Hamill’s oceanic scenes push past all boundaries

Ruth Hamill at work in her studio.

Ruth Hamill has always been surrounded by water. Whether physically or metaphorically, Hamill seems to gravitate to it, finding places to live and work where it surrounds her. Her latest pieces for the Atrium Gallery in downtown Charleston are almost solely focused on the most powerful force of water,the kind that Charlestonians are intimately familiar with: the ocean.

“My canvases are getting bigger and broader,” Hamill says when discussing her recent work. “I’m trying to make space to capture the horizon, the ocean, the shore. But to do it in a way that shows motion and unveils a place. And it’s difficult to accomplish at times.”

Pinning down a subject as unwieldy as the ocean is a job that many artists have taken on. It takes a strong talent to tackle that subject in a new and inventive way. But Hamill’s works are unlike any other oceanic scenes I’ve encountered. At once powerful and soothing, transitory and static, Hamill’s paintings are distinctive and unique. Much of that uniqueness is due to the challenging medium she works in called encaustic.

Encaustic requires patience and skill and a set of traditional and non-traditional tools such as wax, heat guns, and hot irons. Hamill works with both oils and encaustic, a process that means “to burn in,” and pushes against what is capable in both mediums The medium forces Hamill to work quickly. Once the wax gets on the canvas it immediately starts to cool and becomes less malleable. So Hamill has learned to embrace the mistakes that come with it.

“Mistakes are part of the process of encaustic,” she says. “Obviously I have an images in my mind of what I want to happen, but I’ve learned to let the mistakes take hold. Gravity also helps out. I’ve learned to make it part of the process.”

Even though encaustic has been used for centuries (it is one of the oldest art mediums) it’s not as prevalent as oils or watercolor. It takes a specific kind of patience and skill to work with encaustic. It sounds utterly frustrating to me, but Hamill is up to the task. It’s all part of her investment in art and why she sound confident and insightful when discussing the history and the philosophy behind her creative process. She also has a deep and introspective appreciation for the history of art and what the role and purpose of art should be.

“That’s why I spend so much time working in the studio and pushing myself past the typical boundaries,” she says. “I have to keep learning, trying out new ideas and make mistakes or it’s just not worth it to me.”

The mindset has always held that art reflects life; art slows down moments of life long enough for us to appreciate beauty. But Hamill has a different idea.

“I really do consider my paintings to be fiction,” she says. “They are connected to the subject but their own creative work.”

The idea of art, especially realism, as fiction is a difficult notion to hold on to. But with Hamill it makes total sense. How could our attempts at capturing a force as powerful as waves or the ocean be anything but fictitious? It’s just one more thought-provoking idea from one of the most intuitive artists working today.

What: Ruth Hamill, “At the Shore”

Where: Atrium Art Gallery, 61 Queen St.

When: on display through June 30

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