Photo credit: Michael D Wilson
Q&A with Encausticbord artist Dietlind Vander Schaaf
With work that references teachings from Zen Buddhism, Christian mysticism, the poetic traditions, and contemplative practices including yoga and meditation, Dietlind Vander Schaaf’s artwork has been described as “the transformation of disparate objects into elegantly simple compositions of pattern and grace” (Artscope).
Vatn VII, 30” x 40”, encaustic and oil on Encausticbord, 2020
Q: Do you know how your paintings are going to end? Or are they more of an ebb and flow process?
A: I don’t know how my paintings are going to end. When I began working with encaustic, I definitely had a particular goal or vision in mind for each piece, but over time I let go of needing to know exactly where I was going with a particular painting. I might have a loose idea of what I want to do, but what I end up with is nearly always a surprise. It sounds funny to say, but each painting has its own unique personality. I have found that I do better if I stay engaged and present with what is happening and respond to that instead of trying to engineer an outcome.
Draumar II, 30” x 30” encaustic, oil, and 23 karat gold leaf on Encausticbord, 2020
Q: Your color palette is heavy on the cool colors with very few having red, or oranges. Tell us a little about this.
A: I actually love orange and magenta and all sorts of warm, bright colors, but I don’t gravitate toward them with my own work. I think it has to do with what my work is about – which is creating a calming presence. I find blues and grays and deep greens and dark grays to be soothing and cooling. I feel like I understand how to work with them, whereas bright colors sort of overwhelm or overstimulate me. I appreciate them in other people’s work though. In fact, I have a piece on my inspiration board in my studio with bright cadmium red stitching in it by my friend Leslie Giuliani that I am wild about. I particularly enjoy how it activates everything else around it.
Bodø, 30” x 30”, encaustic, oil, and 23 karat gold leaf on Encausticbord, 2020
Q: When you moved from San Francisco to Portland, ME in 2010, did you notice a change in your style or process?
A: Definitely. I wasn’t working with encaustic at that time. I was painting with acrylic and doing a lot of collage work that involved text. All of my work was representational. I began working at Maine College of Art in 2010, which exposed to me a wide, eclectic, and diverse range of art and artists. That’s when I fell in love with abstraction.
I actually feel like I stumbled backward into it because I actively disliked abstract work for a long time before that. It felt inaccessible. And then one day I saw a black and silver piece by an artist named Louise Philbrick. It was based on the Periodic Table of the Elements. I returned to look at it again and again for weeks. I obsessed over it because it made me feel something I hadn’t really felt before. That’s when I began to see differently and, eventually, work differently. It took me a while, but once I began working abstractly, I felt I was beginning to develop a language of my own.
Shizuka, 14” x 11”, encaustic, oil, and 23 karat gold leaf on Encausticbord, 2018
Q: You study Zen Buddhism. What influence does this have on your artwork?
A: I have had a life-long interest in contemplative practice and spirituality. Back in my late teens and early twenties, I worked with a therapist who was a Japanese Zen Buddhist. Every weekend he held a two-hour sangha, which involved sitting and walking meditation. At the time I was studying history and examining Christianity and Buddhism from a historical perspective. I started practicing yoga and began attending a yoga retreat center in the Berkshires called Kripalu. I lived there for a bit as a volunteer working in the kitchen and later returned for workshops and to become a yoga teacher. When I moved to California, I spent time at Tassajara Zen Center and Green Gulch Zen Center.
Some of these interests came out of a search for meaning. Some from a curiosity about death and dying. (I lost a few really good friends when I was a teenager). Some came from a need to find ways to slow down and modulate my own anxiety.
As my work has evolved there have been these constant threads of narrative, beauty, stillness, a deep and abiding gratitude for the natural world. Contemplative practice has helped me to find and return to my center and I think that is felt in the work itself. At least, that’s my intention.
El Campo, 36” x 36”, encaustic, oil, and 23 karat gold leaf on Encausticbord, 2020
Q: You mention that your work embodies “the dynamic interplay between chaos and order…]”. Do you prefer chaos or order?
A: My partner would tell you I prefer order, and that’s definitely true, but I have come to really appreciate the role that something wild and slightly off-balance can add in terms of keeping a painting from feeling stagnant.
If I control too much in my work, it feels tight to me. It’s a little like gardening. When we bought our house six years ago, I tried to bring complete order to all the plants around our yard. I wanted to lift and separate everything and have lots of space in between and absolutely no weeds. But now, I’ve found more of an appreciation for a garden that is like a Japanese flower arrangement with different things happening at different levels, which include colors that play off one another, and textures that are both rough and smooth, maybe something trailing.
I definitely have to work to let go of my intense desire for order. When I was teaching in The Netherlands last year, I began to understand that some of my aesthetics may in fact be hard-wired given my Dutch ancestry. But if you think about art from a Wabi-Sabi perspective, which is more where my head is these days in my mid-forties, you understand that transience and imperfection are givens to be accepted and embraced. That’s a good practice for the studio and also for life.
Munay, 24” x 42”, encaustic, oil, and 23 karat gold leaf on Encausticbord, 2019
Q: Have you always painted with encaustic? Or did you start out with different mediums?
A: I started out with acrylic paint and gel mediums when I did collage work and switched to encaustic when I moved to Maine. I had seen some paintings done between layers of poured synthetic resin when I was living in California that really fascinated me for their depth. I wanted to work like that, but I didn’t want to work with chemicals or wear a respirator.
I saw my first encaustic painting in a gallery in Portland, Maine and it was pretty much love at first sight. I appreciated the way encaustic could be manipulated to create transparent layers and was malleable enough to be carved into.
Regn, 24” x 32”, encaustic, oil, and 23 karat gold leaf on Encausticbord, 2019
Q: Finally, what do you love the most about Ampersand Encausticbord for your work?
A: Encausticbord is fantastic because you don’t have to contend with the air bubbles that can be a challenge working on unprimed cradled birch panels. I love the depth of the deeper Encausticbords and that little dark edge at the side of the panel where it’s attached to the cradling. I frequently finish the sides of my work with clear shellac and that dark edge looks very professional. I also never have to worry about panels warping, which has been a problem for me with a few of the cheaper cradled panels I started out working with. I also like Ampersand Encausticbord because I like knowing that it is manufactured in the United States by a small company. I know a little about the story of Ampersand and how it got its start and that’s important to me. I think where and how we spend our money matters.
Photo credit: Scott Dorrance
Dietlind Vander Schaaf holds an MFA from the University of San Francisco and an MA from the University of Southern Maine. Vander Schaaf has exhibited at the Cape Cod Museum of Art, Conrad Wilde Gallery, The Fuller Craft Museum, and On Center Gallery, among others, and been featured in Maine Home + Design, Decor Maine, and Downeast magazines. She is a Core Instructor for R&F Handmade Paints and the former president of New England Wax.
Vander Schaaf is an annual presenter at the International Encaustic Conference and teaches workshops throughout the country, including Haystack, Castle Hill, Penland, Maine College of Art, R&F, and internationally at Zijdelings in The Netherlands. The recipient of grants from the Maine Arts Commission and International Encaustic Artists, as well as a Tending Space Artist Fellowship from the Hemera Foundation, she is represented by Portland Art Gallery, Artemis Gallery, and Salon Design.