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Inside the Studio: Wo Schiffman

Wo Schiffman is an American artist and third-generation female painter, living and working in Northern California. With a BA in Philosophy from JCU, and artistic study in Scandinavia, at the Art Students League of NY, Cleveland Institute of Art and SF State University, Schiffman values her education and experiences.

As the daughter of NASA scientists, education, travel and exploration are important backbones to Schiffman’s practice. In fact, she draws much inspiration from her explorations across six continents and the sea. As she sails across the sea to the Great Barrier Reef or the Artic Circle and hikes across the land, she finds landscapes and seascapes and abstracts them. These ‘vistas,’ as she calls them, are created with many mediums such as oil, acrylic and natural ground pigments.

Her triptych Edge of Night, an oil and acrylic on canvas, displays her sensibilities regarding nature.

The triptych was on display in Alessandro Berni Gallery’s booth at the Hamptons Fine Art Fair from July 14– July 17! Additionally, her work has been exhibited at the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art, the New York Hall of Science Museum, the Hosby Konstall Print Museum and the Museum of Encaustic Art.

Wo Schiffman, Edge of Night Triptych, Oil and Acrylic on Canvas, 96 x 42.

Her new book “Being Human” will be available on Amazon in November this year. The book features 45 new paintings both oil and digital, which alongside textual references consider the unique experiences shared by humans.

Schiffman hosts open studio days at her studio in Sausalito, California. The next ones will take place in early December. In case you won’t be able to make it, I interviewed Schiffman and have some pictures of her studio and artistic process to share with you!

Interview with Wo Schiffman, October 8, 2022

Can you discuss the encaustic process and how it creates the works? Can you describe your current artistic practice?

Over the past several decades I have evolved my use of materials to include hand ground pigments, ink, polymer, wax, and oil. For many years, I worked in hot wax, using beeswax, ground pigments, and tree resin to create “encaustic” paintings.

My current art practice is focused on both evolving sustainable methods of working with natural pigments and exploring the role of bio-fluorescent particles in creating paint. Though I don’t use traditional encaustic anymore, I do create a wide range of painting materials with ground fluorescent, phosphorescent and bio-luminous powder emersed in polymer mediums, wax, and oils. Painting with this material allows me to explore work that has an active relationship with the ambient light and offers a peaceful experience to viewers, similar to watching a sunrise or sunset.

Wo Schiffman. Mixing pigments in my studio

Wo Painting in Studio

What does a productive day look like when you are making art? What about days when you aren’t creating? What do they look like?

Great question! I spend about 6 days a week working on my art practice. My husband says I spend 7 days a week because even when I’m not in my studio or sketching “plein air”, I’m often working digitally to develop ideas or work on my art books!

A productive day when I’m making art includes some time devoted to creating new mediums: since I make most of my paint, it takes time and a regular schedule to create new oil paint using ground pigments, oils (such as walnut, sunflower or linseed), and often I dissolve fluorescent or bio luminescent particles in the resulting material. In addition, since I paint on canvas, wood and paper, there is also a preparation required to mount, stretch or gesso the surface and prepare it for the paint.

Most weeks I work at least two days on developing sketches and compositions for new work and “size” them to go on the larger canvas or board. Each productive day in the studio involves at least a few hours of painting: this is a very exciting part of the process. I like to listen to jazz and world music while I paint. Since I create a sketch or plan before the color goes on to the canvas – the act of painting is a dance of following a path but also embracing the spontaneity of the interaction of the materials. The essence of a productive day in the studio is a balance between realizing my vision for a piece and accepting the emerging piece from the interaction of the materials.

The days that I’m not in the studio actively creating are mostly spent exploring the northern California coast where I live. Getting recharged by the sights and sounds of the ocean, spending time in the ancient redwood forest, enjoying beach walks with my husband and two dogs are favorite ways I recharge.

Wo Studio front desk area.

Wo Studio sitting area.

Wo Studio painting area.

Wo Studio facing entrance from painting area

I know that sustainability is important to you. Can you tell me some of the ways you practice sustainability in the creation of your art?

Thank you for asking this question. Growing up in a family of scientists and artists, the focus on the coming crisis of climate change has been a personal concern for many years. There are several aspects of sustainability for artists: our use of materials and how they are created (and the collateral damage of the creation of our raw materials), the methods we use in creating art and preserving our art for patrons, the disposal of our used materials and tools, and the transport of our art to exhibitions and patrons.

Over the years I have changed the type of tools and materials that I use: choosing more local-based, sustainable sources like natural ground pigments and working with sustainable suppliers to create my paint. Often, I find local sources for my raw materials and lower the carbon footprint of my paint by using local Walnut Oil and locally ground minerals to create oil paint.

Paying attention to the way in which I create my art also allows me to explore low impact methods of managing the waste that inevitably occurs in creating a piece. I have used and explored a range of methods including sand buckets for managing polymer and acrylic cleanup, non-mineral spirit clean-up for oil painting and zero waste practices for encaustic and wax painting.

Finally, there is the issue of transportation. I own a fully electric vehicle and do my own local transport whenever possible. Working with responsible shipping vendors who “bundle” transport across the United States rather than shipping with individual companies with high carbon footprints is another way to help offset the effect of moving paintings long distances.

Wo Supplies for making paint.

As I look at some of your recent water inspired works, I think about the often-unpredictable nature of water. How does the world around you inform the creation of your works?

Learning to “see” is part of every artist’s journey. My parents were research scientists who had both spent many years working in the field: as a child I often accompanied them on digs for fossils, geological expeditions and trips to document changing environments. This affected the way in which I see and experience nature. As I developed my artistic practice, I used these experiences to explore the ways of water. As a long-time sailor and coastal resident, I spend a great deal of time on and near water and experience water in a wide range of weather and seasonal changes. This immersive experience informs my work both in the shapes I use to convey water and the multiple colors and types of materials (such as wax, oil, polymer, etc.) that I use to develop my water paintings.

What themes are present in your works?

The conscious themes I’ve explored over the past few decades include: the scale of nature (from intergalactic to microscopic), change and time in nature (such as the series on landscape changes in Iceland), the chaotic and natural patterns of nature (particularly water) and the new work I’m developing explores what it means to be human in our natural world. Collateral themes that seem to always be present for me are the delicate balance and beauty of our natural world and the intense experience of perspective available in landscapes. I have purposely left the human figure out of most of my work, but I do explore human experiences such as loneliness, serenity and desire through composition and color.

What projects are next for you? Or what themes do you think will begin to find their way into your works next?

Exploring the theme of “Being Human” is the focus of my new series. Using pattern, color, and composition with vaguely human shapes offers an opportunity for me to extend my practice of using abstracts and landscapes to present human experiences. Embracing my belief that we are part of the wilderness, and the wilderness is inherent in each of us is central to this series. I hope to develop this project to present the human experience as an element of the natural world and defocus the human experience as the center of nature.

This new body of work is an exploration of scale: exploring the human experience as a single element of nature, rather than the center of existence.

And finally, which of these piques your interest the most: Deep Sea or Outer Space?

Such a philosophical question!! In my world those are not two different things. The similarities between deep space and deep sea in color, pattern, and movement are fascinating to me. As we develop more methods of exploring both environments, I am intrigued by the implications and relationships between both of them! Thank you for these insightful questions…as always, a pleasure talking with your team.


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