Irreverence for what is lost is rarely so succinctly expressed as in the art of Kim McCarthy. Of the North is a documentary starring the people, forests, lakes, and rocks that characterize Northern Ontario. The following piece surmises the essence of McCarthy’s series: embodied here is a introduction to the media, styles, and themes ensconced its neighbours by wax. The mills, mines, farms, and fisheries that once drove Canada’s prosperity are built upon the land explored and tamed by the likenesses of ancestors past. Down and back into time their stories are preserved to be excavated, remembered, and saluted.
McCarthy grew up in Geraldton, Ontario. It’s an airstrip of a town a little more than 3 hours northeast of Thunder Bay, north even from the vast inland freshwater sea called Lake Superior. She attended Lakehead University for Fine Art, and later did additional courses at the University of Lethbridge, the Ontario College of Art and Design and York University, and worked as a teacher for many years in Toronto. In due time, she retired to the small town of Stratford, known for its venerable theater company and reputation as an artist’s haven (a reputation she reciprocates).
Of the North is Kim McCarthy’s excavation of a personal and national past. Like the tomb of the unknown explorer, it is simultaneously a shrine to the singular man whose symbolic effigy conducts the artist’s ruminations backward in time, and to the whole congress of men and women whom he represents. The series is a personal initialization that the artist chooses to share. In appreciation and recalibration, Kim McCarthy, for just a moment, quits beating her oars, and lets the current draw her back.
“This series emerged as a result of a life altering experience when my son and I went for a tour of Dynamic Earth in Sudbury, Ontario. Witnessing what the conditions in underground mining were like and imagining what my grandfather’s experiences must have been like in this world of work deep in the layers of the earth gave me a different perspective. I imagined that the miners must have been grateful to be alive at the end of each shift and to emerge above ground again! After that tour I had a different frame of reference for whatever I thought were my life’s problems.
Upon returning to Southern Ontario, I pored through old albums of photos looking at them with a new awareness and appreciation. The paintings flowed out of me in the studio as I examined my family heritage. I intertwined regional imagery, local diction and used a palette that reflected the colours found in the stone of the hard rock around my home town.”
It is not without a little guilt that McCarthy catalogues the vibrant mnemonic experiences borne from her trip to Sudbury. Of the North a decades-long pilgrimage from her hometown in the north to the biggest metropolitan area in Canada, and finally to southern Ontario’s comparatively neutered vision of a retreat from that urbanity. The medium chosen to encapsulate McCarthy’s temporal experimentation may not be one with which you are familiar, but is perfectly suited to capture the varied, contradictory aims contained in the work as a whole.
Kim McCarthy’s luminous work may not resemble any medium with which you are familiar. Of the North deftly integrates the temporal quality of photography with the cathartic craftwork and emotional investment gifted by collage and sculpture. Brushstrokes, scriptwork, photography, printmaking, and weaving come together as both physical action of creation and symbolic expression of familial, patriotic, and empathetic attachment. Using an ancient method of fusing melted, pigmented wax to a substrate, the result is a collection that impressively showcases not just McCarthy’s personal history and her place in the collective history of Canada, but also her process of bringing the work to us. If one were so inclined, they could read the stories of her creations like a geologist can read the shaping of the land from colossal forces.
Though there are several methods for manipulating wax to carry pigment or dye onto a substrate (including an overarching division between hot, melted wax and cold, liquid wax-soap solution) McCarthy’s form is the most strict observance of encaustic art (a word deriving from the Greek for “burn in”). The most common form is a pigmented beeswax-resin blend capable of being painted, sculpted, or used as a medium for ink transfer. The many techniques facilitated by encaustic allow for great variety within a single piece. It is fitting for McCarthy to have used a naturally-sourced art form known to ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece, and Byzantium for her wilderness-inspired historical catharsis.
Much of the symbolic content found in Of the North is manipulated photographs, often mirrored, bleached, or merely faded with time. By expanding the borders of the original photographs, McCarthy recontextualizes the scenes to be more generally representative of their locale and era. The artist is herself building upon another person’s curating efforts, given the editorial nature of the photobooks she drew inspiration and subject matter from. Kim McCarthy is another link in a familial line of ruminating upon, incorporating, and reinterpreting the past for the present and future. Of the North is the newest installment in a labour of love.
