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Beeswax and brushes

A Cambrian artist draws on a wealth of experience, and nature



SEA PERSPECTIVE :  These images of Lynn Rathbun’s past work are not included in her current exhibit, but demonstrate her proficiency in a number of styles and techniques. - IMAGE BY LYNN RATHBUN
  • SEA PERSPECTIVE : These images of Lynn Rathbun’s past work are not included in her current exhibit, but demonstrate her proficiency in a number of styles and techniques.
Lynn Rathbun is not what you’d expect of a Cambrian recluse with a compulsion to paint. She’s worked as a goat farmer, nurseryman, illustrator, and biological technician at New England Regional Primate Center and National Zoo, attended secretarial school in London, and taken art classes at a junior college in Gainesville, Florida. All told, she’s attended six universities without acquiring a single degree. And had more adventures than 10 people have a right to. So it’s no surprise that her “Whispers and Shouts” exhibit at Cambria’s Old Grammar School—only open through Aug. 1—doesn’t settle on a single medium or painting style.

“Whispers and Shouts” is one of the first Allied Arts exhibits to take place since the gallery was re-located last winter. The new space consists of spacious hallways, which Allied Arts is taking advantage of by expanding exhibit content to include fiber arts, ceramics, and sculpture. In one particularly lengthy corridor more than two-dozen of Rathbun’s paintings, representing several years of work, mingle fraternally.

Rathbun spent the month of May in Namibia, helping her husband study elephant shrews. Just before she left she was struck by a desire to paint portraits. So she bustled around her adopted village taking photographs of friends and acquaintances.

“It happened to be on a cold rainy day when everyone happened to be wearing dark blue jackets,” she said, by way of explaining the strange dominance of sky-colored outerwear in her pastel portraits. “As I get older I’m more interested in people’s faces.”

Five of these faces were included in her “Whispers and Shouts” show, all of them friendly. Rathbun first flirted with the medium last year when a friend commissioned her to paint portraits of her children. It was a time-consuming process, and involved three to four practice runs of each figure before Rathbun was comfortable creating the final product. The painter still has leftover faces from the day she spent photographing in Cambria, and she intends to continue down her new path, though not to the exclusion of her favorite subject: nature.

Rathbun’s corridor at the Allied Arts exhibition is filled with oceans, birds, root systems, succulents, flowers, and bees. Each receives its own treatment, whether embedded in wax, richly detailed in oils, or abstractly rendered. She strives to keep the landscapes local, but admits that Italian farmhouses and landscapes have a way of sneaking in. And, in fact, one of the paintings in her show is simply titled “Italian farmhouse.”

“I tried doing stuff in Namibia. The tourists aren’t interested there and here people can’t relate to it,” she explained. “You have to do things people can relate to.”

Of course, there’s always the unexpected trend. One year, Rathbun couldn’t paint rabbits fast enough for her eager consumers. Then, just as suddenly, the rabbit paintings lost their appeal. The artist’s encaustic paintings are trending right now. She credits their rise in popularity to a growing understanding of encaustic art. People tend to avoid what they don’t understand, Rathbun observed, so she’s made a point of actively introducing people to the medium, which dates back more than 2,000 years when the technique was used to paint sarcophaguses in Egpyt.

The artist started working with encaustic painting—which entails mixing hot beeswax with color pigments and applying it to a canvas or board—four years ago through a workshop with another artist. Several of her “Whispers and Shouts” encaustic paintings feature flora embedded in the wax, and Rathbun plans to expand upon this technique with bees.

Despite having attended several art classes, Rathbun found herself rejecting the cliques and affectations of the art world in favor of a self-taught approach to painting. She constantly makes new discoveries—mediums that can be melded, tools that she can exploit in new ways. Which makes her snug 10 by 12-foot studio something of an experiment lab.

“I kind of switch back and forth,” she said, of her creative process.     While working with encaustics, she clears everything out of her office; the heat gun poses a potential fire hazard and her house, like most in Cambria, cozies right up to a number of trees. With oils, she has to leave her studio door open, and the powders in pastels are so fine that she works outside, sometimes with a mask and gloves. Painting several pieces at once is especially challenging in a small space, and creating large-scale works is virtually impossible.

Another challenge is that Rathbun doesn’t spend as much time in her studio as she would like. Besides her involvement with the Allied Arts Association, Rathbun gardens—an interest that makes its way into her artwork in the form of potted succulents—and is involved in a number of side projects. The benefit is that she’s never without inspiration.

“The other day I was at a concert and I was just looking at the variety of ears people have,” she said. “You just don’t look at things like that.”

Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach has ears that would make an elf blush. Send Keebler cookies to [email protected].


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