Caryl St. Ama: Interview

This interview presents to you Caryl St. Ama, a Claremont Graduate University alumni. I first met Caryl in an encaustic workshop with Daniella Woolf at Glendale Community College.

Caryl works from a studio in her home in South Pasadena. I have to say, she has a sweet set-up, including an amazingly calming view of nature from the French doors of her well-designed studio.

Caryl’s Studio View – Sweet!

I presented these questions to her in advance of our time together, then while in her studio we randomly talked about a variety of art topics from museum visits to processes and inspirations. I cannot thank Caryl enough for opening her schedule and her studio up to me.

Briefly, what kind of work do you make?

Currently, I’m working in Encaustic making nature inspired work. This is a brand new medium for me, so the kind of work I’m making is very different than the figurative oil painting I was doing for many, many years. My interest in encaustic started decades ago, but my current fascination started when I couldn’t get the oil to do what I wanted it to.

I was interested in working with the theme of the BP Oil Spill. I’m from the Texas Gulf Coast and I couldn’t take my mind off the hurricanes and then the spill. The Spill was the preverbal icing on the cake, in my mind. The images on the news haunted me. Encaustic wax has been the perfect medium to explore this theme and in a certain way, to explore this new medium.

Caryl St. Ama, Encaustic Works, Studio View

Interestingly, as I spoke with Caryl, I found out that it could take her up to a year to complete an oil painting. Encaustic painting has allowed her to create more immediate images making up to 50 paintings a year. She has embraced the flow of the hot wax and her work shows gorgeous depth and layering. Incidentally, she worked in oils in much the same way using layers and layers of glazes.

Caryl makes her own encaustic medium with 100% bees wax and damar crystals.

Studio stash of wax.

When did you consider yourself to be an artist?

I always had encouragement from my family, especially my mother, to be an artist. My mom bought me pastels and I remember her setting up a still life on the dining room table, showing me how to blend the colors and letting me work. After that, came a set of oil paints. I could set up my easel in my room, or in the dining room, basically anywhere I wanted to. So, it was early on, as a young girl, if I didn’t feel like an “artist” I certainly felt like I had talent that was encouraged and appreciated.

Did you have a plan for how you’ll set up your studio or did it evolve organically?

For this studio, I certainly had a plan; I put in skylights, French doors and windows, an industrial exhaust fan, insulation, drywall and studio lighting with electrical upgrades. This studio was designed and planned before we moved into the house, unlike any studio I have set up before. Then, when I decided to turn it into an encaustic studio, I was really glad I had made an electrical plan ahead of time!

Large hot palette work area.

Close up of large hot palette.

I bought this great 18 x 36″ encaustic palette and had to rearrange my work areas. I revisited and made another plan. I’m happy with the studio, but now I’m making plans for an upgrade to my tool storage area.

Existing tool closet.

What I found when I visited Caryl’s studio is an intimate and hardworking space with zones for tool storage, book shelves, a well-used easel, computer work and two hot encaustic work areas. The French doors she added gives her a beautiful view of green trees, plants and hillsides beyond.

Excellent Ventilation Fan

Does your studio location influence your work?

Yes, I think so. I used to work in a loft in Downtown LA, then moved to Northwest Pasadena and now here. I do see changes in the work over the decades. I’ve always had a studio near or in my living area and I really like having that live/work situation.

Caryl’s live/work is truly seamless. Two steps down from her kitchen puts her in the heart of her studio with vaulted ceilings and white walls and work in progress livening up the space.

Full View of Caryl’s studio layout.

Describe a typical day of work.

As a college art professor, I am lucky to be able to have time to work in large time chunks during the year. I don’t teach during the winter session (and now with budget cuts we aren’t offering winter session) so that gives me time from the middle of December to February. And, then after summer session or all summer if I’m not offered a class like this summer. During the semester, I find it difficult to work a lot in the beginning & at the end of the semester, but in the middle of the semester if things aren’t too crazy, I do get work done.

On a typical workday, I like to get in the studio first. Working in encaustic makes it difficult to work in the middle of the day when it’s hot since we don’t have air conditioning. But, mornings and evenings are great. I prefer to work in the mornings, take a break in the heat of the day, then as the day cools, return to the studio until sometimes very late.

One hot work area, the wax is cool for our conversation.

