Radio Maine Episode 5: Dietlind Vander Schaaf

Dietlind Vander Schaaf’s life, as Walt Whitman might suggest, “contains multitudes.” Not only is she an artist and teacher of art, she is also a writer and yoga teacher who has undergraduate and masters degrees in history (as well as a masters of fine art in writing!) Lisa Belisle’s interview with Dietlind explores her unique practice of creating encaustic art on wood panels: a laborious process of applying layer after layer of hot wax, paint and, in her case, 23-karat gold leaf. Hear about her artistic evolution, including four years spent working through perceived failure, and ultimate emergence with a renewed faith in herself. Dietlind also speaks about her love of languages, imposter syndrome and the personal satisfaction she gets from teaching workshops. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: Hello, this is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching, the fifth episode of Radio Maine. Today it is my great pleasure to be speaking with Dietlind Vander Schaaf, one of the Portland Art Gallery artists, and also, I just learned, a person who grew up in Brunswick, which is of course, where I went to college - Bowdoin College. So it's really wonderful to know that you and I have so many connections Dietlind and thank you for being on the show with us today.

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: I'm really happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: One of the things that I wanted to start with is a nod of appreciation to you for providing me with this wonderful art that is right behind me. This is something that my husband gave to me for Mother's Day last year, and it's the most beautiful blue encaustic painting with a wonderful striking metallic piece in the middle. We have it right in our front hall so I see it every single day when I come in. The name of it is what?

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: It's Draumur, which is an Icelandic word that means dream. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: Tell me about creating this piece of art, because I know one of the things that Kevin really liked was the name. He and I have this very kind of soulful/business-like approach to life in general and this idea that you can do both at one time. So tell me about creating this piece.

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: Well, from a sort of a metaphorical standpoint, I think of a lot of my work as sort of being both an internal and an external landscape. I take elements from the natural world and I create these pieces that reference the natural world, but also reference the inner land--what I call the inner landscape sort of thought and dreams and desires and ideas that you might have. How I actually create them is that I build up many layers of encaustic medium, so I'll often work with 50 or 60 layers of encaustic medium. Then I start to paint towards the top of the piece figuring out the composition as I go. I use a lot of 23 karat gold leaf in my work. The 23 karat gold leaf is particularly important because it catches the light from different angles, and I think of that gold as signifying the inner light inside each one of us.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: You also have an interesting practice around writing and art. So for you, you're exploring not just the visual but also things that are reflected around words that we speak--words that we communicate with on paper or computer. Tell me about that.

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: Yes, I do, so thanks for asking. I actually fell in love with writing before I fell in love with painting and art making. I have an undergraduate degree in history and a graduate degree in history. I thought I would go on to pursue a PhD in history but when I moved to San Francisco, I fell more deeply in love with writing and poetry and short stories. I pursued an MFA in creative writing. It was actually while I was in graduate school for creative writing that I fell in love with painting. So I always joke that I came to painting through the back door. It wasn't something I was looking for but I stumbled upon it and fell in love with it and started doing it in a small way really just as a side practice. When I still lived in San Francisco, I couldn’t afford a studio and it was just a side passion. But gradually it became bigger and bigger and it was what I wanted to do. When I came back to Maine in 2010, I was lucky enough to get a job at Maine College of Art, and that really fed that passion and supported that practice.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: Well, as I mentioned at the beginning, you and I actually have so many connections, and the more I learn about you, the more connections we actually have. My daughter also has an undergraduate and a graduate degree in history and an interest in art. Although right now she's working as a sous chef at North 43 Bistro in South Portland. It is interesting that you didn't get hemmed in by one particular path and say, "Well, okay, now I'm done. I only want to do this." How did you allow yourself the freedom to continue to move forward and explore different ways of being creative?

