Art and Ambivalence

I’ve grown to love the word ‘ambivalent.’  When I was a kid I thought it meant wishy-washy and didn’t like it at all because it sounded feeble.  I had to experience it repeatedly for myself, the uneasy push-pull that happens when you’re drawn to something and put off by it at the same time, before I started to get it.  For creative people, ambivalence is fuel.  Attraction draws you to a subject and then whatever’s repellant about it spikes your curiosity, keeping you engaged because you want to understand.


Artist Marilyn Minter’s retrospective, Pretty/Dirty, up at the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art through January 31st, stirs ambivalence.  Her photographs, paintings and videos depict a raunchy, feminine sensuality that titillates and repels.  Check out the Green Pink Caviar trailer below to see what I mean.



Here’s another video, a talk Minter gave at the School of Visual Arts in New York in 2014.  She does a great job here telling the story of her art, connecting photographs she made as an undergrad of her beautiful but addicted mom to her current work. She also talks about her struggle to find her voice as a painter while vying for success in the New York art world, two big aims that didn’t always mesh.


“From the minute I went to school I heard, ‘You’ve got to loosen up.’ I gave it my best because I could copy anything.  I could create the illusion of the gestural mark but . . . I could see that it looked phony.” – Marilyn Minter


I’m ambivalent about blogging.  I love language and think writing is interesting but also find it confining.  If you can put a complex thought in words it means you’ve pinned it down.  Take that same thought, make a series of images about it, and you’ve probably opened something up.  Look at Minter’s work.  Her epic paintings offer liquid drips, edible gold and glitter-flecked, freckled skin.  They are gorgeous, a pleasure to view.  They’re also political, raising questions about feminine presentation, sexual agency and power.  If you get Minter’s work, you get it viscerally.  It raises shame and erases it.  I’m not sure you can do that in words.


Each time I redo my website is an opportunity to reconsider this blog.  Keep it or let it go.  I’m keeping it, enthusiastically this time because I’m ambivalent. So for the second time in ten years I’ve cleared the deck, deleting all my old posts except for a few reported posts about beeswax.  It’s my goal to post weekly, words and/or images. This’ll be a lab of sorts. I’ll be adding new categories and trying different things.  Stop by on Mondays to see what’s new.

Welcome to my new website!

Yay! A project I thought would take a month (but that actually took over two) is finally done. Welcome to my new website and online shop.

"You," encaustic painting by Laura Tyler

“You,” encaustic and ink on panel, 5″ x 4″, SOLD

The most exciting development on the web since I last updated my site in 2011 is the arrival of e-commerce tools like WooCommerce and Shopify that allow you to set up your own shop. This gives you more control over your collectors’ experience. It also has the potential to reduce artists’ dependence on third party sites like Etsy for online sales. My old site worked mostly as a static gallery. Clean and cool, it served to a degree. But I never loved it as a mode of expression and struggled to keep it updated. Adding a shop to the new site has warmed things up by broadening how I think about photography. Taking inspiration from foodie sites (like the gorgeous QUITOKEETO) I am excited about allowing atmosphere to creep into my portfolio photography.  It is no longer solely a drudge activity. (To see more of QUITOKEETO proprietor Heidi Swanson’s food photography, check out her blog, 101 Cookbooks. Also worth a gander, the lush and sensitively photographed cannelle et vanilla.)



  • Big thanks to Andy Schwarz at amstec for his work (and patience!) on the design and technical end.
  • Need help visualizing a new version of your own site?  Check out this Web Design Sketchbook.  I used the free version and found it clarifying.
  • E-commerce powered by Woo.


What is pharmaceutical grade beeswax?

Is it a good idea to wear gloves when handing beeswax in the studio? Or is that overkill? When I wrote about this in 2012 I was concerned about chronic exposure to pesticide residues and thought the answer might be yes even for pharmaceutical grade beeswax. More info needed, so I did some digging. Here is what I found.

