You have to believe in yourself even when you don’t believe in yourself.
Jenny Kallis Wax and Wood Studio
I come from a family background of art so it was always around, introduced to it really young, taking life drawing classes and really engaged with the human body at a pretty young age. I think it was like fifth or sixth grade that my mom was like, “Let’s put Jenny in this class,” because I was always drawing as a kid. But then cut to years later I had to go on and have a career-career; my parents said, “Art’s nice but you have to do something that we can get behind you to do.” So I thought, ok, design. It’s like art and I was drawing all the time and it was drafting tables. I became a designer and then into architecture. I was always still taking art classes on the side and doing what I wanted to, but just for myself. Then I’m turning 50 and looking for art for clients’ houses and thinking, “Wait a minute, I’m really jealous of these people who are making the art that I’m finding for somebody else’s house!” I’m in a position at this point in my life to shift – I’ve built my home, I’ve done my thing in a certain respect, and I’m at a time in my life to choose what I want to choose. So, starting around 50, I actively said, “I’m going to start making things just to make things and see how people respond.”
I really don’t want to be doing architecture, I really want to be doing art, but to tell you the truth, to do this for the money to make a living in the way that I had as an architect as an artist… that’s impossible. My whole reason for the change and wanting to do this in my 50s was not a financial change. And that’s the thing that people have to remind themselves as their making a life change at 50 and take up art – I discovered very quickly that I didn’t want to have to go stand by my art at an art show and do those kinds of interviews and wait for people to come in. There are some people that love the limelight. You have to want to do the shows and be in the shows and have that title. But there are so many people right now that are trying to ring that bell that it takes the joy out of just making. Because I don’t have to worry about the financial of it, it makes me much freer to just be able to play. And maybe in that freedom of being able to play, I’ll knock on that thing that’s so unusually different that it becomes something. I find a certain amount of art to be struggle. Constantly running, constantly getting lost, I spend more time on things than I can actually make back if I was looking at the hourly rate for myself as an architect.
Woodburning was the beginning and I thought it was cool and it was different enough that it would set me apart in some way. I was already thinking ahead: I’m going to give myself this much time to create a body of stuff, I’m not going to try to sell it or anything, I’m going to make it so that at that point I can have my own show and then hopefully other galleries will want me. I started learning and building and making things in my time when I could do minimal architecture. I was really trying to minimize architecture, I was saying no to architecture jobs. I was an Airbnb host in the house I had built and I was making art in my room. There was my bed and it was surrounded by my art tables. I had my own art show at my house. It took everything to move the furniture around so people could walk around through my house and I invited everybody I knew. That was really fun.
When I first started with woodburning, I thought, “Well, let’s see what I can do.” I love the simplicity of it. I made a mistake on one of my pieces; when you really overburn an area it looks terrible. What do I do? I covered it with some blue housepaint. A friend saw it and said, “I like the color, it’s kind of cool” – it was a very pale blue. But regular paint ultimately wouldn't be a good solution. I wouldn’t be able to shave it back. I had seen a wax painting demonstration at Cal State Long Beach when I was like 36, it was a methods and materials class. It was a shotgun class. Every two weeks the teacher or some special guest would come in and give us a quick demonstration and then we would have two weeks to create a project around it and in the meantime, you’d come in and it would be a studio class and the teacher would help you out and see your progress. This guy came in and brought his little cooktop and set it on the table and he was talking about how he likes to go camping and go out in the woods and with his fire or stovetop. He would melt the wax and make these little portraits of nature and sitting right before us he painted with wax and I was like “Wow! That is the coolest thing!” I was really turned on by it. I went out and I bought a brick of encaustic wax at the store and I had no idea what to do with it because YouTube wasn’t around yet. So I just kept that wax for the longest time. I went on with my life doing architecture trying to make a living and building a house. Cut to the present; I realize that painting with wax might be the solution to add color to pyrography. "I wonder if this brick of wax will work.” I literally had that same brick of wax. I put it into a pot and I melted it. I was just watching YouTubes and learned how to make my own wax, how to make my own encaustic medium. Because it’s not just beeswax, it’s a combination of things. I think somebody mentioned old oil paints and that stuck with me because I used to do oil painting and I have so many old oil paints and things that I inherited from my grandfathers – old kits that went way back and that ties into the family. I pulled those out and I just started experimenting. And then it went from there. With YouTube, you can only gain so much. I could probably sit there continually watching it, but ultimately you’re going to make the mistakes yourself. I was doing something completely different: there’s only one other person that I’ve found on google, in Australia – there may be more but I haven’t found them via google – that combines woodburning with wax.
I started with clear and really pale blue wax because I was very timid about what I could do with the wax and the woodburn without losing the woodburn. I love sky and birds and I love water. I started with your typical red, yellow, blue, your primaries, and I would kind of squish them together. I keep the scrapings and remelt them and I put a lot of clear into my colors. The color pigments are separated by the wax molecules so that’s why you’re able to see through the wax to the woodburning below.
Some of my pieces are straightforward experiments or playing, and some of them are in some way personal. I put my heart into them, so I don’t care if I sold that or not. I’m going to keep that one. They’re still out and around here, they’re just not for sale. I’m just keeping my collection.