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: Well, I wish I could say it was always a beautiful, smooth and straightforward process. I think one thing that helped is when I was a freshmen in college my dad told me, “You know, you're probably going to have seven different careers in life. Like my generation, we had, you know, one or two.” But he's like, "For you guys, you're going to have lots of different things that you do.” And I remember that number seven, and it was funny because I ended up changing my major so many times in college and took time off, and went to work for the Appalachian Mountain Club. I really didn't really know what I wanted to do. I was very fortunate. I went to USM (University of Southern Maine) and had a great experience there, but I think it was just over time following one passion and then the other. There were disappointments along the way and doors closed, and some people say when one door closes another one opens. But I say, "Oh no, when one door closes you open the window, you crawl out, you keep going and figure it out."

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: So, when I fell in love with painting, I just allowed myself to do it and kept doing it. And when I could I took classes, and it just grew inside of me.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: I enjoyed meeting your mother. I believe it was at your opening probably about a year and a half ago, something like that. When you talk to me about your father encouraging you with the different types of careers you might have, I also think about your mother being right there, right by your side, so proud of you, so supportive. And I’m not sure everybody always has that--the fact that you have both parents who said, "Yeah, whatever's going to make you happy. Yes. We’re here for you.” What has that meant for you?

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: Oh, it's huge. My friend Willa Vennema, that you've interviewed recently, and I have talked about “where do you get your confidence from to move forward in life?” I was just incredibly blessed and fortunate to have two loving parents. They’re not together. They haven't been together for a long time, but we are all very close as a family. My father is very creative, too. He's a woodworker and he’s reinvented himself a bunch of times. And my mother, like you said, she is, I always tell her, she's my number one fan. I mean, I can't post something on social media, but she's right on it, you know, telling me how much she loves it and joking that she's going to have a retrospective--that she could just open the door to her house and have a retrospective. And I'm like, "Mom, I'm not having a retrospective!" But I'm very lucky. I'm very close to both of my parents.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: Being a teacher has also wound its way through the work that you do. My mother is, or was, a middle school math teacher for many, many years, and then retired. But she quickly came back and started teaching math on Zoom to my nieces and nephews who were out of school, or out of official in-person school[when COVID happened]. That has required a tremendous amount of flexibility on her part, but I think she's learned as much as they have in this past year. Have you found yourself also being a learner simultaneous to being a teacher?

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: Oh yeah, absolutely. I feel very fortunate to teach. I have always considered it to be a real gift to have that aspect of my life and to be able to share and connect with other people. It feels like a calling, not something I want to do full-time, but something that is a really important part of my life. It has a spiritual dimension to it as well. I've done it on the side while working full-time and painting for the past 11 years. I've worked with all kinds of communities. When I first started, I wasn't teaching encaustic painting. I was teaching narrative collage and I was taking it into work with women, refugees and immigrants and teaching through Maine College of Arts continuing studies program.

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: So, I got to have a lot of different experiences doing it. The last about eight years, it's been primarily teaching encaustic painting. And then, when everything changed last year, there was an opportunity. I was requested by one of my students to start teaching online and I was really resistant. I think that, you know, sometimes you struggle with having a personal and a private self and I wasn’t sure I was comfortable having myself have a presence online. I don't know how to explain it, but I wasn't sure I was comfortable teaching online and I wasn't sure how to go about doing it. I didn't want teach live. So I thought about it and thought about it, and then finally, I was like, you know, I'm going to do this, and I did it all as prerecorded content.

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: I'm running my second different kind of class right now. I've run one class three times. I do all the video taping myself and all the editing. But then the really amazing thing is that I actually found I really love it, and I've been able to work with students from all over the world. I've had students in Switzerland and Germany and New Zealand and the UK taking my classes, and I've also reached people in the United States that for one reason or another are not able to travel either for financial or personal reasons. They can't easily travel to take a class. And so I have found through this and through private mentoring that I've been able to connect with people that I wouldn't have connected with otherwise, and I have found that very deeply meaningful.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: My understanding is that you had just set up a teaching space in the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook right before COVID hit. You had these big plans to do things in person, and so the pivot and shift was pretty dramatic.

