

encaustic collage

In my imagination, a rather messy and disturbingly random little place, there lives a shadowy idea of how to represent shadow objects visually. It requires found objects, and photocopies of photographs, and beeswax, and painting, and it ends up looking something like this:

Alanna Sparanese


leah mcdonald
Leah MacDonald


Lisa Kiros
ingrid blixt
Ingrid Blixt

It’s perfect. It’s a type of collage, which relates it to my earlier thesis work and to all the implications collage had as a form of visual communication there, but it also has a ghostly opaqueness and a greater material physicality that speaks more to this specific thesis.  It’s a highly flexible medium, and, I think, a highly storied one.

Also I get to paint a little bit…

I see a series of encaustic collages grouped together on a wall in an exhibition as a type of visual essay, with perhaps other sensory memories included; a scent, or a song for instance, and again, only where it is an important part of the story. I am keen to add in sensory memories if/when I can, because reasons; and no, the zines are not forgotten, and yes, it will all work together, but more on all of that later – right now I have to drive two children to work. Again.

despite appearances, progress has been made

The standard kind of progress – I’ve read and taken notes on Objects of the Dead* and Loneliness and Longing** – and the Megan kind of progress, where some nebulous kind of idea about the final exhibition is beginning to form in my nebulous kind of head. I see a lot of cross-disciplinary ideas around geography and story, material culture, art and the senses, beginning to emerge and don’t ask me to explain further because I can’t.

Arbitrary portrait of Eilidh Grace Young, aged somewhere around 15?  We were at her great-grandfather’s 100th birthday celebration: he died at 101. I can see her thinned prednisone hair in this picture; it grew back, only much more curly. ***

The senses are interesting, though, aren’t they? How much of memory and longing is interpreted, remembered, through the senses? Visually, a lot of course – it took me 16 years after my father died to stop seeing his face on random people in the street – but what of touch, and taste, and smell, and sound? Margaret Gibson talks briefly of transitional objects, an item of clothing perhaps, that retains the scent of the deceased that people sometimes keep around to hold the memory close as they move through the intensity of their grief. I remember the specific smell of my father’s top drawer in his bedside table, a singular scent of laundered handkerchief and tobacco. I would go in there sometimes to specifically sniff that scent, and I know I wasn’t the only offspring to do so. Odd. I don’t miss the smell, it isn’t a shadow in that sense, there is no loss or longing involved, but it is a specific and enduring sense memory.

Sense memories could be a kind of abstract shadow object though, if those words are even a thing at all. I need better descriptors, but it’s Monday and I’m already tired, so that will have to do. I’m thinking of the mother of one of my son’s friends, a young man who died recently, not yet twenty, just too sad at what he believed is the state of this world to want to live in it. Some videos of him playing computer games with his friends were posted on his Facebook page, and his mother wrote a not thanking the young man who put them there. She said her greatest sorrow was that she would not hear her son’s voice anymore, and now she could listen to it whenever she needed to. A voice forever caught in that moment in time, but nevertheless. His voice.

Eilidh’s great-grand father at 100. He’d lost much of his memory by then but was very good at faking one. He decided I must be one of his grand-children and was very happy to see me again.

I don’t know where I’m going here, I’m just thought jamming. Thought jamming is definitely a thing at all.

*I really wanted to like this book, but I didn’t. Broad ideas drawn too readily, I think, and a great deal more thematic than theoretical, with too many ideas being squished in. Good books are like a good meal; sure, you could show off by throwing in all the flavours, but the dish will be much the better for selecting a few complimentary ones.

I don’t know if good books are like that at all, I just made it up.

**Mostly written from a psychoanalytic point of view, which is not one I much subscribe to, but some interesting points made in a few essays. The subsuming of longing under the broad umbrellas of depression or anxiety was one of them, and there was something written by an English Professor that was worth the read, if only for the break from over-indulgent academic writing. You know lots of big psychoanalytic words, I get it, but dear authors, do you know how to communicate what they mean?

***Not entirely arbitrary portraits; I am thinking of using photographs of the deceased as part of the doctoral exhibition artwork and have been looking through my own archive for ideas.  I seemed to have stopped taking a lot of ‘proper’ photographs around 3 years ago, I couldn’t tell you why.


