Oregon Cultural Trust

Artist Elise Wagner: Coast to Coast

With a June show at Astoria’s Imogen Gallery, the Oregon encaustic painter from New Jersey comes full-circle.

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Elise Wagner, getting up close with her work. Photo courtesy of Elise Wagner.
Elise Wagner, getting up close with her work. Photo courtesy of Elise Wagner.

This month marks a new chapter in the career of artist Elise Wagner, long known for her encaustic paintings, with the opening of her June show “Wonder Lands” at Astoria’s Imogen Gallery. After more than a quarter-century in Portland, Wagner has also relocated to this picturesque, historic town where Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific. But it’s not the first time this New Jersey native has changed course, and her arrival in Astoria arguably marks, as for the explorers, completion of a coast-to-coast journey.

“Wonder Lands,” which continues at Imogen through July 8, is a self-described love letter to the northern Oregon coast, blending abstraction with evocations of topography, meteorology, and geology. The paintings’ titles, such as “King Tide,” “Above the Bar,” and “Surge,” indicate an artist seeing the landscape with fresh eyes and a palpable sense of awe.

Elise Wagner, “King Tide 1” (left) and “King Tide 2.” Both graphite collage transfer, encaustic and oil on panel; 14 x 11 inches.

A year and a half ago, Wagner purchased a 1918 Victorian house in the heart of downtown Astoria that had been rebuilt after a catastrophic 1922 fire that destroyed much of the city. She’s just a couple of blocks from the historic Flavel House, the cupola of which she can see from her bedroom, with additional views from her property to the Astor Column and the Columbia River.

“It’s really a magical place,” Wagner says. “It’s crazy, like I’m living in a fantasy. And I came here pretty much without a plan.”

Before the pandemic, she had begun to find her longtime home and studio in North Portland’s Overlook neighborhood increasingly dense, its leafy tranquility slipping away as two buildings went up across the street. As it did for many, the pandemic prompted Wagner’s yearning to get closer to nature, beyond the city.

She considered moving back to the East Coast, perhaps to the Hudson Valley — ground zero for an American landscape painting tradition she’s part of — but realized Astoria exemplified the beautiful Oregon she’d fallen in love with back in the 1980s, yet instead of a cross-country plane ride it was only a two-hour drive from her friends in Portland. Though you can’t take the Jersey girl out of Elise Wagner, Oregon is where she’s put roots down.

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Jersey Girl

Wagner grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan: another place where an iconic river meets the ocean, albeit a grittier one. In a time before Google Maps, her father worked in a waterfront warehouse, serving as a navigator for hundreds of freight trucks as they entered the city from all over the country. As shorthand for her own story, Wagner cites the opening credits to TV’s The Sopranos, as its mafioso protagonist drives down the New Jersey turnpike, the World Trade Center towers in his rear-view mirror, and through a montage of grassy wetlands, hulking oil-storage tanks, billowing factory smokestacks, sprawling railyards, skeletal steel bridges, brick Main Street storefronts, and white-clapboard houses.

The budding artist at age 4 in Jersey City, in 1970. Photo courtesy of Elise Wagner.
The budding artist at age 4 in Jersey City, in 1970. Photo courtesy of Elise Wagner.

Jersey City remains embedded in Wagner’s personality—a certain kind of East Coast directness and moxie—but her adult life and artistic career are defined by migrating to Oregon not long after high school. You might even call it an escape: from an environment of friction, addiction, and trauma. But as reflected in “Wonder Lands,” the title of her new Imogen Gallery show, Wagner’s art evokes a sense of wonder and humility before the forces of nature: ocean tides and celestial patterns, biology and astronomy, burgeoning clouds and massive glaciers.

Even so, it’s during childhood that she also first became interested in art. Wagner’s mom, who volunteered at the library, would bring home art books, and bought her daughter supplies to draw and paint. “That’s all I wanted to do when I was a kid,” Wagner recalls. “I just started drawing, and I never stopped.”

On December 18, 1982, however, her life changed forever when Wagner was injured in a head-on collision with a drunk driver. Several bones in her nose and face were broken, ending an occasional child-modeling career, and her knees were crushed, halting training in ballet. But the experience only deepened Wagner’s interest in art.

Art Mentors

Elise Wagner at ease. Photo: Rebekah Johnson
Elise Wagner at ease. Photo: Rebekah Johnson

In high school, Wagner took another step with the help of an art teacher, Onelio Marrero (a Cuban-born portraitist still active today), the first in a succession of artistic mentors who nourished her talent.