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: It was, it was. I moved from a small studio, just over 300 square feet, in the State Theater building, into this big, over 1200 square foot studio, in the Dana Warp Mill. The idea was to have dedicated workstations that I could run classes and I could have my dream studio for teaching with standing height workstations, professional ventilation, the best equipment, the full range of paint, everything that people would want, and also a beautiful space with lots of sun and a beautiful view of the river. I had all my classes scheduled and filled. I even had a woman flying in from Minnesota to take one of my classes, and then I had to reschedule and reschedule. And, yeah, there were a lot of shifts and riding those waves last year. But what I ended up doing was just a lot more painting and some private workshops as well. The city of Westbrook was incredibly supportive, and the Ward Memorial Foundation. I was awarded two different grants that allowed me to both get internet and some of the equipment that I needed to start doing online. It's been an interesting year, but also the changes have opened me up to trying and approaching things differently.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: Tell me about the work that you do with R&F. This is, you use a very specific type of paint, a global organization and this has given you a connections to artists all over the world.

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: Yes. It's a wonderful company. They're located in Kingston, New York. I was one of nine core instructors for them, and I was connected to the company before I started working for them. In 2018, I left my job at Maine College of Art to work remotely for R&F. I work part-time remotely for them. What's really nice is that before, when I was working at Maine College of Art, I was doing fundraising. I always thought, I kind of want to be on the other side where I'm giving things away too. Part of my job working with R&F is that I get to work with artists all over the world who are teaching and when they're requesting donations to support their classes, I get to help be part of the process of deciding who gets what and supporting those teachers by providing materials.

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: R&F is an awesome company. It's about 25 employees, and they have a workshop program that's not running right now because of COVID. But if you take a class there, you can actually see all the paint being made. They make two different kinds of paint. They make the encaustic paint, which is part beeswax, part DeMar resin, and part powdered pigment that I use, and they also make something called a pigment stick, which is basically a high quality tube oil in a stick form. I also use that on the surface of all of my encaustic paintings.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: What is it about encaustic that appealed to you initially? When I look at encaustic pieces, it's not just a visual, there's a layering to it. There's a physicality to it that I think you don't get with maybe a watercolor, let's just say, but it's a very specific thing to work on. So why did you choose that?

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: Yeah, I totally agree. Before that, I worked with acrylic paint and mediums and the thing about encaustic. I'd seen an encaustic painting and was just completely mesmerized by it, both by the soft sort of sensuous sheen of the surface of the piece and the way that it could be used sculpturally to encapsulate objects that you could carve into the surface, create textures and embed things. I found I was sort of mesmerized and dazzled by the surface of it. When I started working with it, I fell deeply in love with the process. I'm working on a heated palette. The paint is molten when I'm working with it--it's heated to 200 degrees. I use Japanese brushes, hotkey brushes to brush on the layers, they have to be fused together--I do that either with a heat gun or a torch.

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: There's an alchemy to it. There's a process. The way I work with it, I use so much medium and paint. I build up many, many layers. There's a rhythm to that building that I find soothing and kind of meditative, and I often compare it to being an athlete. You kind of come into the zone and in that zone is where I find the final creation. I might start with an idea, but then I always am responding to what's in front of me. I love how you can carve into the surface as well. That's just something you can't do very easily with other kinds of mediums.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: Did you grow up with art?

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: Not really. I was always creative, like with how I dyed my hair or I was always making my own acid wash jeans or making things out of Fimo, but not really. It just wasn't part of me. I would love to cook, and I guess I was kind of creative, but I didn't grow up making art and nobody in my immediate family did--although my aunt is very talented. She's a quilter and she's a painter as well, but she doesn't show her work or anything like that.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: Well, the reason I ask this is because in my family, we also have very creative people, but we don't have any artists per se and we didn't necessarily grow up with art. When I was younger, I was actually a little intimidated by art. I wasn't one of the kids that was chosen to be in the special art class. They were like, "You're smart, you’re a good writer, all these other things, but you're not an artist." And that kind of, you know, got in my brain and, and it caused me to maybe not be as open to art when I was a little bit younger. It wasn't until I went to an art museum and saw a Rothko. There was something about the Rothko that just really appealed to me. It was so abstract. It wasn't a standard landscape. Somehow it just spoke to me in a way that I hadn't experienced before, but it was hard to get past that initial intimidation. So if you're already a creative person, maybe it's not so hard. I don't know. I guess this is sort of a question statement.