Alternative title: jumping to the end before I begin…

raw feels” by leonie brialey

I don’t know anything about Leonie Brialey’s graphic novel “raw feels” (a.k.a. qualia) other than I want to own a copy, and it was written as part of her PhD project (+ an exegesis, which, thanks to Kerry, I now can’t think of as anything else but an exit jesus). I don’t understand graphic novels, how (or if?) they’re different to comics, but I do love the fact that someone made one for her Ph.D. and that I found it through a friend of a friend of a friend, because that is how I find a lot of my very best most favourite things.

wish you were here
Megan likes to make her own books and will take any excuse to do so…

Leonie also has some zines for sale on her site, which interested me because I have been asked by a few people recently to publish some of my random art journal nonsense in a zine for them to purchase. I don’t know anything much about zines, except they have something of a cult following and seem to run the gamut from a few photocopied/stapled pages to professionally printed full colour masterpieces. But it’s an idea I can’t shake, which is not of interest to my research except that I have also been thinking about wanting something more than an photography exhibition as a creative product of the research.  I want to recognise the partnership of any future (bless you) respondents in a material way, to bring back something to them in return for sharing their stories of loss and longing.

… because I mean, c’mon, it’s art AND craft AND writing, all in the one creative activity.

So, I’m thinking zines, one for each participant, full of their stories and my artwork (photography, yes, but I also think anything else that I might have scribbled or drawn or painted as part of my thinking process.) Different, but related to, the photographic essays, a lot more informal and messy and, um, fun. The participants will get their own copy, but there’ll be more copies for sharing, or even selling, barring consent, of course. Or perhaps a zine of the research process itself? Or both?

I think I just heard both supervisors rolls their eyes so hard they turned a full 360 degrees in their head because my reach is, as always, exceeding my grasp (though Browning says it should, or what’s a heaven for?). But there’s an ethos to zines that I think fits really well with both my personal research philosophy in general, and this research topic in particular.  I am starting to feel the beginnings of multiple strands of theoretical and artistic connections forming, in the same way I did when I chose to use collage in the Master’s thesis, and that tells me it’s worth pursuing, even if I’ve just added a heap more work to the whole thing, work that isn’t strictly necessary. It’s not work work, though. It’s joy work. And joy, as Ms Oliver says, was not made to be a crumb*.

*If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

-Mary Oliver, Swans



the blank empty page

Writing seems to be a problem of some kind. It isn’t as if most people can just sit down and start to write brilliantly, get up from the desk, do something else all day, and then, next morning start again without any conflict or anxiety. To begin to write – to attempt anything creative, for that matter – is to ask many other questions, not only about the craft itself, but of oneself, and of life. The blank empty page is a representation of this helplessness. Who am I? How should I live? Who do I want to be?

– Hanif Kureishi

I’m reading a book about creative writing*, for two reasons**: I want to push the creative writing aspect in this research project a little further than I did with the Master’s thesis, without knowing what that means just yet, and also because I believe that learning about anything creative teaches you something about everything creative. When I came across Hanif Kureishi’s statement that attempting anything creative is to ask questions not only about the craft itself, but of oneself and of life, I psychically fist-bumped the man. It’s why I’m such an advocate of creative methodologies in research, but more generally, of promoting a creative mindset, because spending time with the questions, I believe, helps us to think critically about the answers.

Hanif had something to say about that too (emphasis mine):

Experience keeps coming. If the self is partly formed from the blows, wounds and marks made by the world, then writing is a kind of self-healing. But creativity initiates disturbance too. It is a kind of scepticism which attacks that which is petrified.

A sort of instability, he called it. In my Master’s thesis I talked about it in terms of Chaos, in the sense that it exists in the gap between possibility and presence, the things which could be and those that already are. Creativity, in writing, in art, in arts-based research, in all different kinds of research, can help uncover the things that can be learned and understood within that gap; it is a way to spend more time looking at what could be, I suppose, than replicating what already exists. Not for its own sake, but in order that new ideas, new points of view, new ways of doing things. new knowledge that can be brought across that gap. A bridge between possibility and presence.

Can I  use another quote? I’ll be quoting a lot for a while because I’m at the stage in my research where I need to read a thousand things to understand both my subject matter and my approach to that subject matter, and also I like to quote. This one from Hilary Mantel:

When you stand on the verge of a new narrative, when you have picked your character, you stretch out your hand in the dark and you don’t know who or what will take it.***

don’t know who or what will take my outstretched hand. But I do know that standing here at the beginning of the beginning and waiting to see what and who and how everything unfolds is my most favourite place to be.

*Writing a First Novel, edited by Karen Stevens

**Three reasons. It’s also just fun.

***As quoted by Alison McLeod in her essay “Hearing Voices”, Chapter 9 of that very same book.

the poets always beat me to it


Little tin key
lost somewhere in my memory, returned to me in a dream.

