In the back of the house, in the old two-car garage she calls her atelier, Eirene Archolekas is wielding a blowtorch, applying firepower to one of her abstract encaustic paintings.
With bold strokes, she guides the tiny blue flame, back and forth, back and forth, up and down, up and down, waking up the wax.
It is, she says, an “addictive, mesmerizing, healing” pursuit, one that she wishes she had discovered much earlier in life.
“Working with wax is a dance of wills,” she says as she trades the blowtorch for a shiny silver dental instrument she uses for scraping and shaping. “It’s a negotiation, it’s like painting with a partner, it leads you to places you don’t know of.”
Eirene, who has honey-hued highlights in her Medusa hair and master’s degrees in literature and journalism, has never studied art.
She became passionate about encaustics six years ago when she saw the Fayum Egyptian mummy portraits in The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“These masks were designed to capture the essence of the deceased, and they were buried for thousands of years – wax lasts forever,” she says. “I felt a direct connection to my ancestral past.”
Ah, her past.
Eirene, whose parents are Greek, was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, where her father had a job connected with the mining industry.
The oldest of three, Eirene was brought up in Athens and has lived in Astoria off and on since her family immigrated in 1977.
“I come from two worlds,” she says, bringing out a collage she made that shows her, a tiny black stick figure, standing in the vast blue ocean between Greece and America. “I’m always living in the Netherspace.”
The family returned to Greece when she was 16, but Eirene missed America so much that she came back to New York, earning her bachelor’s degree from Queens College.
Through the years, various jobs took her back and forth to Europe.
After the birth of the first of her two daughters, she got a teaching job in the New York City public school system, where she still works as a home instructor for students who are too ill to attend classes.
It was the end of her second marriage that ultimately led her to art and the art of healing.
“Encaustic painting is one of the reasons I can say I’m finally healed of the PTSD of my painful divorce,” she says. “It’s about destroying layers to build them up again. I had to destroy parts of myself that were not letting me be authentic. I had to kind of die and be born again.”
She dug deep into herself – “encaustic painting forces you to think like an archaeologist because you’re looking through layers and bringing things to light – it’s a luminous medium; it glows sometimes.”
What she found during her personal excavations was an innate artistic talent that didn’t so much emerge as explode.
One of her first projects was close to home: She painted the side of the garage in a psychedelic kaleidoscope of color.
She flips through a group of small encaustic paintings that are placid and calming to the eye.
“My works are inspired by nature,” she says, adding that she sometimes incorporates plant pieces, such as pine needles, and natural elements, such as sand, in them.
Right now, she’s working on a large abstract work that has a beach-like look and feel.
She picks up a dental instrument and starts scraping it, creating waves in the wax.
“The texture of encaustic painting is phenomenal,” she says.
The motion is meditative.
It’s hard for her to stop – and it’s hard to stop looking at her not stopping.
The exuberance of her encaustic paintings and encaustic mixed-media works, which have been exhibited in a Chelsea and a Long Island City gallery, is reflected in the atelier, which is filled with stacks of works and pieces in progress.
The ideas, she says, simply keep coming, one after another after another; she couldn’t stop them even if she wanted to.
Some of her works are collages, and one of her new projects in progress is a graphic novel that depicts her mother’s descent into dementia.
But Eirene doesn’t create art merely for art’s sake.
She makes art to help others find the same solace it has given her.
To that end, she recently established Aceso: Healing through Expressive Arts so she can work with a variety of vulnerable groups, including at-risk teens, the elderly, immigrants and the homeless.
“I’m hoping to create a workshop co-op that’s community-based,” she says, adding that her organization is named after the Greek goddess of the healing process. “I’m looking for a space to set it up – so I’m creating a community call for action to find one.”
Until then, Eirene will concentrate on making her art, which is also her therapy.
“This is what I’m supposed to be doing – bring creativity into the world in the service of health,” she says. “That’s my purpose whether for myself or others.”
Copyright 2022 by Nancy A. Ruhling