How does the U.S. Pharmacopeia define pharmaceutical grade beeswax?

The U.S. Pharmacopeia defines beeswax/Yellow Wax as the purified wax from the honeycomb of the bee that conforms to the Saponification Cloud Test. White Wax is the product of bleaching and purifying Yellow Wax and also must conform to the Saponification Cloud Test. Both definitions “have been around since the mid 1930’s and it appears they have not changed much,” according to Robert H. Lafaver, M.S., Technical Services Manager at the U.S. Pharmacopeia.

What does “purified” mean?

To understand whether or not agricultural pesticides can be present in pharmaceutical grade wax you need to understand what purified means. When I asked Lafaver how the Pharmacopeia defines purified he explained that purification processes for pharmaceuticals fall under the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) authority and that some of these processes may be “patented and/or priority information.” He also suggested that I would “need to talk to manufacturers of wax to see how they purify it.” When I reached out to the FDA’s Office of Media Affairs for more info I received an acknowledgment of my question but no meaningful information. “I have not found out anything and will keep researching this,” said my contact there.

Wax cleaning methods range from simple straining to more complex filtering processes. And while the U.S. Pharmacopeia doesn’t determine how wax should be purified for pharmaceutical use, Lafaver said, “it depends on the manufacturer but basically, it is heated, filtered and mixed with alcohol or other chemicals to make it more pliable at room temperature and to remove any impurities (honey comb pieces, bee carcasses, larvae, etc.)

Does the Saponifaction Cloud Test detect pesticide residues?

The Saponification Cloud Test is one of five Specific Tests for beeswax listed in the U.S. Pharmacopeia. These tests are performed to ensure that pharmaceutical grade wax hasn’t been adulterated with other substances like microcrystalline or paraffin. These tests do not detect pesticide residues.

How do you know if the pharmaceutical beeswax you bought online is indeed pharmaceutical grade?

I’ve heard from a few artists who have reported receiving bad batches of beeswax (petroleum-smelling, weird texture) labeled “pharmaceutical grade” from various retailers. When I asked Lafaver what he thought might be going on he explained that the testing of pharmaceutical grade beeswax happens at the level of the pharmaceutical manufacturer and not the retailer. “Pharmaceutical companies are required to perform many, if not all, of the tests in the USP-NF.” However, it may be possible to purchase adulterated wax labeled as pharmaceutical from unknowing or perhaps dishonest retailers who are not required to perform those tests themselves. He went on to say that “if this is the case, then the FDA may not be aware . . . since no pharmaceutical product actually contains the material. Part of the Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) required by the agency for pharmaceutical companies are to know the source of the material they are purchasing. Buying from retailers could cause issues. Unfortunately, the potential for counterfeiting/adulteration is out there.”


• “All foundation beeswax pressed into sheets and used as templates for comb construction sampled from North America is uniformly contaminated,” according to Pesticides and Honey bee toxicity, a scientific paper published in 2010.

• Wax producers use a range of methods to filter impurities from white and yellow pharmaceutical grade wax. These methods aren’t clearly explained by the FDA and may not (probably don’t) filter pesticide residues which can bond with wax at the molecular level.

• Pharmaceutical grade beeswax isn’t tested for pesticide residues.

• Wax sold as pharmaceutical isn’t tested for adulteration at the retail level (it gets tested at the level of the pharmaceutical producer) so it’s possible to purchase adulterated “pharmaceutical grade beeswax” from less watchful retail art and craft suppliers.

• I recommend purchasing beeswax only from reputable sellers and if you do ever receive a suspect batch, send it back.

• The main risk to artists who handle beeswax on a daily basis is chronic exposure to the stuff artists add to the wax (pigments and such) and not agricultural pesticides which can be present in small amounts. But if you are handling beeswax daily over periods of months or years you need to know that agricultural compounds, including organophosphates, are part of the mix.

• When I asked Lafaver his advice for artists who work with beeswax daily over periods of months or years, he said, “Personally speaking, I would recommend gloves.”

