In the controlled, deliberate science of an archaeological excavation, field workers gently uncover the past. Using trowels and digging in 1-meter-by-1-meter square s, they scrape back the soil in layers centimeters thick. A half-inch at a time, the dirt and dust of decades gets uncovered.
Periodically an archaeologist will stop and sketch or photograph an excavation level. When a square is excavated down to sterile dirt, archaeologists also sketch the side walls, or profiles. The random arrangement of colored soils, bits of stone, volcanic ash layers, sand and artifacts has an abstract quality.
That’s the inspiration for Wisconsin artist Rebecca Crowell’s new show at the Pratt Museum, “Beneath the Surface.” Crowell’s paintings use muted earth tones of tan, beige, gray and red that suggest natural and cultural landscapes. The idea for a show with an archaeological content came from Crowell’s brother, Anchorage archaeologist Aron Crowell, Alaska director of the Arctic Studies Center of the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center.
“He said, ‘Your work makes me think of archaeology,’” Rebecca Crowell said.
That got her speculating: Where could she do a show that would exhibit her art in the context of archaeology? Crowell had visited Alaska and the Pratt Museum in 1998 and thought of Homer’s museum of art, culture and natural history to be a possibility. She contacted former curator of collections Holly Cusack-McVeigh, who said, sure, write a proposal. The museum approved the idea in May 2012.
“Beneath the Surface” also includes artifacts from the Pratt’s collection as well as sound design by David Crowell, Aron Crowell’s son. On his aunt’s blog, David Crowell describes his compositions as “an auditory love letter to the uniquely beautiful town of Homer.”
“Like an archaeologist meticulously digs through time, the music explores different layers of sound and texture beneath the surface, enhancing the visual element while also reminding us to listen (and look) for hidden details,” he writes.
Rebecca Crowell has had an interest in archaeology going back 40 years to when she and her brother worked on a dig in Virginia. Crowell even considered a career as an archaeological illustrator, but ventured into fine art.
Crowell has developed a painting technique using the cold wax process that involves layering together paint combined with beeswax and even media like charcoal and sand. Like encaustics, the cold wax process uses wax, but doesn’t heat it. Instead, the beeswax is mixed with solvent, pigment and oil paints.
“The wax gives the paint a lot of body so you can build it up … It changes the character of the oil paint,” Crowell said. “It’s a different way of working with oil paints.”
Like the encaustic process, cold wax can be gouged and scraped. It can be laid on canvas using a palette knife and rolled with brayers.
“It’s a pretty tactile working surface,” she said.
That layering technique also connects her work to archaeology, Crowell said. For some works in “Beneath the Surface,” she also used ground chalkstone, the reddish-orange soft rock found on Homer beaches, such as in “Chalkstone #1” and “Chalkstone #2.”
Also like archaeology, Crowell exposes layers by dribbling solvent over the paint.
“There’s an element of surprise,” Crowell said of that technique. “There’s also control.”
Living in her home of Osseo, Wis., Crowell couldn’t roam the collections of the Pratt for inspiration. Cusack-McVeigh sent her photographs of some of the artifacts in the Pratt’s collection. Crowell also drew on memories from her 1998 trip to Homer and Alaska. It wasn’t hard to develop a palette of colors for her show that reflected the artifacts, she said.
“I tend to use the earthy colors anyway — the ivory colors, the reddish colors,” she said.
Crowell has done residencies where the local landscape often inspires her.
“I’m always influenced by where I am and what I’m looking at,” she said. “When I was in Ireland, I was getting more greens. It seems like a cliché, but I’m always taking where from where I am.”
Painting in the context of a show with a theme was a departure for her, Crowell said.
“I loved that. I could pull out different aspects of the process,” she said. “It was liberating in a way I didn’t expect.”
Some paintings are more realistic, like a charcoal sketch of a basket. Other paintings are impressions of textures and shapes.
The show demonstrates Crowell’s reflection on the archaeological technique.
“I think that’s the more abstract aspect of it,” she said. “Some of it is about those specific objects, the stone lamps, and others are about the process, the layering.”
Crowell also did a workshop on the cold wax process last weekend at the Kachemak Bay Campus. Her show remains on exhibit in the Pratt’s special exhibits gallery upstairs through Sept. 29.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.