McCarthy’s ruminations on personal layers of history are evident in her painting style, which involves layers of colour and the incorporation of found and designed elements to reorient her frame of reference in the foundations of the past. The artist takes full advantage of the features of her chosen medium to communicate the weave of time and space, of the present being built upon the past, and the expressiveness of artifacts that are subject to symbolic exaggeration.
Encaustic received a boost in interest in the late twentieth century when the tools for melting and fusing wax became more readily available. Gail Savitsky is partially responsible for the diffusion of interest in artistry using hot wax, having curated an exhibit called “Waxing Poetic: Encaustic Art in America” in 1999. She had this to say of the medium: “What impressed me most about encaustic is the union of form and content and that it seems to be a great vehicle for expressing a range of concerns.” Savitsky is referring to the deterministic relationship between a medium’s function and form. Just as oil painting overtook tempera painting (characterized by the use of egg yolk as a binder) because of oil’s slower drying time that allowed more detailed work and blending of wet colours for subtle variations, encaustic increases an artist’s capacity to the benefit of their expression. The wax can be poured, brushed, scraped, melted, buffed, polished, cast, sculpted, scribed, and transferred to. Its versatility is multiplied again by the applicability of wax to wood, plastic, canvas, and glass.
Much encaustic painting emulates oil or acrylic appearances and iconography, and can be judged without having a grasp of encaustic development. A notable difference is the brighter shine that wax produces in light, lending a more subdued, lifelike, almost subdermal luminosity to human forms, which only the most exceptional oil painters approach. Wax’s viscosity and plasticity are more deterministic on encaustic style, being what one might call the medium’s defining feature. There is something raw about the process of melting down, building up, fusing in, and scraping away that emulates the emotional growth we all through in or lives, such that the creation of the work itself is a facsimile of our own organic formation.
The summation of these techniques is a medium that forgives mistakes; encourages layers as a functional element and a symbolic feature denoting time; opposes and interconnects complex concepts; regales with artifactual symbolism, divination, and storytelling; embodies destruction and growth; indulges the nihilistic order and deliberate chaos of nature; finds fortune in mistakes; assures the endurance of narrative; finds fragility in hardiness, and vice versa; and reinforces the unparalleled luminosity of the human subject. Any of these can be excavated in Of the North.
McCarthy speaks generally of her inspiration as, “a symbolic reflection of whatever I’ve been going through in my own life.” She takes great pleasure in watching viewers engage with her art, due to there being “enough of a universal thread that people relate to it.” However, there are some downsides to encaustic being so immediate, versatile and forgiving that it allows for such playfulness and universal appeal. McCarthy resists the sophomoric urge to overcomplicate her pieces and thus depart too greatly from a clear message.
Still, encaustic art can almost be overly expressive. McCarthy layers wax, coloured like the stone found around her hometown, to visually approximate millenia of detritus before her own ancestors arrived to dig down and mold as they saw fit. Her legacy is built upon these collective thousands of years of creation and excavation. The idea is romantic in its ancientness. Old but new, with a high barrier of entry but great plasticity, parallels can be found between encaustic and the colonization of North America.
On the other hand, there are few like McCarthy, who paint, weave, incise, transfer, and decorate with the wax. The effect is a highly narrative-driven work. A single piece suffices to indicate McCarthy’s personal style. Highly expressive and emotional, “Of the North” gives us a look at the artist’s “flow” state, at the tender and intimate moments she must have had in her compulsion to connect with family artifacts, and it hints at the satisfaction that we sometimes lose by increasingly relying on digital articulates instead of our immediate physical surroundings.
Chester Arnold is quoted to have said, “If oil paint is the prose of painting, then encaustic is its poetry.” To explore the medium more, look into Encaustic Art in the 21st Century. Curated by Ashley Rooney, the tome features 79 artists incorporating wax, of which just three are Canadian. Kim McCarthy has the well-deserved good fortune of being featured in this definitive collection of North American encaustic artists.