Pharmaceutical grade beeswax as defined by the United States Pharmacopeia and The National Formulary (USP-NF). I scanned & trimmed pages 2277 and 2278 so the info about white and yellow beeswax fit on a single page.

Pharmaceutical grade beeswax as defined by the United States Pharmacopeia and The National Formulary (USP-NF). I scanned & trimmed pages 2277 and 2278 so the info about white and yellow beeswax fit on a single page.

Beeswax and breasts: do you know what’s in yours?
Study reveals: organophosphate pesticides cause lasting damage to brain and nervous system

Encaustic transfer effects

Here are some test pieces I made to show the effects you can get using a variety of photo transfer and embedding techniques with encaustic.

1. Office Paper

The roughed-up/tattered-edge look in the image below is characteristic of photos transferred onto an encaustic surface from office paper. They can have a vintage charm.

This laser printed image of a rusty pipe was transferred onto a prepared encaustic surface using water and a few simple tools. The tattered-edge appearance is characteristic of images transferred from office paper. It has a vintage charm.

This image of a rusty pipe was transferred from laser printed office paper onto a prepared encaustic surface using water and a few simple tools. © Laura Tyler

2. Baker’s Parchment

You can get a range of effects from crisp to ghostly by transferring images from baker’s parchment.

Image transferred from baker's parchment to encaustic.

Image transferred from baker’s parchment to encaustic. The creamy substrate is printmaking paper adhered to a birch plywood panel. © Laura Tyler

3. Rice Paper

A quick and simple way to incorporate small chunks of photography into your encaustic work is to print your images on rice paper and embed them. Since bubbles can be an issue (they get trapped under larger pieces of paper) this is a technique best suited to those who enjoy working with discrete pieces of imagery as opposed to whole sheets.

Image printed on rice paper and embedded in encaustic. The bright white substrate is encaustic gesso applied to a birch plywood panel.

Image printed on rice paper and embedded in encaustic. The bright white substrate is encaustic gesso applied to a birch plywood panel. © Laura Tyler

4. Printmaking Paper

Photos printed directly on an absorbent fine art paper like Stonehenge and mounted on a rigid panel can integrate beautifully with encaustic. The drawback to this technique is that it positions the photograph on the bottom layer of the artwork whereas transfers can happen on any layer.

Image laser printed onto Stonehenge, adhered to a plywood panel and coated with encaustic. © Laura Tyler

Image laser printed onto Stonehenge, adhered to a plywood panel and coated with encaustic. © Laura Tyler


Encaustic Transfer

The price of beeswax, up or down?

You’ve heard the news. Honeybees are in decline. Yet the price of beeswax has remained relatively stable these last few years. Is there a secret behind the stability? How long will artists who work with beeswax continue to enjoy feel-good prices on their materials?

Beekeepers harvest beeswax from two different areas of the hive. There’s cappings wax that’s culled as part of the honey harvest. And brood comb that beekeepers pull and recycle on a rotating basis from deeper in the hive. While cappings wax is sensitive to fluctuations in the honey harvest, brood comb becomes more available as bees die off and beekeepers reduce the numbers of colonies in their apiaries. So a bad honey year or a high mortality year doesn’t necessarily mean we’re in for a bad wax year, at least not immediately, although enough bad years in a row will disrupt supply.

So what’s the beeswax forecast for 2013?

Cappings wax, filtered and molded for storage

Cappings wax, filtered and molded for storage by Backyard Bees, photographed by Laura Tyler

I was at a talk in Denver last Saturday presented by USDA bee researcher Jeff Pettis, and while the numbers are still coming in, it’s his hunch that the winter of 2012 – 2013 will go down as the most devastating year to date for bee mortality with some commercial beekeepers reporting losses of 75% or higher. The official numbers will look better than that once they’re in due to how beehives are counted. Regardless of counting methods, this has been a tough winter for the bees.