Like the blue-burning match blowing over the surface of
some drunk girl’s sweet, flaming party drink. Happy
birthday. Lucky

coin rubbed away to nothing, turned back into invisibility.
Back into its first atomic energy. Both

lost forever now and all around me. I’ve
rendered it, it seems, back into its
first longing — to keep

safe the loved ones on the plane, or on the freeway, or
strapped to the gurney, opened for the surgery, wheeled
into the lobby, being

screened for the journey, or stamped with the date
at the entrance to the pool, the portal, the nightclub, or

any spot where one might pull to the curb, drop
off a soft target, kiss it, make
with it a plan to fetch it later —

unbloodied, still breathing, in no hurry. This
talisman with no magic. I’ve made it for you

out of your own flesh, teeth, hair.

the refraction of longing


The world is full of paper.
Write to me.

– Agha Shahid Ali, Stationery

Longing: both a noun and an adjective, a word that describes a particular kind of desire, of wanting something that perhaps you don’t, or can’t have. I’ve never really been able to describe longing very well, there’s a kind of melancholy there, the same kind of melancholy associated with nostalgia? I don’t know. One of the suggestions in the last supervisory meeting was that there may be a similarity in the stories of shadow objects, where there would be more variety in stories of objects that person does have, which might be true. So I have been wondering about what sort of emotions shadow objects might be centered around, and I wonder if perhaps it covers the many shades of longing? Veronica spoke of craving and desire, and I didn’t recognise it at the time, but I think she was talking about longing too.

I have a fascination with the idea of longing, so I’m not surprised (and I also am surprised because it wasn’t intentional) that I found myself a way back to spending time with the idea. There isn’t all that much literature on longing, or yearning, not even total agreement that it’s a distinct emotion at all, but I did find this science-y definition (written almost 20 years ago now, I’m getting old).

Longing is mainly a blend of the (primary) emotions of love or happiness and sadness or depression … It is experienced as a need for something – a thing, a state, a relationship – without which one’s life does not feel complete.

Holm, O. (1999). Analyses of Longing: Origins, Levels, and Dimensions. The Journal of Psychology, 133:6, 621-630

And perhaps it is also as Marilynne Robinson wrote in her novel Housekeeping, that it is the very fact we crave an object that keeps an object, a state, a relationship, with us.

(She also describes the absence as a shadow and she’s a literary genius, just saying…)

To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing — the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again.

Of course, saying all shadow objects are connected to longing, to yearning, is a little banal; they wouldn’t qualify as objects that cast a shadow if there were no desire for them in the first place. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. But the banality of my wonderings is not the point: it’s the stories of why an absent object evokes longing in the first place that I’m here for. In those stories, I am sure, I will find a myriad of different motivations and emotions; longing, refracted into so many hues.

road map

holiday main camera (63 of 157) 1200

Or, where to from here. Though I am tempted to quote Machado againtraveler there is no road/the road is made by walking.  Still though, we’ll allow for magnetic north and a compass anyway, shall we?

It was decided between Kerry and Veronica and I that we’re going with the ‘shadow objects’ idea, or to put it in much more sensible Kerry speak, an exploration of shadow objects derived through bereavement. The research will be constructed as a group of case studies, where I will be spending time over a series of interviews with a handful of participants, going in depth to their stories, their connections, their relationships. In collaboration with them we’ll agree on how best to represent the shadow left by the object photographically, or in a photographic essay, creating a new artefact out of the shadow cast by the lost one. We agreed to a doctorate through publication rather than a thesis, and I still want to exhibit the photographs as part of sharing the research with others. But I’m not sure it will have the emotional impact of the scars project, and I won’t do it just for the sake of it, so I’m leaving that option open for now, to be examined and decided on at some point down that road I’ll make by walking.

holiday iPhone photos (25 of 83)

We didn’t discuss autoethnography, and I wasn’t brave enough to bring it up, which translated really means I didn’t believe in it enough. Case studies are my favourite approach to read and (with the grand total of one short thesis under my belt) to write about too, so I’m very happy to go with that approach. Who I am and what I see will be deeply embedded in the work anyway. I’m reading a book on why photography matters, and part of its argument is that how we “understand what photography is and how it works tell us something about how we understand anything.” To which I would extend the observation that how I understand what photography is and how it works will tell you something about how I understand anything. How I understand what research is and how it works will tell you something about how I understand anything.

my mothers creepy doll 2I’m also aiming to produce a creative non-fiction work based on the research too, and more of me will be explicitly in that. And yes, there’s still the one based on some ideas in the Master’s to finish too. One PhD, two books, a photographic exhibition, marking, parenting, tutoring, filling up my own creative well with random projects unrelated to any of the above.

My mother’s creepy doll is horrified by the idea. But I don’t listen to her much. She’s horrified by a lot of things.

a note before i forget

To follow on from the post below. I have also been thinking about how you represent objects that aren’t there from a photographic/artistic perspective, because, ummm…

But then I realised you don’t. What you represent  photographically/artistically is the emotional artefact of the shadow objects. So the process then becomes a movement between ‘real’ object to shadow object and emotional artefact, and back again to something ‘real’.

The end.