“He was my savior,” Wagner remembers. “He was just like, ‘Go into the city, read Art in America, get yourself a copy of Art News. He built a darkroom at school, took us out photographing, and taught us to develop our own photographs. He showed me how to do all kinds of things like transfer images onto acetate, do linocut printing, etching, plein-air painting. He had a huge effect on me. Huge. He encouraged me to enter competitions, and then I won them, and he just kept pushing me, and it was a big deal.” Wagner was interviewed and her art shown by a local public TV station, WNET-NY, which made a professional art career start to feel attainable.

Seeking a fresh start after the accident and amidst family friction, Wagner moved to Portland just after high school, following a boyfriend she’d met in New York. She began taking drawing classes at Portland Community College Sylvania under Robert Dozono, who connected her to another important mentor. “Bob was like, ‘Oh, you’re from New Jersey? Well, you’re gonna max out on your credits here, and what you need to do, you need to go talk to [renowned painter and educator] Mel Katz,’” she recalls. “He said, ‘Mel’s from Brooklyn, and I think you’ll get along with him. He does some good stuff over there at PSU.’”

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Wagner enrolled at Portland State and first studied for a year with Katz, who became another mentor. But in 1988 she and her boyfriend broke up, so Wagner dropped out and became a bike messenger. A year later, she moved to the Bay Area and was accepted at the San Francisco Art Institute. But she missed Portland and returned, re-enrolling at PSU. This time she also studied environmental biology, physics and geology, all of which would figure into her paintings. It was always an art career Wagner had in her sights.

In 1994, she rented a storefront studio from local glass artist Linda Ethier, who also became a mentor; the space, heretofore nonresidential, also became Wagner’s residence because she couldn’t afford both. “I called her up, and I said, Would it be possible if I live there? Because I’m worried that I’m going to graduate soon, and I’m going to be an art major that doesn’t have a studio, and I won’t be able to make art anymore, and I don’t want that to happen,’” Wagner recalls. “Linda said, ‘Why don’t you come over and talk to me?’ I rolled up on my bike, showed her some photos of my work, and Linda said, ‘Yeah, let’s make this work.” They even built out a bedroom and bathroom together.

“She’s a fellow East Coaster, and she was like, ‘I’ve been an artist all my life. I’ve never had a day job. You can do this. I’m gonna show you how,’” Wagner recalls.

Wax On

Elise Wagner in the studio, deep in the process. Photo courtesy of Elise Wagner.
Elise Wagner in the studio, deep in the process. Photo courtesy of Elise Wagner.

For nearly 30 years, Wagner has been known for and defined by her commitment to encaustic painting: combining colored pigments with hot wax and resin or oil. She’s even developed an entrepreneurial side, teaching encaustic in workshops in Portland and a variety of different cities, part of a generation of artists who have contributed to a worldwide resurgence of a painting style dating back thousands of years. The word encaustic originates from ancient Greek — meaning “burning in” or “to burn” — and was common in ancient Rome and Egypt. But when Wagner started, few seemed to be doing it.

“It was really kind of an accident,” she says. “I was in an abstract painting class. [Professor] Susan Harlan had started at Portland State that year, and she had done encaustic. She did a demonstration of the medium. At the time I was making these big abstract paintings, and trying to figure out how I could get transparency and layer my collage elements and have them stick. I was having a lot of trouble getting things to stick with oil paint. I tried epoxy resins. I tried switching to acrylics. Susan demonstrated encaustic and she said, ‘Well, we don’t have the facilities here at PSU to do this, but you can figure it out yourself. You just need a hot plate and some wax.’”

Working on her painting from the ground up. Photo courtesy of Elise Wagner.
Working on her painting from the ground up. Photo courtesy of Elise Wagner.

That storefront studio and residence became Wagner’s encaustic laboratory, with Ethier’s help. “The Internet was just getting started. Linda said, ‘I printed out a recipe for this encaustic painting that you’re interested in.’ And so I tried it,” she says. “It wasn’t a good recipe, but she kept encouraging me. So I taught myself how to formulate the paints.”

While finishing her PSU degree, Wagner also took a job at the Gamblin Artist Colors factory, an international brand of oil painting and printmaking materials, learning from another mentor, company founder and fellow visual artist Robert Gamblin, how to make her own encaustic paint in a variety of different colors and bind them. (Gamblin, like Wagner now based on the Oregon coast, has his own show, The Translucent Landscape, with fellow artist Karen Russo at Astoria’s RiverSea Gallery through July 9). In her final class with Katz, she put it all together, or nearly so.

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“I was someone who was giving plasma to buy art supplies. I was on financial aid. I was on food stamps. I had no money to do anything. I couldn’t even have a car,” Wagner remembers. “I went in with my blow dryer to fuse the paint in the studio, and Mel came up. He’s just like, ‘Did you want to graduate this year? Because I’m thinking maybe you gotta go get a heat gun, because that blow dryer isn’t going to fuse that wax the way you need it to.’ So eventually I got a heat gun. By the time I graduated, I had made the transition to encaustic.”

