Atlas // The Story of a Nomadic Painting
LIKE FATHER LIKE SON
Life began for the painting long before I answered that Craigslist ad. I met Chris when he was given the daunting task of clearing out his childhood home in the Beaches, after the recent passing of his parents. I say daunting, because it was his father who was a “collector of all things,” a borderline hoarder, a man who found it difficult to simply walk past things discarded curbside.
Chris was a humble man, and though it would have made things a lot easier for him, he had chosen not to send these accumulations to the dump when he knew someone out there would use them. I suppose he was like his old man that way. Amongst the piles were plywood cutoffs, old empty film reels, wooden crates, ancient bakelite and brass telecommunication cables, and list-goes-ons. Day after day he would take his time pulling things out of the damp stable-turned-garage, posting multiple ads on Craigslist, hoping to draw people who might legitimately have a use for such randoms. One of those ads, citing some plywood and a curious, loud orange “Vote for Neil Young NDP” sign, brought me into the mix.
I made the short trip to Chris’ old family home in the trusty wagon. I found that most of what he was offering was fairly useful, standard stuff. Once we began to load the boards into the car, I noticed a particular large piece of plywood leaning up against the corner of the house, with chunks of what looked like cracked, lifted wax of various colours hanging on for dear life. I could see the panel was in rough shape, its edges now blackened and irregular.
I didn’t say anything about it at first. To be honest, I didn’t even know what I was looking at yet. It was so filthy, there wasn’t a whole lot to see. After a few more trips to the car, Chris brought it up and offered it to me. He said his father found it on the street some time ago, an encaustic wax painting that had been abandoned by the artist. Like a lot of things, it got thrown into that old garage for safe keeping, and there it sat for decades in the damp darkness.
My interest quickly increased upon a closer look. Much of the wax was cracked and gone, what was left looked as if it was ready to jump off the surface. It had become blackened with the grime of the continuous turning seasons. Beneath all that, just peeking, I could see some interesting groupings of colour, so in the car it went. We shook hands and I was off.
Back at the studio, I leaned it up against a small pile of other panels, as the front facing. It sat there for a few weeks, watching me work as I was knee deep in prep for a fast approaching solo show at Goodfellas. I was unsure of its future, but also increasingly curious to see what it was hiding. Soon enough I had cleared one of my bench tables and was ready to attempt a closer look.
I already knew I wanted to use it in my work, what I didn’t know was how much I could use, the edges were brittle and crumbling from a harsh life. It would come down to how well it cleaned up and how much the colours would beam. After trimming off about 4 inches of the irregular rotted perimeter, I had good a good stable and squared project to work with.
So began my unexpected journey of archaeology with ATLAS.
After some careful testing, I spent nearly two days cleaning the 4×5 relic with a toothbrush, some wood bleach, and thinned oil. I was in for treats along the way; there were far more colour variations than I had previously thought. A gorgeous metallic orange shield spread across much of the width of the piece, while loads of beautiful fine checking and cracking cratered the North, where large fields of blue and white streaks lay.
It’s hard to say what the painting was like in its first life, a plethora of questions emerged in my mind while I slowly inched across it, like a snail in a parking lot. Was it an abstract? A landscape? An experiment gone wrong? Who was the artist? Were they experienced with the medium? What drove them to abandon it? Was it frustration? Boredom? Was it even the artist at all that put it out to the street? I would love to have any of these answers, but I was also enjoying the mystery.
A MAJESTIC EMERGES
Before I knew it, a kind of familiarity came about. It was starting to look like an old map. A really old map. A hand drawn, hand coloured map with many shorelines trailing off as unknown territory. Even the backdrop negative space of the newly cleaned and brightened ply was showing ocean current grain swirls, with a patina like thick, aged paper. I became excited about that level of character, and I quickly made the decision to go with it.
It needed some compositional assistance to bring the geography spirit to life. I also had in mind to give it a more tightened, polished feel. The decision to slice and insert latitude lines and proportioned polar regions in a thick reflective white resin solved both these issues. It was important to me that the elongation was aesthetically beautiful without becoming a distraction to the encaustic, and that the piece would compositionally stand on its own even when the viewer was without backstory. I was pleased with the results.
I admit I was pleasantly surprised when ATLAS went on to be a crowd favourite that opening night July 20, 2013. Surprised, not because I didn’t think it had the calibre, but because most visitors did not know the backstory, which I suppose in my biased mind was integral to its birth and rebirth. But what did I have to complain about? It was clearly a success on aesthetics alone, for the “it is what it is” factor. I was more than just a little happy to respond to compliments all night with elaboration of this story. To shed light on its soul. That is why I am here writing this, and I should be so lucky to have more experiences like it.