According to Book 35 of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, encaustic was first used as an artistic medium in Greece during the fifth century B. C. Following its use in antiquity, the medium was revived in Europe during the 18th century, and by the 19th century it was being used in England and the United States. Throughout its history, encaustic has been praised for its longevity. Plutarch famously compared the medium to enduring love, “A beautiful woman leaves in the heart of an indifferent man an image as fleeting as a reflection on water, but in a lover’s heart, the image is fixed with fire like an encaustic painting that time will never erase.”[1] Also with a focus also on permanence, in 1909, the American painter John La Farge proudly described his mural decorations at Trinity Church: “These paints which I used were waxed, employed for the first time in this country or in Europe…I was asked how long the paint would last, and told our anxious committee that it would last when the city of Boston no longer existed.”[2]

Mel Rea’s encaustics poetically unite the eternal and the ethereal. An accumulation of layers preserves each step of the creative process, and yet each layer obscures the one that came before, creating a surface that obscures as much as it reveals, tantalizes more than it gives away. Mel Rea’s imagery defies definition. Her encaustics might be described as landscapes of the imagination, but in the world she conjures, solidity gives way to shimmering liquidity, the weight of water evaporates into atmosphere. Mel Rea uses the most immutable of mediums to create mercurial images that seem to dematerialize before the viewer’s eyes and respond to light and time of day. In a feat of alchemy, she achieves similar effects in oil that glimmer on canvas.  Blues ranging from azure to steel gray bring to mind cloud studies by Constable and Whistler’s nocturnes, while iridescent pinks and amethyst and verdant greens recall Monet’s visions at Giverny. And yet, Mel Rea’s work in both encaustic and oil is entirely her own, beguiling in its evershifting imagery and seductive surfaces.


Heather Lemonedes, Ph.D.
Curator of Drawings
The Cleveland Museum of Art


[1] Gail Stavitsky, ed., Waxing Poetic: Encaustic in America, Exh. cat., Montclair, NJ: The Montclair Art Museum, 1999, 5.

[2] John La Farge, letter to the editor, New York Herald, 1909, cited in Stavitsky, 11.