Lynn Bregman Blass uses an ages-old process involving beeswax and Damar resin to preserve photographs, documents, and other scraps of personal memories. Once the vital ephemera is captured, it becomes part of an ongoing project called the Visual History Collaborative.
She also paints personal canvases, common motifs being vessels, grids, and “spirit houses.” Blass began working with encaustic about 15 years ago, drawn to its translucency. “Whatever lies beneath the visible surface … is always available,” she says. She quotes the late author/surgeon Leonard Shlain, who wrote Leonardo’s Brain and other philosophical art books: “[Encaustic allows] the viewer to squint through the usually opaque [surface] of an artwork’s present and discern the ghosts of its past.”
The idea for the Visual History Collaborative arose, she says, when she was giving a beginning encaustic workshop at the Carrboro Arts Center. Talking with artist Leah Sobsey, recalls Blass, “we realized we both had an interest in historical artifacts and stories.”
The two began discussing how photos can capture moments in time, something Blass describes as “an ephemeral way of remembering.” They also talked about how encaustic — first used in creating ancient Egyptian mummy portraits around 100-300 AD — lets the viewer look back through a painting’s layers and understand how each moment, each stroke, informs the present.
They began going through boxes in their respective attics and found generations of items that had once seemed important to save — among them photos, letters, ticket stubs, journal pages, family recipes, and Scrabble scores. The resulting Time, Lineage, Memory, their first installation together, was about history made visible again through encaustic-enshrined images. “When we exhibited the work, we discovered that examining our personal visual histories became a catalyst for others to tell their own stories,” says Blass.
They were then commissioned by the Chapel Hill and Carrboro communities to create Our Stories in Focus, a traveling community art project that shares the stories of 500 people. Since then, they’ve administered further individual, organizational, and foundation projects. Captured mementos include a page from an autograph book, a grandmother’s hankie, a photograph of a grandfather shaving, a note to the tooth fairy, a suitcase carried by an immigrant traveling to America, and a family recipe. “Leah and I, over the years, have witnessed and valued hundreds and hundreds of stories,” says Blass.
The ongoing art project even altered her own life story. Blass became a licensed psychotherapist on top of her art career. “Creative endeavors,” she says, “[are] about fearlessness … confronting the emptiness, and, out of that, creating something of meaning. In many ways, therapy is about that, as well.
“It makes total sense that my personal art [depicts] houses, grids, and containers — those are the metaphors for what holds our stories and dreams.”
Lynn Bregman Blass, Pink Dog Creative, 348 Depot St. Suite 160-B in Asheville’s River Arts District. Blass’ studio hours are 11am-4pm Wednesday through Sunday or by appointment (919-357-4701). For more information, see visualhistorycollaborative.com or lynnbregmanblass.com.