Interestingly, according to the USDA’s National Honey Report, many beeswax sellers are holding steady on their prices even though stock is low.

Current wholesale prices quoted exclusively for white, cleaned beeswax are steady and for 1lb block units at $5.50 to $5.75 mostly $5.50 and for 50lb block units at $4.50 to $5.00 mostly $4.75. Price quotes taken for bulk orders above 50lbs are $2.20 to $3.50 mostly $3.50 for white/light, cleaned beeswax. Retail white and cleaned beeswax prices reported are $16.00 to $20.00 per pound mostly $18.00. Many beeswax sellers have held their prices however, are showing very low supply inventories.

In other words: Stock up.

National Honey Report, March 2013
Annual Honey Report Analysis

Beeswax and breasts: Do you know what’s in yours?

Molecules get into our bodies through a number of different paths: through food, through water, through just touching substances, and also we breathe them in. It turns out our breasts are almost like sponges the way they can soak up some of these chemicals especially the ones that are fat-loving.

Florence Williams, author of Breasts

Flame retardants, pesticides, jet fuel particles – these are a few of the compounds science reporter Florence Williams found in her breast milk while doing the research for her book, Breasts. I caught a snippet of Williams’ interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air and was struck by how closely the Breasts story tracks with beeswax. Beeswax, like breast tissue, is a fatty material with a spongelike capacity to absorb nearby chemistry. Bee researchers have identified over one-hundred pesticides and metabolites in bee comb samples. They are catalogued in the paper, “Pesticides and honey bee toxicity.” (Link below.)

What have researchers found in beeswax?

A mix of fungicides, herbicides, miticides, insect growth regulators and pesticides including neonicotinoids and organophosphates.

How do pesticides get into beeswax?

• Beekeepers introduce them when they use synthetic miticides to control varroa mites. These fat-loving or lipophilic compounds “may remain in the wax components for years following treatment.”

• Honeybees introduce pesticides to their colonies when they bring loads of contaminated pollen and nectar back home for processing, consumption and storage in wax comb cells.

• Beekeepers add to the load when they use comb foundation manufactured from processed wax in their hives. “All foundation beeswax pressed into sheets and used as templates for comb construction sampled from North America is uniformly contaminated ….”

crimped beeswax foundation

This crimped beeswax foundation smells wonderful but is "uniformly contaminated" according to bee researchers. © Laura Tyler

While all the contamination methods listed above concern me as a beekeeper, it’s the uniform contamination of wax foundation that most concerns me as an artist. If all beeswax foundation is “uniformly contaminated” then it means all beeswax processed in the same way – gathered from multiple sources, melted and filtered – is similarly contaminated.

I work with wax. What can I do to minimize my exposure?

• Ventilate.

• Wear protective gloves. It’s been my habit to wear latex gloves only when handling messy paintings and pigment sticks but not when handling encaustic medium. I am reevaluating.

Can’t I just buy organic wax?

Short answer: No. The USDA doesn’t certify bee products. As of today there’s no such thing as federally certified organic beeswax in the United States. Longer answer: It’s complicated. If you’d like to know more about organic beeswax and the methods and terminology U.S. beekeepers are using to work around it, let me know in the comments.

What about pharmaceutical grade beeswax?

Again: It’s complicated. Pharmaceutical grade doesn’t necessarily mean pesticide free. Some pharmaceutical grade waxes are highly filtered. Others, less so. Regardless of the type and grade of wax you’re using, the safety advice remains the same. Ventilate. If you’re not ventilating, think of the information here as a reason to re-think your practices. If your ventilation is good, excellent! Let’s talk about gloves.

Artists, do you use gloves when you handle beeswax in your studio? Why or why not?

Freestyle comb

Bees hard at work building and filling foundation-free comb in Boulder, Colorado, © Laura Tyer

Just What’s Inside Those Breasts?
Pesticides and honey bee toxicity
Venting Your Studio for Encaustic