A lot of my tools and scrapers are collected; you can buy encaustic supplies at the art supply store and I think that’s a great place for people to start. Painting with wax encaustic is like cooking and experimenting. I mostly use a lot of sculpting tools. And then I collect stuff, so every now and then I find fun things. I think I found this [wooden tool] at a garage sale one day. Tools are interesting, because everyone’s going to have their own way. Especially with encaustic. There are a hundred ways to do encaustic.
Encaustic is one of the oldest forms of painting, dating back to the fifth century BC and in the Fayum Valley in Egypt in the first and second century AD. Trojan warriors painted the face of the ships with red wax to go into battle. In the Fayum Valley they would entomb the mummies and paint the portrait of the entombed using beeswax and local earth pigments. Encaustic disappeared for a long time and then fast forward to 1954, Jasper Johns brought it back. I went to see the big show that he did in LA a couple of years ago, I was really excited about it. I was like, “I’m going to see this really thick, green encaustic wax on this thing…” and it wasn’t thick! It was mostly like he painted and then he put some wax on it at the end. That actually encouraged me, like I can do that, or I can do more. And then you can see the amazing things that people do with wax. That’s the cool thing about wax, you can put coins into it, you can put paper words into it, a lot of people do it with photography. I’m exploring new avenues of it… what else has not been explored with this medium?
My art studio doubles as a gallery. When people come in, I love to tell them about the encaustic process and history. I think I’m a better teacher than a sales person. I love talking to little kids. When this little kid came in here the other day and I said you can touch everything, it was amazing. He was really into art and he was into what he was seeing… as opposed to going into places with his mom where he has to stand back. I gave him a little piece of wax to hold on to. I love that aspect of it. I keep the doors closed and sometimes I’m like, “Ok, you want to come in?” when people show me they want to. But that allows me the freedom to make these experimental pieces without needing to sell them or bound by my own finances. I’ve set myself up to have the freedom to be here.
I’ve discovered, especially during coronavirus, that I still need to branch out and do things. My first trip I’d like would be Brazil for three months, put down temporary roots and just hang out with a friend. And also be making art while I’m there to see what happens. Ultimately, later on at some point I’d like to go live in Spain. I’d like to be able to travel to destination art schools and teach seminars. Because I’ve created a body of work and techniques in a language of my own. I can share my secrets and teach, which could pay for me to travel and live in Europe! So that’s my next vision. I do dream in large pictures. My philosophy for a few years is that I have so many friends that say, “I thought I’d be there by now, I thought I’d be set, why isn’t this this way.” You’re constantly rediscovering "yourself" and how to travel through life as you go. Even with my dream of Europe, who knows what could come along. You have to let go and roll with it, instead of fighting the situation. Relax and enjoy it.
They say “do what you love and the money follows” but it's a blurry line and sometimes and you have to believe in yourself even when you don’t believe in yourself. I just tell people to try things. Of course we make a living, but… I was always forward dreaming and planning. Always living the dream with flexibility.
Excerpt (while demonstrating wax during interview)
This is melted and if anything I’m going to turn the heat down now. You really have to keep the wax at a certain temperature because it can attract bees. When my door is open, if a bee wanders in and gets lost, I’m like, “Somewhere my wax is too hot.” I don’t want fumes. It’s just wax, like burning candles, but I like to keep it at a low heat mostly because I don’t want the bees getting lost. If I’m cooking it at above a certain temperature, there’s going to be some fumes that they might smell. Bees are attracted to the smell of beeswax.
This experiment is to have the wax be warm enough so that I can carve into it. I would like to do things that are almost like Japanese sand paintings. The tongs I'm using are different lengths so they’re not all carving the wax together... But that’s interesting. Let’s see if a fork will do better. No, the tongs aren’t all the same length. Well, you live and you learn! I still look at that as the beginning of something. Or I just scrape it all off and just start over.
Right now it’s cooling, so you’re seeing through it like a watercolor because I’ve got a lot of clear in this green. At this point I think that’s already cool – I’d put that on my wall, maybe do a little something extra to it. But that’s not the plan, here. The plan is to go for the full experiment. That’s the thing, sometimes it’s already cool and then you lose cool in your experiment, like, “Now I’ve gone and screwed it up. That was so cool until I went and did that.”
See there – I scraped out just a little too much. But it’ll be ok, that’ll be something that eventually will become interesting. I dipped down, I’ve got to be careful in how much I’m taking out, because at any moment I could be like “That was good enough, I should have left some of that clear on there” and then I gotta go put it back on. It’s just hard to know. Will this green in the cutaway be interesting? How much do we want to take off? See how it’s revealing now? I’ll leave some of the green around the border. Endless questions that have no answer until I get there. See how it’s revealing? That’s pretty cool because now more of the blue is showing through and it’s almost a little watery.
All it is, is time. That’s the question we have to ask ourselves in life: what’s the value of our time? It’s a really important question. I could be hanging out with a lot of people that I really don’t care for at a bar or something like that; is that my time? Is that the value of my time? Am I getting the most value out of this moment right now? I’d rather be home using my art stuff! Or gardening or quality friend time. It's the value of our experiences.
This is almost too much [scraping], I’ve been careless. But it still could turn out to be something very cool, we’ll see. Because this is where it begins – I’ve only just started this a few moments ago, and nothing is done in a few moments. If you’ve only done it in a few moments, you might not have put your whole soul into it. Even when I think I hit it, there’s still so much more to do.