Hot and Touchy

By heating wax and pigment, Anita Giteck Drujon makes art you can grip

As a child growing up in New York City, artist Anita Giteck Drujon was mesmerized by the mummies in the basement of the Museum of Natural History. Many years later she was exposed to the medium of encaustic, in which heat is applied to pigment mixed with wax. An artist had sculpted funerary portraits and placed them alongside the mummified bodies of the dead. "Talk about coming full circle," says Drujon, who has lived and worked in South Florida for the past eight and a half years.

Although it dates back to ancient Egypt and Greece, encaustic remains relatively obscure. Drujon, however, has employed it as her medium of choice since the early '90s and has achieved some extraordinarily expressive effects. "I think I'll be working in encaustic for a long time," she says. "It's so... me."

She typically starts with some sort of paper-based collage on wood or Masonite -- she says you're just "asking for trouble" if you use canvas -- then covers it with layer after layer of pigment, wax, paper, and whatever else might be at hand. In her latest work, a series of seven-by-eleven­inch horizontal panels, various items have found their way into the dense layers of wax and paint: a small metal cross here, a strip of dark green ribbon there.

Encaustic is the medium of choice for "material" girl Anita Giteck Drujon
Encaustic is the medium of choice for "material" girl Anita Giteck Drujon

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The artist's works can be seen only by appointment at her studio in Pompano Beach; call 954-729-4372 or 954-255-9977

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Drujon eyes the ribbon skeptically, as if trying to rationalize its presence, before declaring, "I had to put that in." A stenciled silhouette of a sparrow also makes appearances in most of the panels in this series, which so far numbers nine and may eventually grow to include as many as thirty linked works. "I want it to be a cohesive body," the artist explains. The bird also became the finishing touch (and provided the title) for Le Petit Moineau (The Little Sparrow), an Edith Piaf­ inspired piece that's one of the artist's few titled works.

At first glance Drujon's work appears to be largely abstract, a delicate interplay of color, shape, and texture. But look closer and there's at least a trace of the human figure, usually female, in almost every piece. (Many of the early works include the rounded contours of a pregnant woman's body.) Tilt your head and consider that small panel with the metal cross, for instance, and it yields an embedded secret along the top edge of the image -- a woman's head from a classical portrait that Drujon has scanned and printed with her computer, then incorporated into the painting.

A large piece that comprises more than a hundred rectangular shapes -- "I love the idea of a grid," Drujon says -- is an almost overwhelming accumulation of imagery and textures. Faded old photographs seem to hover just above or beneath the waxy, color-saturated surface, surrounded by birds, flowers, and fluttering strips of paper. Other photos have been manipulated in various ways, and the harsh, angular women of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, those famous harbingers of modernism, have been wrenched from their context and scattered throughout the piece.

Drujon is an adjunct professor at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, Broward Community College, and Florida Atlantic University, as well as a member of several South Florida art guilds. She came to encaustic by way of cold-wax painting, in which a pasty white wax is mixed with pigment and then painted directly onto a surface. A triptych of highly stylized human figures above a sofa in Drujon's Pompano Beach condo/studio is a perfect example of the muted matte finish the artist achieved working with cold wax.

Encaustic introduces heat into the equation. On the large electric griddle that serves as her palette, Drujon warms small metal containers of wax, which can be either beeswax or paraffin, and pigment to around 250 degrees. Then she brushes or drips the wax mixture onto a work surface, which is situated horizontally to keep it from running. Finally the pigment and wax are moved around with a small iron.

Drujon, who got her B.F.A. from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston and her M.F.A. from the University of Miami, claims Matisse and the lesser-known Spanish abstract expressionist Antoni Tàpies as influences. (I catch a strong whiff of Rauschenberg as well.)

Tàpies, with his gritty, highly varied surfaces, makes sense, but Matisse? Drujon refers to the spare compositions of Matisse's The Dance, painted in the early 1900s, and the elegant paper cutouts of The Swimmingpool, done in 1952, two years before his death. It's less the Frenchman's economy of form she admires in these works than his mastery of the human body in motion.

"Really, all my work is about movement," Drujon insists. She has included a quote from Matisse that she deems relevant in a summary of her aesthetic (also known as an artist's statement): "Matisse put it perfectly when he said, "It is through [the human figure] that I best succeed in expressing the nearly religious feeling that I have towards life.'"

There's certainly a strong sense of movement in Drujon's work, but I think her paintings are even more about texture. How else to account for her boundless enthusiasm for the various bits of fabric, plastic, metal, and paper that turn up in piece after piece? Those bins overflowing with wads of colorful paper and other items in her studio aren't wastebaskets, they're sources of inspiration, repositories of the artist's tools of the trade.

Drujon acknowledges the textures of these raw ingredients have long fascinated her. "I've always just loved materials," she says, pointedly emphasizing the word, "their textural qualities." Again there's a telling comment in her artist's statement: "The materials I use (encaustic and collage) are extraordinary for me because they are so visceral and physical -- like pulling taffy. Tearing paper, pouring and moving the molten wax colors across a ground and the ritual of the layering, the process is so physical...."

Again and again Drujon urges me to run my fingers over the surfaces of her paintings, and indeed, they are irresistibly seductive. Here and there the wax rises in ridges that suggest the details of a topographical map. A stretch of silky smooth wax gives way to a patch of coarse, dusty metallic paint. The crinkled corner of a piece of paper juts out of the wax, begging to be touched.

When I remind her that, with rare exceptions, such tactile interaction with paintings goes dramatically against how we're conditioned to behave around art, Drujon pauses for a moment. Perhaps she should post an invitation to touch her paintings when they're displayed in public.

For the moment, however, aside from the occasional group exhibition that includes Drujon, the only public venues for viewing a selection of her works are two far-flung galleries: Ward-Nasse in New York's SoHo neighborhood and Hayes Macmillan in Boone, North Carolina. Maybe the enterprising director of some South Florida venue will remedy this situation. In the meantime Drujon welcomes visitors by appointment into her studio, where she intends to spend more and more time exploring the possibilities of encaustic.

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