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Waxing eloquent: Artist etches the topography of her past

By on November 29, 2017 in Arts with 0 Comments

Alessandra Piro with her Downstream to Leavenworth, cold wax, oil, graphite on birch panel.

By Susan Lagsdin

Food on the plate, furnishings and fabrics, the color of walls, custom-made cards to friends — all precise and all creative expression.

For years Alessandra Piro brought her keen and educated graphic artist’s eye for color, texture and composition to her own home.

She honed her skill as friends asked for her design advice, and eventually it escalated into a freelance career in Denver and in Wenatchee since 1988, where she worked with, among others, the clients of local residential builder Fred Dowdy.

“Those really important art school elements I learned at the start fit right in to interior design,” she said.

Her 30 years in the design profession — all while raising a family — were satisfying, but another passion was always pulling her. Finally, in 2014 she became what she wanted to be: a fine artist (in both senses of the phrase).

It was a pivotal year. With her adult children away from home and settled elsewhere, Alessandra took a few classes at WVC to refresh her long-past art school experience and just started painting.

At 61 she’s a woman with a clear purpose. “I always knew that sometime down the road I’d have my time,” Alessandra said. “Now I feel like I’m working so fast… trying to make up for 30 years of not painting.”

If the pace sounds a bit frenzied, not so the overall effect of her work. Alessandra’s chosen medium is encaustic (the Greek root means “to torch or burn”), but ironically her paintings are cool, studied, composed, easy on the eye.

There’s no immediate feeling that they are intricately wrought in a medium that defies predictability.

Realistic encaustics are rare — they lend themselves best to expression and abstraction because, “You never really have perfect control of it,” said Alessandra. “Encaustic is more like exploration than painting.”

Encaustic is also not for sissies. It means adroitly handling a flaming torch and hot beeswax. And it requires an extraordinary amount of patience to apply layer upon layer (up to 80) of wax that’s at every step etched, excavated, scraped and sculpted, sometimes with other materials imbedded: ash, sand, stones, beads or metallic strips — the additive possibilities are endless.

What Alessandra has come to love in her paintings is the lush and luminous quality that defines the medium and is hard to create with any other.

An ancient art form, encaustic is relatively new in the United States, so after Alessandra first learned about it in a Connecticut artist’s studio, she had to hunt for monographs and videos to supplant her first and only lesson. She was a local pioneer — now an easier medium, a gooey cold wax pre-mixed with pigments, is available.

Wenatchee Tributary II shows the topography surrounding the confluence of the Wenatchee River and the Columbia River. It is 24 inches by 24 inches by 2 inches cold wax, oil and graphite.

Her first studio was upstairs in her son’s former bedroom, but recently she’s commandeered the dining area of her Wenatchee home for more space. The room is all white paint and tarps, and walls have become hanging surfaces.

She’s in her element when she paints. “Everything else seems to drop away. I’m in the zone, almost like an adrenalin high,” she said. “It’s the solitary activity that I relish — just me, my supplies and my music.”

But her solitary art is often bolstered by the critical companionship of friends. Alessandra meets regularly with the “220” group, local female artists who bonded in Scott Bailey’s art classes and who offer each other advice and empathy in good doses. (“Sometimes I need them to tell me — ‘just stop!’ on a painting,” she said.)

Alessandra’s work has been accepted into prestigious encaustic art shows elsewhere, but her recent show at Caffé Mela entitled Confluence is a victory of another kind. The maplike tracings of river, cliff and canyon, lightly textured in dreamlike tones, are recognizable symbols and artifacts that remind us of where we live.

It is not only her largest local exhibit, “It’s really the topography of my life,” she said. “All the places I’ve loved — Lake Chelan, up the Icicle, the Methow — all those memories are here in my paintings.”

And every day she goes back to her studio, loving the work, making more paintings, making up for lost time.

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