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Visual Art

Mondovi Artist Revitalizes Ancient Encaustic Form

Hannah Mumm, photos by Andrea Paulseth |

WAX ON, WAX OFF. Mondovi artist Kay Geraghty’s encaustic painting technique employs fast-setting hot wax and pigments.
WAX ON, WAX OFF. Mondovi artist Kay Geraghty’s encaustic painting technique employs fast-setting hot wax and pigments.

Kay Geraghty spent her career behind a camera lens. Ask and the retired photographer will assure you that she can’t paint in oil, acrylics, or watercolor. She worries that her online class on realistic portraiture drawing will be above her skill level.

Walk into the Volume One Gallery and marvel at the mixed-media paintings gracing the walls. Look into the eyes of children, siblings, mothers, fathers from Cuba, Africa, Australia – even Wisconsin. Imagine yourself on an African safari as you walk by magnificent landscapes and gaze at exotic wildlife you’ve only ever seen in zoos.

Kay Geraghty

Glance at the signature scratched simply in black on the base of each breathtaking piece and realize that these paintings, full of texture and life like nothing you’ve ever seen, are the works of Kay Geraghty. The same Kay Geraghty who can’t paint in traditional mediums to save her life.

The truth is, Geraghty can paint. Well. She shies away from today’s staples like watercolors and acrylics in favor of a different and decidedly more difficult medium: encaustic.

The encaustic tradition dates back to the early centuries A.D. when it was used in Egyptian mummy portraits. A German painter inspired the rebirth of the encaustic form in the early 20th century, and a few modern artists still practice it today. Also known as hot wax painting, encaustic painting uses heat to fuse beeswax and resin (encaustic medium) in layers, starting with clear medium and moving to pigmented medium as the painting progresses. Detail work is done with brushes, pallet knives, or any other tool the artist prefers. The medium sets just seconds after its heat source is removed, making the process fast-paced and exciting.

Thankfully, the medium can be reheated and altered if the fused product doesn’t meet the artist’s aesthetic expectations. However, notes Geraghty, reheating can be as much a curse as a blessing.

“If you’re really happy with how the painting looks, you have to be really careful fusing because the fire will move it,” she says. “You never know what you’re going to end up with.”

Geraghty, of Mondovi, discovered encaustic painting through her photography. She met Minneapolis-based photographer and encaustic wiz Clare O’Neill at a photography seminar in the Twin Cities. The two started talking and struck up a friendship. Geraghty ended up spending a weekend with O’Neill learning the basics of encaustic.

Since then, she’s fallen in love with the encaustic medium.

It is fun. It’s fun. It’s fast. You can make mistakes and then scrape it off,” she says.

Now the Chippewa Valley’s encaustic expert, Geraghty has created an impressive collection of original artwork. Her art is inspired by her photographs, many from transcontinental adventures to places such as Africa and Australia.

“They’re from my travels,” she notes. “They go back to my photography. All of them are parts or composites of pictures I have taken.”

Most modern artists, Geraghty included, are not encaustic purists. Her paintings are primary encaustic mixed-media, using materials other than the beeswax-resin medium including watercolor paints, oil sticks, India ink, pan pastels, and pieces of photographs she’s taken. She often uses tissue paper for backgrounds, giving her paintings a unique tactile quality.

Perhaps the most unorthodox material Geraghty incorporates into her encaustic pieces is roofing tar. She favors the tar for its deep brown hue and uses it to color borders and bodies in most of her work. She paints on panel boards custom-cut by her husband. When she finishes a piece, he creates a frame. Each frame is tailored to best fit the size and orientation of her painting. 

Geraghty continues to explore the encaustic medium and search for a niche. She wants to try her hand at photorealism and just started an online class on realistic portraitures. This year, she plans to do an encaustic series on the Wisconsin Barn Quilt Tour.

Check out Kay Geraghty’s work at “Encaustic Painting: The Fusion of Hot Wax and Mixed-Media” at the Volume One Gallery, 205 N. Dewey St., Eau Claire. Art will be on display through March 4.