The wax process of encaustic painting comes through strongly in Elise Wagner’s “Fleeting Moment 1” (left) and “Fleeting Moment 2,” both encaustic on paper, 7 x 7 inches.

Building a Career

Wagner graduated in 1995 and sold three artworks at her PSU thesis show, a combination of oil and encaustic paintings. Soon after, she secured a show at the American Institute of Architects gallery. That led to joining Portland’s Quartersaw Gallery.

“Her forms have always had a similar organic style. That signature was already there, all those years ago,” says Portland artist Eva Lake, a longtime friend. “But I do believe that her work has become more and more complex, which makes sense because she is quite a maestro in her use of encaustic. It is a demanding medium and it takes a long time to get where she is at with it.”

Wagner’s first Quartersaw exhibit, “Degenerate Era” in 1997, garnered attention, including a review from Randy Gragg in The Oregonian. She followed up with nearly annual shows and more critical recognition. In 2001 she moved on to representation at Portland’s esteemed Laura Russo Gallery, but it wasn’t a good fit. By 2006, she had transitioned to Butters Gallery, and continued to garner critical acclaim, enough to begin teaching encaustic painting to others.

Elise Wagner, "Genesis II," encaustic and oil on panel, 24 x 70 inches, framed in black coated poplar.
Elise Wagner, “Genesis II,” encaustic and oil on panel, 24 x 70 inches, framed in black coated poplar.

“I admire her prolificacy, which is dogged, and her entrepreneurial spirit,” says Portland art critic Richard Speer, who often wrote about Wagner’s work while at Willamette Week. Dating fellow Butters-roster painter Dorothy Goode, a close friend of Wagner’s before Goode’s death in 2020, Speer saw a more personal side. “I find her to be very candid and unguarded,” he says, “which can be rare in an artist.”

Wagner exhibited at Butters Gallery in the Pearl District for over a decade. Owner Jeff Butters remembers her as “intellectually curious, and willing to explore and experiment and develop as an artist.” While encaustic painting has today become commonplace, it wasn’t in the early 2000s. “It’s a centuries-old medium, but she definitely in terms of contemporary art was a pioneer,” he adds. “We did quite well with her.”

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Butters believes Wagner has matured as an artist because “her meticulous attention to resolving paintings has increased … or has become more refined and more effective. I’ve had countless studio visits over the years, and watched paintings as they’ve developed. I know what she has gone through to make sure that they’re instilled with that sense of resolution. It’s so important to her.”

Family and Chosen Family

Elise Wagner at work in the studio. Photo courtesy of Elise Wagner.
Elise Wagner at work in the studio. Photo courtesy of Elise Wagner.

Wagner has maintained relationships with her family, regularly visiting her parents over the years in Houston, where they retired to be near Wagner’s sister. After her father passed away two years ago, she has maintained a loving bond with her mom, now 96, but one with scar tissue.

“My parents were encouraging, but like any parents, they worried about my career choice. Their discouraging words in my teens after my car accident were just fuel for the fire in my belly that was just getting kindled. The residue of those recordings in your head doesn’t go away, like, ‘Who do you think you are? You can’t do that.’ However, once I began having success, they were very proud.”

Wagner, still youthful in her late fifties, has long been committed to enabling her artistic life with health and fitness.

“I learned what not to be early on, through the examples set before me. ‘I’m not gonna smoke. I’m going to be super-healthy,” she explains. “I think that’s rooted in my running. It’s mind-expanding and really helps me generate creative ideas, like tapping a well. I almost can’t make work without running. It gives me the power I need in my body to make my work and live a healthy life.”

When estranged or at arm’s-length from family, in its place often comes a chosen or surrogate family, which has been the case with Wagner. From Onelio Marrero to Bob Dozono, from Mel Katz to Bob Gamblin, from Linda Ethier to Oregon painter James Lavadour, Wagner sees a constellation of people who have not just opened doors for her artistically or in her career, but who have believed in her.

Elise Wagner, “Pacific Rim” (left) and “Slack Tide.” Both graphite collage transfer, encaustic and oil on panel, 14 x 11 inches.

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“She makes it happen. I just admire that and really support it,” says Lavadour, with whom Wagner became friends in recent years. “She’s part of a generation that hasn’t gotten their recognition. They all have something to say. They struggle and they’re still at it. That’s what counts, for me. That’s the whole game right there. They should be encouraged, however that is possible: shining the light on them.”