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: Yes, so I have two responses. One is I didn't have that experience. I always felt like I could try whatever and do whatever. But I hear that from a lot of my students, I hear a lot of them struggle even with the word artist. They maybe went to art school or they took classes where they were really interested when they were younger and then they felt they needed to choose a different kind of career or they were a mom or they had other roles that took them away. Then when they come back to it, they come back. I think why I love working with adults. Primarily I work with women, mostly. People who take my classes, I would say are 50 plus, and they're women.

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: They're just so happy to be able to make and to have that time and to watch something be created by their own hands. I think that’s very deeply fulfilling because a lot of their early language or ideas are being pushed in different directions to try other things. For me, I also saw a painting, like you were explaining with your Rothko experience. Mine was called Night Train to Amsterdam and it was by an artist named Andreas Maynard when I lived in San Francisco and I fell completely in love with this painting. I think it was the storytelling aspect of it. It was representational, but very loosely, very abstracted. It was just these little twinkling nightlights, far over a body of water at a distance. Because I love storytelling, it just spoke to me and that's what actually made me want to start making art. I just took classes with her but with no idea of where it was going to go, just curiosity.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: Do each of your pieces have a story associated with the painting? We've talked about the piece that I'm fortunate enough to own, and you have pieces behind you that I want you to tell us about, but do you always have an idea about the story that you're trying to unfold before the people who end up purchasing and living with your art?

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: Not always. Sometimes, when I first started, I would have a lot of intentionality about what I was trying to create. About six years ago, when I went through my yoga teacher training; when I turned 40 that was what I wanted to do. I did a 200 hour training. It was a month long program at Kripalu and it very much shifted things for me. Instead of needing to control what I was doing, I mean, you do need a certain amount of control when you're just practicing the techniques of working with encaustic, because at the time you need a lot of heat and all that but I really saw shifts happen there because I found the quiet space and the stillness that I was looking for inside myself. And, around that same time, I was studying. I was looking at what some of my students were doing and seeing some of the looseness in their work.

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: I realized I wanted to bring some of that and explore more color into my work as well. Sometimes I start with an idea, or a set of colors, but more often than not I kind of have to lose myself while I'm working and allow what's happening to happen. There's a very specific process and there's a set of marks that I work with. And of course I have my color palette but I don't really know what's going to happen with the work as it's evolving. In fact, some places really stump me and I have to put them aside for a while and then come back to them. It’s not always clear to begin with where I'm going with that, and I think that can be, that can be a little scary, you know, there's a lot of self doubt I think that creeps up.

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: I also write a blog--that's how I can stay connected to my writing. My goal is just to have one post a month and usually I can hit that. I use it as a way to reach out to my students as well and share some of these things. I've been thinking more and more about how to share the challenges of being an artist and how to overcome self doubt and even that kind of imposter syndrome that I think a lot of artists feel, because it's a very real thing for a lot of us and you just find ways to overcome it by continuing to show up and do the work.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: It's interesting you're bringing up this idea of imposter syndrome because I just had a conversation about this with an actual medical staff person, and this is a medical staff person who has been practicing in her current position for probably a little bit more than 10 years. She was even describing this ongoing kind of imposter syndrome, and I've seen this repeatedly. It seems to be something that, more frequently occurs with women, although not specific to women. Is this something you found or have you noticed any kind of patterns based on the teaching that you do?

