Michelle Schaefer: Encaustic Nebulae

The Constant Observer

Michelle Schaefer
The Constant Observer

Michelle Schaefer‘s booth caught my eye at a recent art festival. From across the street, I was immediately drawn to the strong contrast between deep darks and fiery reds and yellows in her work — contrasts that convey an impression of enormous variations in space, temperature, and size.

Michelle uses encaustic wax techniques to build layered, textured paintings, including depictions of stars and nebulae, with hints of distant galaxies or ghostly traces of equations seemingly suspended below their translucent surfaces. Although encaustic is painstaking, involving up to twenty layers, Michelle achieves a remarkable degree of controlled detail, as seen in the yellow-headed vulture of The Constant Observer (above; detail below). As she told BioE, “the organic nature and texture of the beeswax enhances my work.” And because the wax can be worked and reworked, she can take more risks with each piece.

Constant Detail
Michelle Schaefer
The Constant Observer (detail)

Michelle doesn’t have a formal science degree, but regularly seeks out science lectures and other resources as inspiration. For example, her recent collection Where the Star Once Shone “explores stars at different stages of their development as they change, age and die while abstractly touching on the effect that this may or may not have on organic life.”

Michelle Schafer

Probably because I’ve recently been reading Neal Stephenson’s Anathem (such a good book), Michelle’s work reminds me of a pinhole camera aimed at the sun. Each painting takes grand natural phenomena, like stars or galaxies, and distills those phenomena to simpler forms in light and dark. The iterative layering of wax suggests the iterative process of data collection, culminating in the moment of discovery when raw data coalesce into rough, but recognizable, patterns. As Michelle told BioE, “My heart is pulled towards scientific pursuits and explorations.  I am a very inquisitive person by nature and I appreciate the tangible facts that come from scientific investigation.”

Michelle Schaefer

The overall effect of the paintings, though they depict vast, mysterious interstellar spaces, is calm, even pensive, yearning toward greater understanding. In paintings like The Constant Observer, which embodies the universe-watcher as a bird, it is not fully clear whether the artist expects artistic, scientific, or even mystic processes to lead to further understanding. What is apparent, however, is the grandeur, scope, and sensory range of the universe that we seek — by whatever means — to understand.

Images courtesy of Michelle Schafer.

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