Laura Wait has never really gotten away from books. Or words. Or symbols. As she says in her artist’s statement, “Word forms as image are the primary focus of my art. Words and symbols, used as marks, are layered on paintings to form a wall of history with meaning at each depth. Aesthetics of words and symbols is of more importance than reading the text.”
Collage-y, palimpsest-y, intriguing, beguiling, and abstract—though always aesthetically beautiful—her paintings, both the acrylics and the encaustics, have been word-based, or mark-based, or symbol-based (depending on how decipherable her lettering is—and she admits that her words are often purposefully illegible) since 2008.
That was when she first began incorporating words directly into her paintings. In that series of works, ostensibly revolving around chess, she assimilated words from Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War into each piece. As she recalls today, from her airy south Santa Fe studio, “I remember thinking, This is where I’m going from now on.”
Wait came from a background steeped equally in art, books, and art books. After earning her BA in art history from Barnard College in New York, she studied lithography and drawing for a year at Los Angeles’ Otis College of Art & Design—where she heard about a printmaking course at England’s Croydon College of Art. So she skipped across the pond to get her certificate in printmaking while also specializing in intaglio and bookbinding. After all that studying, she figured, upon graduation, that “the bookbinding would support the painting,” she says. “But it took over my life for the next ten years.”
Over the years, as a professional bookbinder and book conservationist, she worked primarily for libraries, especially the Denver Public Library. She also did work for the Denver Botanic Gardens, where she immersed herself in a lot of 18th-century books about gardens and parterres, all of which were bursting with religious symbolism—a creative font for Wait, who’s not at all religious. “I worked on books that were all about the exploration of the West—books on maps, books of maps, books on travel and botany and topography.” All of which, the botany references, the religious symbolism, the cartographic look and feel, you can see in her paintings.
But there’s plenty more at work in her work. Asian writing, kanji (the adopted logographic Chinese characters used in modern Japanese writing), Greek (which was all about symbols), graffiti (“I’m really inspired by graffiti”) and, though not the letters or words themselves—free writing, where you just sit and write without lifting pen from paper. “I studied that with a woman from the Naropa Univerisity,” says Wait of the Boulder-based college founded in 1974 by a Tibetan Buddhist). “You just let your hand and eye be there. You get rid of all the extraneous stuff.”
It all fits with her intuitive methodology, and the overlap of books and painting. And the back and forth between acrylics and encaustic. For the acrylic paintings, she’ll write out words and other forms on Mylar plastic and then transfer that to a print, and then layer that onto the panel or canvas. And then another and another. Sometimes swooshing a big brush mark or a swirl here and there. “I like the effect of all these layers because it’s a history.” Whatever she has left over from the Mylar, she uses for her smaller books. “I keep thinking I’ve given up on the bookbinding, but then I keep making books. Books made out of stuff I use in my paintings.”
For the encaustic works, she’ll first put something down on paper with sumi ink and gouache. And then layer that onto the panel. The encaustics tend to have more layers than the acrylics. And Wait loves the transparency.
She often works off of lists of words. She’ll change them around, misspell them, alter them. And have fun with their etymologically artistic possibilities. And if she misspells anything—no worries. Proper grammar and spelling are beside the point, really. “It’s not words anymore that I’m after, it’s the feelings behind them. And the layers and layers of meanings that build up with them—but the meanings are very subconscious.”
In a way, her books are like enclosed paintings, whereas her paintings are open-ended books—books open to interpretation, open for all to see. Open to the world.