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: Yes, I saw it even when I was in college, during my undergraduate for history. I remember talking to one of my history professors and she said that she struggled with it. The more successful she got, the more accolades she got, the better job offers she got, there was this sort of nagging, secret feeling that she wasn't good enough or she didn't deserve them or whatever. I see it with my students, for sure. I think that's where the hangup around the word artist comes from for a lot of people. But even for me, and I'm pretty comfortable with that word, I would say that I think that it's a real thing, you know, coming in and saying, "Do I have anything?" I ask myself that when I write too, do I have anything to share? Do I have anything that's really worth saying with paintings? Sometimes it's like they kind of go off the rails and you're like, what is happening here? I've just got to put it aside for a little while and come back to it. But I have found that if I just continue to show up. Actually there's a funny story--did you ever read the book by Anne Lamott? It's a book about writing and one of the first chapters is called "Shitty First Drafts."

Dr. Lisa Belisle: I think this is "Bird by Bird?"

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: Yes, exactly, yes. It's a story about her brother and how he’s so stressed about this paper he has to write and it's about birds. His father's just like, "Just take it bird by bird, buddy." I think about that a lot when I'm in the studio, you know, you make a lot of paintings and not every single one is a huge success. You just keep going and you keep exploring it and you keep pushing the ideas and developing it and being committed to the practice. The great thing about encaustic is you can always paint over it too. So that's happened. You know, I have a funny piece on my blog. It's called the story of a painting, and it's about when I first started to work larger. I was working up to 18 by 18, but I hadn't gotten much larger than that.

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: I think the piece you have is 30 by 30. So I was trying to make a 36 by 36 inch painting. It took me four years to figure it out and I just kept turning the painting around to face the wall because I really didn't know what to do. I wrote about this too, and I feel it's important for other people to hear. This piece started to feel like it was a signifier of my failure as an artist, but because I didn't quit on it and I kept going I did actually finish it. I love that painting. I hung it in my office and it’s my favorite piece. It's one of my favorite pieces I've ever made. I think I liked the piece, but I also like the idea of the piece, which is to have faith in myself as an artist and to know that I'm still evolving as I continue to create.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: When I was a medical student, actually no, as a first year resident in family medicine, I had been delivering babies for some time. But when you go from being a medical student to a resident, all of a sudden, you now have initials behind your name and you feel this immense sense of responsibility. I think I said to the resident who was a few years ahead of me, "How am I ever going to figure out how to deliver these babies? How am I going to be able to do all of this?" I had this overwhelming sense and, "Oh my gosh, how did I even get to this place?" And I remember her just saying to me, very gently, "You know, you're just going to keep showing up. You're going to learn it bit by bit. You're going to deliver one baby and then the next baby, and then the next baby." I think you're absolutely right. I think it's this willingness to keep showing up, which is actually much more challenging than I think many people realize because when something gets hard sometimes the inclination is to turn the painting to the wall and just be like, that's it, I'm never coming back to you.

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: Totally. I run a retreat each year in Kennebunkport--an encaustic painting retreat. This year I was able to run a very small version of it. But, I was doing a demo and after the demo, one of my students, she kind of lingered by the table and she said, "You know, I was watching you do the demo and it didn't look very good. And then all of a sudden I saw you kind of pull the piece back and I realized that I think I've been judging my work too quickly." I said, "You know what, a lot of times a piece doesn't look very good along the way. So you just have to kind of hang in there with it, you know, until you figure out how to resolve it--if you can step outside of that self judgment." And that's where I see my interest in yoga and my teaching kind of dovetail is that the yoga that I studied and teach the essence of it is nonjudgmental self-awareness. I try to keep that as a practice for myself, but also hold that space for my students too, because so many of them are so incredibly hard on themselves. If you can hold that space for them, they can start to hold that for themselves too.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: Tell me about these pieces behind you. I'm fascinated by them because, again, I know one of them happens to be named after clouds. So tell me about that. 

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: The piece to my left here is called Wolke. It's a German word which means cloud. As I think of my pieces, I didn't realize this until my partner got me a book recently called the Overview Project. Have you heard of the Overview Project? So this has been going on for a few years, and it's a guy--I’m sure he has a team working with him now--but they do satellite imagery looking down on the earth and looking at different parts of it. I realized when I got this book that that's how I paint and that's kind of what my work looks like. So when I look at this piece now I understand that it looks sort of like, feels like if you're in an airplane, it looks like fields and maybe like a cloud from above. But when I was finishing it, there was this great sort of soft, pale, white, almost pinkish section of it that just looked like a big cloud to me. So that's why I called it Wolke.

