Some of Your Beeswax

The McLean Project for the Arts will exhibit a retrospective of the works of Richmond-based artist Susanne K. Arnold, Sep. 12 through Nov. 2, welcoming home the former McLean resident.

“MPA is very interested in highlighting the work of certain mid-career artists who have been making art for many years in a serious and committed way. Susanne Arnold is such an artist,” said Nancy Sausser, MPA’s exhibitions director. “Susanne Arnold was chosen for a number of reasons. First and foremost, as with all MPA exhibitions, is the quality and originality of the work. We also strive to put together an exhibition schedule that balances a broad variety of working styles, topics, and mediums.”

Arnold’s work is unusual and original in a few ways – she combines personal history with archeological imagery using various techniques in both two and three dimensions.

“This is work that covers 30 years or so, and it will be interesting to see the concepts and working methods change and develop as certain ideas are revisited time and again, each time a little differently,” Sausser said. “This gives the audience a broad and long view of the artist’s working life and the nature of a long-term creative exploration.”

Over the past three decades, Arnold has been associated as one of the artists who has revived the age-old technique of encaustic, which combines pigment with hot wax (made popular by the Etruscans), and she has adapted the process to
three dimensions.

“I’m excited to return to the area. I went to William & Mary and transferred to Richmond and stayed,” Arnold said. “I have been interested in art as early as I can remember.”

When she was nine, Arnold was punished in school because she painted the sky a color that was something other than blue. She thought it was reasonable, but couldn’t get her artistic point across to the teacher. It was obvious then that Arnold would have a unique and distinct art career.

“A lot of my early images came from books I read, as well as the fact that we were poor after my father died,” she said. “There was a little book an ancestor had written about a young child in the Civil War, and it fascinated me. There was this over-layering of the past and present in my head, and from that came many images.”

After college, Arnold married, had children, and worked out of a studio in her home – as she still does today. One day, she noticed someone digging, and this became a common theme in her work, whether it was a child digging in a sandbox, a cat outside in the dirt, or a worker at an extrication site. Soon, she discovered the encaustic technique and preferred this as her art form. Still, it’s her physical connection to her materials, and to nature itself, that gives voice and commentary to these images of loss, pain, transformation, and renewal.

“I was born more of a sculptor than a painter, always chopping up blocks and making things out of other things,” she said. “With this technique, it’s very complicated. When you heat it, it becomes liquid, and it’s a wonderful paint. It’s like trying to paint over a grill while you’re trying to cook. You have to wait for the right temperature, use it for a short period of time before it cools, and be careful.”

For the past several years, Arnold has focused on making small experimental work out of beeswax and salvaged discards from her garden and neighborhood as a means to push the boundaries of her creative ideas, medium, and process.

“My head has always been crowded with ideas and images, both ancient and contemporary,” Arnold said. “As a Virginian, it is no accident that images of past and present, memory and imagination overlap in my work, nor that current media stories and pictures of domestic and civil wars, and natural disasters, have resonance in my mind and studio.”

She exhibits her work nationally and has taken artist residencies sponsored by the Virginia Commission for the Arts and the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. She also received two Virginia Museum fellowships and artist grants from the Ludwig Vogelstein and Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundations.

The MPA show, titled “Buried Voices,” will showcase Arnold’s work done with variations of the encaustic technique, as well as works made from found objects and works combining the two. As a long active artist and teacher, Arnold creates art inspired by memory, experience, and imagination. Her work includes imagery exploring archeology and artifacts and the mythology of ancient civilizations and how it relates to the artist’s personal history. Materials used include paper, wood, wax, pigment, charcoal, beeswax,
and polystyrene.

“As an artist, I am constantly reinventing myself through intense studio experimentation,” she said. “The progression of memories and ideas unearthed through this working method has resulted in a vocabulary of images and forms that serve as metaphors for the passage of time and the struggle between nature and civilization.”

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