Lavadour, perhaps Oregon’s most acclaimed painter of recent decades with works in permanent collections at the Smithsonian Institution and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, sees commonality with Wagner as fellow landscape painters tilting towards abstraction. “She puts on very distinct and heavy underpainting and goes over the top of them. Her process is revelatory. It’s revealing something,” Lavadour explains. “Her creativity is seeing into the paint and bringing out the life that’s there.”

Wagner has also formed close bonds with certain collectors. One, who asks to remain anonymous, nevertheless speaks of her paintings reverentially. After purchasing the painting “Remnant Horizon,” and having it delivered to his house, “My eye kept lingering on the painting,” the collector recalls. “It looks like a blue sky with amber tinted clouds and meridian lines, and there’s a bit of runes at the bottom. It’s an astonishing piece, like the arrival of the second coming captured by Magellan.” After Wagner delivered the painting, “I sobbed, ugly tears streaming down my face for about 10 minutes,” he adds, “because my heart was so full. It just really overpowered me, this piece. It’s one of those things you never forget.”

Collecting additional Wagner paintings over the years, the collector has seen her work evolve. “She’s really exploded with her use of color,” he says. “Before there was lot of earth tones and darker tones in her work. I don’t know what was going on in her life, but she’s really gotten much more into color, especially with what I’ve seen of these new ones that she’s finished. They are jewel-like.”

Part Exploration, Part Therapy

The artist in front of a panel of her works: Ready for the show. Photo courtesy of Elise Wagner.
The artist in front of a panel of her works: Ready for the show. Photo courtesy of Elise Wagner.

Her artistic process begins in a variety of ways. Sometimes, Wagner says,  “I will lay down a layer of wax and just see the patterns in that—sometimes just the surface of the wax can do things—and then I go, ‘Oh, that looks like …’” She often creates works inspired by weather, which has only increased amongst the tidal patterns, river currents and bright starry skies of her new home in Astoria. Other times, she’ll be on a run and a title will come to mind first, indicting a direction.

Wagner’s new work continues an ongoing fascination with cartography, astronomy and even astrology: the patterns we use to make sense of the planet and the galaxy. All the while, there is also a subtle autobiographical strain, as Wagner sets up a series of contrasts — abstraction and representation, light and dark, blooms of smooth, colorful wax and a series of handmade etchings and marks — that speak to her conflicted nature: the girl from New Jersey who settled in Oregon. “I’m constantly trying to balance, and I’m torn between, all of these elements of spontaneity and control,” she says. “Should I be an artist? Should I keep going?”

Luckily, the answer has remained yes. Wagner is not only teaching encaustic painting in a variety of locales, with master classes in Ireland in April and Mexico next summer, but is invigorated by her new home and a new gallery. The feeling seems to be mutual.

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“I have known and followed Elise’s work for probably 25 years now and was thrilled when she approached me about possible representation, several years before she decided to move to Astoria,” says Imogen Gallery founder Terri Sund. “Her work has a depth, both in content and use of medium, that is nothing short of compelling. I have always enjoyed working with artists who are continually exploring within their work, taking chances and confident enough in both themselves and their collectors to allow room for change and growth within their work. This new series is exemplary of that. She has fully embraced the participation with the natural world that comes by living in this unique corner of the world.”

Wagner was busy painting until just 48 hours before her opening party at Imogen, as if aware that this was more than just her latest exhibit.

“This body of work spans four of the most transformative years of my life,” she wrote on Facebook, “and is reminiscent of the approaches I’ve taken to both encaustic and oil painting over the course of my 30 year career.”

Later that day, she sent me a photo of herself before a wall of completed works, a wry smile of satisfaction on her face, adding, “My ‘I’m done’ pic! Delivering now and taking the dogs to the beach!’” Two hours later came the proof: a shot of the ocean and a panting wet canine Willomina, framed by the open hatch of her Volvo wagon, with Wagner’s legs crossed in repose, implying a sense of wonder not unlike that of her paintings.

Work done, paintings delivered to the gallery, relaxing on the beach with a wet and happy Willomina. Photo courtesy of Elise Wagner.
Work done, paintings delivered to the gallery, relaxing on the beach with a wet and happy Willomina. Photo courtesy of Elise Wagner.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Brian Libby is a Portland-based freelance journalist and critic writing about architecture and design, visual art and film. He has contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, The Atlantic, Dwell, CityLab and The Oregonian, among others. Brian’s Portland Architecture blog has explored the city’s architecture and city planning since 2005. He is also the author of “Tales From the Oregon Ducks Sideline,” a history of his lifelong favorite football team. A graduate of New York University, Brian is additionally an award-winning filmmaker and photographer whose work has been exhibited at the American Institute of Architects, the Portland Art Museum’s Northwest Film Center, and venues throughout the US and Europe. For more information, visit www.brianlibby.com.

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