Artist on Artist: Gary Sweeney Interviews Michelle Belto

click to enlarge Michelle Belto explains the encaustic process to Gary Sweeney. - Gary Sweeney
Gary Sweeney
Michelle Belto explains the encaustic process to Gary Sweeney.

Michelle Belto is a master in the ancient (and yet very current) art of encaustic, which involves heated beeswax to which textures and pigments are added. Her family moved to San Antonio when she was 13, and her life has many complex chapters. I hope she writes an autobiography someday. She and her husband of 25 years, Charlie, live with their two rescue dogs in an enchanted house with a garden and studio, just north of town. After a full career as a nun, art teacher and playwright, she now spends her time giving encaustic workshops both throughout the U.S. and internationally.

Was your family involved in the Arts?
No, but there is a creative gene on both sides of my family. My father's mother and my father were great problem solvers with an ability to think outside the box. My mom has always had an artistic bent, but I was the only one who formally studied art. I studied dance locally and then later in California. My undergraduate degree is in theater.

When did you start painting?
Not until 1990. I was in grad school in Berkeley, California, studying fine arts and consciousness when I had one of those moments that changes everything. I woke up one morning with the thought that I needed to paint. In theater I did work with scene design, but I had no formal visual arts education. What came out of that experience was a series of 48-inch by 60-inch mixed-media paintings, my first solo show and a sharp career turn from performing art to fine art.

How did you get into encaustic?
When I got back from Berkeley, I began studying at the Craft Center (now Southwest School of Art). I fell in love with papermaking. I especially liked the idea that paper can become its own canvas. I began creating dimensional forms from paper and foam, but I was struggling with the surface treatment. During lunch with a friend, I learned about encaustic. This was about 2000 when the hot wax process was just being rediscovered as a medium. I loved that both mediums — the paper and the wax — were organic and worked so well together.

click to enlarge Michelle Belto, Ah, Bright Wings - Courtesy
Michelle Belto, Ah, Bright Wings

I love encaustic. It makes things so alluring and atmospheric. What is it that makes it so much fun to work with?
Its versatility makes encaustic fun but the sensual elements of the medium make it totally addictive. I love that I can create surfaces that have layers of depth and luminosity or coatings of rich texture all with a simple change in temperature. Mixed-media artists love wax because it accepts almost everything without becoming compromised. Plus, it has a rich history. Yes, but here's what's interesting: Encaustic is one of the oldest and newest mediums. There are paintings that date back 2,000 years and yet when I began working in wax some 15 years ago, there was only one credible book on the subject. As an artist I had to either make my own paint or buy it directly from the manufacturer since none of the materials were sold retail. Try doing a quick online search with the word "encaustic." You will get more than three million listings. Interest in this medium has grown exponentially in the last 20 years.

Did you always live here in San Antonio?
I was born here and lived here until I was 13, at which time I entered the convent. That decision took me to Victoria, Texas. As a nun, I was trained as an educator. For most of my teaching career, I worked at various schools in South Texas.

Thirteen seems young to know what you wanted to do.
It would be today, but in the '60s the convent was more like a boarding school. Many girls entered after the eighth grade and completed high school in the convent. It was a good way to really know if the life was a good fit. Permanent commitments were not expected for another six or seven years after high school.

I don't think of nuns in the fine arts or performing arts. Did you do theater as a nun?
I taught theater and dance most of my secondary teaching career and even did some performing myself. My students usually mounted three full-length productions a year, one of which was a touring show. In one school we even renovated an 1890 opera house on the proceeds of our productions and turned it into a community theater. It never crossed my mind that a nun couldn't be an artist.

click to enlarge Belto's encaustic and mixed-media triptych Liquifaction - Courtesy
Belto's encaustic and mixed-media triptych Liquifaction

How do you think your life might have been different if you hadn't entered religious life?
I doubt that I would have had the same education or even the same opportunities. In my many years of religious life, I learned to appreciate solitude and the space for creativity and spiritualty. Those qualities not only fostered the artist in me but have served me well most of my life.

What is your life like today?

I am now married and living in the San Antonio area. I continue to teach, but now work primarily with adults. My work with handmade paper and encaustic allowed me to author a book through North Light Press, catapulting me into an international teaching schedule. When I am not traveling, I am adjunct faculty at Southwest School of Art where I teach encaustic painting. As a working artist, I spend a lot of time in the studio.

What is the best advice you give your students?
It's the same advice I repeat often to myself: "You can't make art in your head." I do a lot of idea exploring when I am on the road, but I am always amazed at how my ideas either do not work or change dramatically when I get into the studio. Nothing takes the place of showing up to work every day.

How have you changed as you've aged?
Good question. There was a time that I fought my own aging, but I think I have now made peace with the new limits of my body and personal energy. My means of expression has changed as I've aged. There came a time when both theater and dance took more than I wanted to give. Painting suits me better now. I live now more interested in the journey than the destination. [I'm] much less concerned about pleasing others and more concerned about being authentic. I have come to notice the shades of grey in my own life while appreciating the colors in the lives of others. Mainly, I live more from my intuition and less from my agenda. There is something to be said for taking life at a slower pace.

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