I let my wax melt while I drink my coffee and catch up on news, email, etc. When I leave the studio in the evening, I just close up, so I usually straighten things up before I start the next day. I put what I plan to work on up, so I can look at it. Sometimes, I know exactly the next step, sometimes, I don’t. If I don’t, I might start on another piece. I do work on more than one piece at a time, I have always done that no matter what medium I work in.

What materials do you most often use?

I use a lot of natural materials like plants and raffia, feathers, etc. I use lace and fabric, thread and sometimes ribbon. I also use paper, that I have handmade and (mono)printed on. I love texture and I will use almost anything that will create an interesting texture.

Two works in progress showing material use.

I asked Caryl where most of her materials come from. While Caryl admitted: “the craft store is my friend.” I also found out that many of her images and layers within her encaustic work comes from walks and hikes she takes on her travels and even plant materials right from her back yard. For me, the most endearing story was from a time she found the full body of a dead dry lizard in a Target Garden Center that she gingerly picked up and brought home to use in her work.

What is your most coveted studio furniture piece?

My big comfy chair Gordon surprised me with 15 years ago after we finished the studio remodel! Sometimes, I have to scoot the dog out of it, though!

As her interviewer, I was lucky enough to be offered a seat on this wonderful, deep golden comfy chair–sitting in it almost made me overstay my welcome!

A well loved studio chair.

What unique tools or devices do you use that are critical to your creative process?

I’m not sure these are unique, but I most often use ceramic tools and the Iwatani torch that Daniella Woolf introduced me to in a workshop I took last October in San Francisco. I use the torch as a “drawing or painting” tool, not to just fuse the wax. I over fuse or push the wax around with it to make different shapes in the wax.

Tools for encaustic work.

As I looked around Caryl’s studio it struck me that she was using many tools from other art forms to enhance her work in encaustics. Examples are: a rolling pin from her kitchen, non-stick cookie pan liners, wood carving tools, clay tools, and a handy lazy Susan so she could easily rotate her work when working in encaustic. She also has an enormous collection of paintbrushes that would be the envy of any painter! I learned that “The Brush Lady,” Judy Coyle, is her source of excellent quality reasonably priced brushes.

A wall of brushes. Spectacular, made me want to paint!

Can you tell me about an item in your studio that has significance to you?

I have several things; an easel I inherited from my dear friend and art collaborator, Michael Coomes when he passed away and several items we used during our collaborations and a painting from a series of paintings I did in honor of him.
Caryl spoke very fondly of the work she did with Michael in her living room in the coveted space over the mantel was a beautiful painting of his. She also mentioned some installation work she did with him for the LA Zoo and other public places–with my intense fascination with artists working collaboratively, I wanted to dig deeper into this subject with Caryl, yet instead I found myself dancing away from the topic and towards more comfortable subjects such as tools and work processes. Maybe another time…

One of Caryl’s figure drawings sits on the loved easel.

Describe your project schedule.

I work all the time whether I have a project coming up or not. I do have an exhibition in the fall and the paintings are all ready, except they need to be framed, or rather prepared for hanging. I will consult with the director to narrow down the choices and in a month, will decide how to exhibit them.

Where/when do you let ideas percolate?

I like to sit in my studio chair during the evening and look at my work. I spend time in the morning when the wax is melting. When I need to really think about my work and rethink a piece or the direction in general, I will stop work and clean the studio or go on a museum or gallery field trip. I have several friends I trust and consult. I will spend time working in a sketchbook, not necessarily on a certain piece, but just switch to drawing for a while. Or spend time reading instead of spending time in the studio. I like to change my location and travel. All those things help ideas percolate.

How often do you clean your studio?

That’s funny you ask that question. My husband says he always knows when I’m mulling over something because that’s when I’ll stop and clean the studio! If I’ve been out of the studio for a while, during the semester, or during a period of travel, I’ll clean the studio before I begin working. I’ll clean it whether it’s dirty or not – it’s a sorting out process, an organization of thoughts and materials. It’s really part of my percolating process, too.

How do you title your work?

For me, titling my work is almost as difficult and pricing my work. I don’t want to be too literal, but I also don’t want to be too esoteric, either. It’s difficult and I usually, try to find a balance. It’s also partially descriptive for me, so I can keep all the work files in order.

Caryl St. Ama, Encaustic Art, Studio View

Do you have or plan to have assistants?

I have had assistants when installing work, but not in making artwork. I would love to have assistance in making supports, framing, preparation of supports, etc. I hope the time will come where I’ll be able to afford that!

Have you or would you work for anther artist?

