Willa Vennema enjoys what may be the ideal living situation for a Maine artist. She spends winters in a sunny home in Portland’s Stroudwater Village neighborhood and summers on Swan’s Island in Penobscot Bay—the latter an endless source of inspiration she brings back to her city studio to capture in her encaustic abstract landscapes.
“We hike all over; we have a little motorboat, and we go to uninhabited islands preserved by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust—we explore and explore,” Vennema says of summers on the island. She takes photos to preserve particularly inspiring moments, such as one early evening in a small cove at low tide.
“The spruce trees were reflecting onto the clam flat, and where they were reflecting was this amazing contrast of light and dark because of the little divots in the sand—and beyond the trees the water was as smooth as glass with shimmery light,” she says. Vennema explored this image in several paintings, including the centerpiece, Low Tide Reflections, for her March 2022 exhibition at Portland Art Gallery.
The painting also represents a recent shift in Vennema’s color palette, away from the blues and purples she usually favors to warmer tones. “A number of the pieces in the show have pinks, peaches, and browns—a more earthy color palette—if it’s an ocean scene you might say it’s a sunrise or a sunset,” she says. The same colors appear in her “seeds'' paintings, in which a transparent tree line sits above an earthbound sea of circle shapes, representing seeds below ground or floating up, “like they are coming through the soil in the spring,” she says.
Working in encaustic—a mixture of beeswax, damar resin, and pigment applied in layers and heated—gives Vennema the freedom and flexibility to explore using different materials. She’s collaged in paper from books, and yellowed newspapers found in the walls of her Portland house when it was renovated. For her Handwork Series, she embedded vintage linens in the wax; she has also added texture with metal combs, forks, and even mesh pads from Otto’s pizza boxes. “I’ve used them a lot to make a pattern that looks to me like sun sparkles or ripples in the water, or the effect that you get at low tide when the water leaves behind shapes in the sand,” Vennema says.
The shifting nature of the medium is appealing to her because she doesn’t have total control; as each layer is heated, the piece changes. “You’re never exactly sure what’s going to happen, so instead of trying to paint the perfect wave form, I convey the sense of a wave—using a fork to scratch a wave-like pattern into the wax,” she says. “When I’m engaged in the making of a piece, I have to enjoy what I’m doing and be excited by the process. That’s why encaustic really speaks to me; it’s such a sensuous medium, but it also allows for different types of experimentation.”