Arts January 18, 2023

Going with the Flow of the Flame

Ardent for the ancient and emotional art of encaustic

Passion gets messy. Especially if it’s been smoldering, collecting energy through the years, and eventually igniting a soul. That is the ardor behind the flame of encaustic artist Jodie Stejer, who, five years ago, began fervently pursuing the medium. She fully realizes “that it’s been the greatest discovery of my true self so far.”

For an artist who loves simplicity, organization, and a clean studio, the torch (with a mind of its own) has compelled her to be messier, edgier, and more abstract; learning to go with the flow and passion of the flame.

“I’ve always loved fire—a bonfire, a fireplace in the home,” says Stejer. “It’s probably the number one reason I was really drawn to encaustic painting, that and its organic nature of beeswax and resin.”

Encaustic’s Greek origin, Enkaustikos, is the ancient process of fusing with heat, meaning “burn-in.” Creativity has “burned in” Stejer much of her life. Her grandfathers were woodworkers and jewelrymakers, and a grandmother sewed. Her mother painted with oil, and her father worked with wood and glass. Even though she was creative as a teenager, Stejer’s focus was sports, playing volleyball and attending Whitworth University in Spokane.

After college, she continued her education with an emphasis on interior design, then spent 20 years as a designer in Spokane. During that time, she met her husband, and they raised two kids. “Creativity has been a part of me for as long as I can remember, playing a significant role in defining who I am,” she explains. “It has been my way of expressing myself.”

After her kids left for college, she made the conscious decision to pursue the encaustic medium. She took a five-day private class five years ago and has never looked back. “It’s been a wild, fun ride,” says Stejer. “I’ve met so many great people. Eighty percent of my work is commission, so I’ve gotten to work intimately with clients, many of whom have become friends.”

Stejer and her husband John moved to Sun Valley a year and a half ago from Sandpoint, Idaho, where they had lived for 30 years and where she’d had a downtown studio since 2017. They wanted a change. They looked for an outdoor community and ski town with a lot to offer. They discovered they could abandon their hobbies in any direction right out of town. She opened her studio in the Walnut Avenue Mall in July 2021.

The encaustic process begins on a beautiful birch panel. Stejer applies a base of four coats of molten clear beeswax and damar resin, followed by four layers of white-colored wax to create a “fondant” look. Then, color pigment is added to a wax mixture, and the painted layers are applied, each fused separately with the torch for a proper bond.

Then it’s the “burning in.” The torch becomes the brush, bleeding colors, and layers together, messy-like. With different techniques, the hot breath can shift the wax into a textured landscape of shape, swirl, and pattern. Stejer will experiment with fusing different items into the wax layers—rocks, twigs, shellac, or alcohol inks. With a clay loop tool, she will randomly scrape back layers of wax, exposing previous colors laid, building complexity and depth in the piece. Her abstracts evoke impressions of ocean depths, the rhythm of gray, rainy days, or oily bubbles with sunset reflections.

Stejer soaks in the essence of the community and forays into nature to harness color inspiration and a creative approach to each piece. “If I’m painting for myself, I allow a piece to just direct itself through my emotions and see what comes out,” says Stejer. “Ultimately, every piece I have created is undergirded by a story yet interpreted differently by each observer. That is why art is so powerful. It speaks to the depths of the soul, connects, and inspires us, communicates for us.”

When the emotion and story are spent, Stejer shaves the edges of the birch box where the wax has dripped off the sides, revealing as she does what can be 25 to 40 layers laid down. Then, after six to 12 months of curing, the encaustic surface will have developed a “bloom,” or hazy residue, which Stejer then buffs to a permanent shine. The beeswax is impervious to moisture and will not yellow, fade or mold.

Encaustic painted bison and steer skulls adorn her studio walls, the fused and cured dripped layers on the bone a riotous collage of color. Enlarged photographs have been mounted on birch panels, too, embellished with encaustic for a 3D effect of texture and color. Says Stejer, “Primarily, I am an abstract artist. I like different palettes and styles. I can’t keep up with my mind as it overflows with new ideas to try. With each painting, I find myself even more fascinated by this medium and a desire to keep learning and pursuing this passion. It’s what makes me feel alive, open, and living the best version of myself. That’s my greatest inspiration.”

This article appears in the Winter 2022 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.