I have worked for other artists before. It’s a great experience and I think every artist should be so lucky to have that experience!

Tell me your artist motto, manifesto, or creed.

Enjoy your work – work whether you have an idea or not – just get into the studio. Trust yourself – something will happen and go from there.

Any advice for other artists?

Enjoy your work.
Work whether you have an idea or not. Just get into the studio and play.
Trust yourself. Listen to what others have to say, take what you need, then forget the rest.
Travel, read, draw, look, listen, play, love.
Be a good citizen of the world.
Enjoy your work.
Note: From what I could hear and see, her advise to other artists is exactly the way she builds her own practice. A true walking her talk artist! Awesome.

Any question should I have asked?
When we broached this question it lead us into: who is your muse and influences, inspirations and interests. Caryl is interested in the surrealist artists movement for the way that they bring disparate images together to complicate the resulting imagery. Lucian Freud is, and has been a tremendous influence on her figurative work. Her inspiration seems to come from the life she chooses to live – traveling, teaching and making art. However when I asked her this question directly she mentioned natural forms, objects and figuration as her most consistent inspiration over her career as an artist.

One of Caryl’s earlier figurative works in oil and collage.

As we wrapped up the meeting, I was most enthralled by her openness to learning a new medium after over 20 years as an oil painter. As was mentioned at the opening of this interview, she is currently working in encaustic. What I find interesting is that while she learned of the medium many years ago, it has only been in the last two years that she has devoted her practice almost exclusively to encaustic painting. The layering and transparent glazes she used in her oil paintings is a continued process in encaustics, yet the work to me seems more organic and abstract.

18 thoughts on “Caryl St. Ama: Interview

  1. Judy Coyle

    What a great interview, with plenty of accompanying photos and descriptions of the encaustic process which made it even more meaningful. Beautiful work Carol! I’m so glad that a few tools of the trade were obtained from me “the Brush Lady”, so I feel connected a bit to what you’re doing! Maybe some day I will try my hand at this medium as well.

    Judy Coyle

  2. Sam

    I’ve seen her studio and have been following her development as an artist and art teacher for many years. She is amazing and well-deserving of the interest demonstrated by your interview. Bravo to both of you!

  3. Lydia McGee

    I remember Caryl’s artwork in high school & she has always had talent. I love her work. I really enjoyed reading about Caryl & what she has accomplished. She is a good soul & has added a lot to our world through her eyes & her art & most likely, her heart. She has a great one from what I remember. Cheers to Caryl!

  4. Liana Avakians

    I’m so glad that this blog was posted. Caryl is such an amazing person and artist, and I admire her work. I thought the theme of the BP Oil Spill was really interesting, and I can’t wait for Caryl’s exhibition in fall! Thank you for providing us with all the resources and the great pictures from the interview!
    Great questions Suzanne and I really enjoyed reading your blog.

  5. Aliki Kritseli

    Caryl I really liked the whole interview. You are talking about your work and I have the impression
    that you are painting with words as well with wax and all these materials you are using!!!
    I love to feel that all means of human expression are in the service of such a creative process.
    Bravo, keep going!

  6. Laurie OBrien

    Beautiful article and right on target. It captures the natural, real, exuberant woman/artist Caryl is. It was my great joy and deep pleasure to get to see this very studio and even touch and smile over some extraordinary, percolating work. I saw up close and comfortably where great creativity is born. Thanks to both of you for sharing.

  7. Nancy

    I am curious why you shied away from talking about her collaboration with Coomes. I took a week long workshop with Nick Bantock, once, and afterwards several of us decided to collaborate on a book of art. One, from Brussels, made the book, itself. Then, over several years we passed it around between 5-6 of the other classmates. The one rule was you and to add a page AND add to another’s work. The other classmates, who were equally invited to participate, were clear that they did not want anyone touching/altering their art. The rest of us, all who had never collaborated, said, “Why not?” I don’t know when the book ended up, but its evolution over those several years was so much fun. It was amazing how we actually enhanced each others work. But, that process does diminish ownership/ego. Might make for an interesting topic, sometime.

    1. Suz

      Wonderful comment, thanks. I guess because Caryl only touched on this subject while we spoke and having only recently met her I was shy. But hearing from you I agree I’d like to know more. Maybe I need to do a follow-up? Learn to ask the right questions?

      I love your book idea too – I wonder if I could find a group willing to try it…humm. I appreciate your feedback, Suzanne


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