Standing at a typical gallery-viewing distance from one of Dietlind Vander Schaaf’s paintings, the viewer notices shapes, marks, pattern, color, sometimes a pop of gold. Up close, however, the textural complexity of her work is fully revealed. Vander Schaaf is an encaustic painter; she uses brushes and a blowtorch to layer her canvases with paint, beeswax, and resin—a finished piece will have 50, 60, or even more layers. “I like my work to feel like it’s straddling between two-dimensional and three-dimensional space, so that it has an object feel to it,” she says. The layering technique has evolved to become key to her process—the rhythmic application of materials and fusing them together a kind of ritual that centers her and reflects her longtime study of yoga and meditation.
When Vander Schaaf turned 40, she participated in the teacher training program at Kripalu Yoga Center in Western Massachusetts, an experience which had an unexpected impact on her art. “Before, I was very focused on technique. I knew what I was trying to get to and worked backwards from there; it was very controlled” she says. “After I went through the training, I was suddenly interested in color. I brought in all this gold, which signifies inner light, and I did not any longer know where the work was going. I wanted to free myself to take more risks with my work, to have it be looser and more gestural.”
The multiple layers that Vander Schaaf creates allow her to carve shapes and marks, which she often highlights with black pigment rubbed into the surface. While her work is abstract, there is a storytelling aspect to her art that one of her students expressed eloquently in a note. “Your mark making exhibits the rhythm of the printed word, without the burden of specified meaning, holding space for the viewer to collaborate in an experiential way.”
Viewer engagement is the goal of all artists, and for Vander Schaaf, this includes creating a distinct and different visual language, along with a simpler concept, conveying beauty—something she questioned the value of for a long time. The mindfulness cultivated through her yoga practice has raised awareness of her relationship to nature, and how she feels while hiking or walking in the woods, noticing patterns and rhythms. “What I’m always trying to do with my work is give that to the viewer; it’s really about beauty,” she says. “It’s visual thing, but it’s also a physical sensation—for people to feel calm and centered, and transfixed or transported, but very much to celebrate beauty. I think it’s needed now more than ever.”
Susan Sherrill Axelrod is a seasoned editor and writer whose work has covered a broad range of lifestyle subjects—food and drink, art and design, preservation, and sustainability. In 2020, she became editor-in-chief of Culture, a national media brand focused on the enjoyment and business of cheese. She lives in Maine's midcoast, and enjoys being on the water as much as possible, hiking with her dog, Lucy, and a well-made cocktail.