Louisiana artist Lee McElveen creates her encaustic art in a studio set amid moss-draped trees. Utilizing recycled tuna and Vienna sausage cans to melt the colored waxes she will apply, she combines the modern tools of electric heating devices with an ancient art form in order to create stunning works of textured beauty.
McElveen hasn’t always been an artist. Her past includes teaching in several learning institutions in New Orleans at both the high school and college levels; working in her own business as a program evaluator for school systems; and training for and working as a private investigator. After more than twenty years in New Orleans, she and her husband Bob moved across Lake Ponchartrain to their current location.
Part of the move included a stint assisting in the care of her daughter’s triplets, born in 2004. She enjoyed the first four years of their childhood before a transfer took her daughter and family out of the area.
During the time she ran her own businesses, she had no hobbies or creative outlets. She took up art as a stress reliever, studying Decorative Art at a local hobby shop. From there she moved into exploring other mediums, focusing on those which created textural results.
“I tried to find a medium that wasn’t as common as others, a medium that I liked…I found that the things I kept working on drew me to things that involved texture,” McElveen explains. “When I found encaustic, I thought, this is going to be a challenge but this is definitely different.”
She discovered the medium by accident. A visit to a coffee shop in Bay St Louis, Miss. led to her discovery of a textured piece on the wall. With no knowledge of the process, she began asking questions which led her to Kat Fitzpatrick, a Gulf Coast artist and art teacher. McElveen began classes with her and fell in love with the method.
Her natural teaching ability comes to the fore as she explains the process of melting the white filtered beeswax, adding resin and pigment and keeping everything liquid in the process of applying the colored wax to an appropriate backdrop, such as birch wood slabs. Each layer must adhere to the layer below, a process accomplished with the aid of a heat gun.
She experiments with adding texture and natural items to the designs. The finished works are stable up to 150 or 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Cleaning an encaustic piece requires nothing more complicated than a soft cloth.
“I feel like I’m still in the learning stages,” she says. Beyond her growth as an artist, she’s learned to work on larger pieces for the requirements of competitions and more portable pieces for the visitors to Artists’ Galleries de Juneau in Slidell, where she hangs her work. Many of the clientele are tourists on foot and look for pieces they can carry on their way. The business side of her art – meeting the needs of her public – ties in with her background as a business educator.
As Lee McElveen melts and tints her wax to create her dramatic images, she builds layer upon layer of meaning into beautiful, durable decorative pieces to thrill the viewer for generations to come.