Naomi Hart is an artist, primarily working now in encaustic painting. She is also one my aunties who’s life story has always fascinated me. When Sarah told me that Naomi was submitting art for this issue of The Elephant I jumped at the opportunity to interview her.
Naomi has spent much of her life in the forests and towns of central and northern Minnesota. She spent her adolescent years in the tiny Canadian border town of Pigeon River, Minnesota, which remains where she feels her deepest connection to self.
Naomi describes encaustic art—in which hot pigmented beeswax is spread onto a surface and then reworked with flame or tools— as the oldest form of painting. When not working in her studio, Naomi can be found rebuilding her “bus home,” wandering in the natural world, and working as a tattoo artist in St. Cloud, Minnesota.
Emily Roth: How did you get started making encaustic art and why does this medium appeal to you?
Naomi Hart: When I was getting my degree in Rochester, NY, there was a woman in the studio who did encaustic art. She was a little crazy—we were all a little crazy—and I was intrigued by her and what she was doing. I had worked with wax before, but this was something different and I thought it looked like fun. It wasn’t until four or five years later though, after I’d left my tent and travelling life, and had come back to Minneapolis to take care of my mother, that I became serious about encaustic art.
It took me a while to figure out why I needed hot wax as part of my storytelling. Encaustic adds to the history of a piece: layers and layers of information. The wax exposes everything down to the wood at the base. This allows viewers to connect with the history of a piece. More than any other medium I have worked in, encaustic resonates with how I am trying to express myself artistically. It’s been challenging, but maybe the best things are. Making encaustic art keeps me on my toes and a little frustrated, so I have to really figure out how to say what I need to say. It’s necessary. And when I walk into my studio, I shed years; it’s just an incredible homecoming feel for me to be there working with the hot wax.
ER: The natural world plays a very prominent role in both your life and your work—what underlies that?
NH: I couldn’t be who I am without my understanding of the natural world. In the natural world I can connect with my need for growth. Anytime I have gone off kilter I have turned to the natural world, running to it to survive. Something I hope to articulate in my work is that I believe the healing of our human selves requires us to reconnect with our natural world. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in my own life, but I think it’s an important philosophical discussion for modern man generally too, especially in the USA.
ER: Who are your people?
NH: I am very much my mother’s daughter. I am a recluse and I prefer alone time. I don’t miss being with people. In some ways I worry that I so easily disengage. I also worry that some of my mother’s health issues stemmed from a lack of concrete interaction with reality, whatever that may be. Probably right now, more than at any other time, I’m finding myself looking at how to find new people. I love my community of traveling, deeply spiritual, earth-connected humans but I am hungry for a dialogue about art and philosophy, too. I feel like my career, and I, am on the cusp of something.
ER: Do you consider yourself wise?
NH: I recently filled out a form for a workshop in northern Minnesota and one of the questions was something along the lines of “Do your friends come to you for wisdom?” I answered YES YES YES, but do I think of myself as wise? Hell no! [laughs] I have been through a lot and I think I have really tried to grow and to live centered. I try to evaluate life through the lens of my growth and in a sense maybe that’s wisdom. Do I have all the answers? Heavens no. Do I fuck up and don’t want to get out of bed? Absolutely. But I don’t wish I had a bottle of alcohol hidden underneath my couch.
Gratitude plays a huge role in my life. The core of my gratitude is Pigeon River, Minnesota. It was my mom’s whimsy that led to us living there, so separated from the rest of the world. Those years probably had more influence on my life than anything else I’ve ever experienced. And during those years—the anxiety of my young adolescence—it was so important to be able to walk into the woods and give in, sinking into a heap on the ground until I felt the heartbeat of the earth around me and all my despair leached into the ground… I’m being so melodramatic [laughs]. But it has been exciting as an adult to come back around to how imperative it was to be able to do that, and what a loss it is for mankind in this modern age, when we don’t. I desire so much through my artwork to help people maybe catch a glimpse of their relationship to the natural world and how it could be speaking to them in the deepest darkest parts of their lives.
ER: What does success look like?
NH: When I went back to art school in my 40s I worked with all these young artists who were “making it” in New York and they were going to all the right parties and getting in all the right galleries and I knew that wasn’t for me. I don’t have the energy for that kind of career chasing. That kind of forced me to redefine my idea of success. I decided that my relationship with my art happened in the studio, not in the gallery. Creating in my studio was my spiritual place and everything after that is just extra. Once I hang a piece in a gallery, and observe people looking at and responding to it, I am letting go my relationship with the piece and allowing someone else to get into a relationship with it.
To learn more about Naomi Hart and see more of her work, visit her website here.