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: And then, the piece that's directly behind me right here is called Lac. It's a French word meaning Lake. When I finished this piece, it looks like a landscape right at the edge of water where you see the water and the clouds start to meet in the distance and dissolve. I love work that you can look at that takes you somewhere. You know, you can look at it and it feels like a meditation and you can look at it and it transports you. My goal always with my work is that you would in viewing it and being with it, living with it, that it would give you that sense of calm centeredness that you might feel after you do a yoga class or whatever your practice, if you go running or bicycling or meditating, you know, that you would just feel kind of calm and soothed by the beauty.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: There's something that, as you're telling me about all the names of your pieces, that again, you and I have in common, and that is the love of not only English language words, but also the love of words from other languages. I'm noticing that you've borrowed from Icelandic, French, German. I’ve always had a similar fascination where I've had to, on the side, teach myself Spanish, when I should probably be studying, I don't know, medical stuff. But there's something about the way that words come across in a really lyrical, meaningful way if you borrow them from other languages that you wouldn't typically use. How did you start first naming your pieces with non-English words?

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: Part of cutting the titles down to just one word was also partly to have a little more privacy, sort of maintain a little privacy for myself about what the work was about but also to create more mystery for the viewer. The piece behind me,that's called Wolke, which means cloud in German, I feel like if you just look at that piece and you see that it's called cloud, you can understand that there's a cloud and that's what it means. And you know what a cloud is so you can dismiss it, but if you hear the word, okay, you look at it and kind of stumble over it when you don't know what that word means. I don't know how to pronounce it. Maybe you have to look it up. There's a little pause there where you engage with it.

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: I love the mystery that offers the viewer. I'm also a lover of languages. I think that if I could spend time, if I could devote hours each day, if I wasn't working to studying other languages, I would. I think there's a poetry to the sounds of these other words in our mouths as well. There's a mystery to them, and I've also found that these sort of shorter one word titles--the less words that I use, the more expansive, the experiences--maybe become even more universal for the viewer.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: I would agree with that. I think many of us, as we were growing up, thought about poetry as being sonnets or something that had a lot of verbiage associated with it. But then we also learned haikus, which obviously don't have a lot of verbiage associated with them. And then I think about ee cummings and his use of very specific spring oriented words like puddleluscious, and mudwonderful, and his use of punctuation to create both, kind of in being sparse, being evocative. So you're talking about art and poetry and kind of not needing to have a lot to still have it be poetic is a great point.

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: Yes, absolutely. I love ee cummings. I love the way that when you're reading an ee cummings poem, it uses all the parts of your mouth. You can feel the words kind of tumbling out one after another. And, they make words new, you know, good poetry makes words new again for you--you kind of rediscover how exciting and delicious and they are. And, in fact, my partner also has painted some poems, some paintings that use ee cummings poetry. Also I'm thinking of Missy Dunaway, who you interviewed recently, who’s also done paintings that involve poetry. I think there's some ongoing connections there that many of us are interested in exploring.

Dr. Lisa Belisle: Dietlind, you and I could keep talking for many, many hours I suspect with all the cross connections that we've made just during this brief time. But I invite people who have been watching our video or listening to our podcast to get to know you better through the Portland Art Gallery website or through your work at the Portland Art Gallery or maybe contact you for a class or read your blog. We've been speaking with Dietlind Vander Schaaf, who is a Portland Art Gallery artist, but also a teacher, a yoga instructor, a writer, an historian and so many more things. You contain multitudes as Walt Whitman might say. I very much enjoyed having you on this fifth episode of Radio Maine. Thank you so much, Dietlind.

Dietlind Vander Schaaf: Thank you for the opportunity, Lisa.

Go back to Dietlind Vander Schaaf's artist page.