Artist Interview with Deniz Ozan-George
The text below is a summary of my discussion with Deniz Ozan-George, an artist based in Boston, Massachussetts. You can hear the full interview (including the background noises of Deniz working on a painting as we spoke together) here:
Listeners in the Boston area, who are interested in Deniz’s show should visit the gallery website. The exhibition starts at the beginning of September 2021.
While Deniz’s first solo exhibition is coming up in September 2021, she tells me that she has worked seriously as a painter since 2008, but at first she only shared her work with close friends, or the small art salons that she and her husband used to host in their home. When a friend attending their salon urged her to get involved in a cooperative gallery in Boston, she felt trepidation about exposing her art to the wider world. But Deniz hit it off with the director and gallery founder Marjorie Kaye (read an interview about Marjorie’s own painting here), discovering a connection through their experiences in Boston’s alternative music scene in the 70s and 80s.
Though she’s recently completed one portrait, Deniz considers herself first and foremost an abstract painter, lyrical, and expressionist. Ever since she started painting, Deniz tells me, she has needed to let go in the act of painting, as if she is channelling something unknowable, a vehicle for something working through her. The process is not mindless, but intuitive. For this reason, her paintings’ subjects may not be “recognizable” per se, though they evoke such adjectives as organic, geologic, microscopic, or macroscopic. “As I see them, I recognize them,” Deniz tells me. “I might choose a basic colour palette, and then from there, something will happen. It’s about accidents, and taking risks.”
I ask Deniz to tell me a little more about the role of scale in her paintings. When she was younger, Deniz really wanted to be a physicist, but felt she lacked the aptitude for math. Still, she kept an interest in subjects like popular physics, quantum mechanics, relativity, and astronomy.
“Every single thing I do is an experiment.” Sometimes the results will please her, but in the majority of cases, she ends up painting over her work with something new. Most of her canvases actually have somewhere between five and twenty different paintings buried under the more recent layers. But for Deniz, she loves the process even more than finishing something—the freedom to play.
When she was planning her show, Deniz was initially puzzled by the question of what to include. Having worked for a long time in acrylics, she had a large body of work to draw on. But recently, she’d begun to feel uninspired about her acrylics work. She found herself herself looking around her studio in search of inspiration, and fell upon a technique that she had played with years ago, and only recently taken up again in a serious way: painting with wax. The encaustic technique uses hot wax, while a related technique uses oil and cold wax; and these two techniques can also be combined.
In encaustics, the beeswax is combined with damar varnish (commonly used in oil paintings), which gives the soft wax more strength and stiffness. You can also mix the wax with pigments. Once the wax is applied to the canvas, the artist uses a small blowtorch to “fuse” it. However, if you apply too much heat, the wax will become fluid and move around the canvas. Another technique involves applying shellac, sometimes with a metal powder like gold or copper, and then burning it to produce an striking texture. The role of chance, and its innate imperfections, makes encaustics a perfect technique for Deniz, especially when she realized that she could, in effect, paint with the torch by using it to move the wax around the canvas.
Once Deniz realized that her new show was going to consist entirely of her encaustics work, she finally felt that she could see it clearly. She went back and forth between two titles for the show, “Playing with Fire” and “Painting with Fire,” but it was her husband who told her, “ʻPlaying with Fire’ is perfect because that’s what you do.”
“It’s true!” Deniz says, “For me, my work is play.”
One of the aspects that unifies all of Deniz’s paintings is a sense of depth, of looking down through multiple layers. This was hard to achieve with acrylics, since laying one transparent layer over another tends to make it rather dark, but encaustic technique is great at achieving this effect—although judicious care is still required. Deniz shows me the “mud” or wax mass that gets scraped off, either because she needs to start over, or simply because it has flowed off the edge of the canvas. Clear wax medium, without pigment, clarifies over time and will reveal more and more of the layers underneath.
The single portrait Deniz has done in recent time stands out amid her abstract works. For Deniz, this representational work was a way to refresh her creative forces, to cleanse the palate. At the beginning of December, she had just retired from a job she’d had for twenty-three years, at the same time that her mother passed away rather suddenly. It seemed like a good moment to explore a family connection. Deniz undertook a portrait based on a photo of her grandmother at age sixteen in Istanbul, Turkey. “I had a lot of questions,” Deniz says. “I had a complicated family. So I decided that one of the ways I could get to know somebody very well was by doing a portrait.”
In the painting, her grandmother’s gaze is intense, almost critical. The background, reminiscent of Deniz’s other abstract works such as her series of Mosaic paintings, was painted using egg tempera, with foil added afterward. Deniz had been old enough to know her grandmother when she died in 1973, and yet she describes feeling connected to her while she painted, as if she were talking with her. “I think this is a way you can really only connect with a person when you’re painting their portrait,” she says.
Her grandmother’s portrait wasn’t the only project that she had on the go. Though Deniz’s workspace isn’t large, she has a few different work stations, allowing her to switch back and forth. While the pandemic has been a difficult time for many artists, she has found it to be a time of creative flourishing. She finds nourishment in her remote, part-time job, the companionship of her husband, Brian George, who is himself a writer and artist (read some of Brian’s writing here), and in social activities with the gallery which have been conducting over Zoom, but will hopefully return to in-person meetings. “I hope we are putting this behind us soon,” Deniz says of the pandemic, “And I hope we’ve used this opportunity to learn something.”
Having a job separate from her artistic work is important to Deniz. “If I ever became dependent on selling work,” she says, “That would mean I would be dependent on making a certain kind of work, pleasing other people instead of myself. In that case, I think I would have to stop.” Fortunately for us all, Deniz shows no signs of stopping, and we may hope to see work from her for a long time to come.
Exhibition description from Deniz Ozan-George:
As I emerged from the pandemic winter of 2021, I was overwhelmed by a desire for warmth and the sight of lush growing things. With a renewed sense of excitement and momentum, I began this series of encaustic paintings using the open flame of a torch. Fusing and moving the melted wax on the panel, and setting fire to the wet shellac, I followed the will of the wax as it created layers of filigree and color within the depths of each painting. What finally emerged were these abstracted reflections of sky, water, and tangles of blossoms.
Playing with Fire refers to the vital role of “play” in my creative process. Following my intuition is sacred, rules are to be broken, and reckless experiment often leads to a sense of unexpected delight – yet the risk inherent in applying an open flame to a wax painting is always present. Playing with fire involves danger; I’m working on the knife’s edge between control and chaos. Seeking the true essence of the medium and the image that arises from this alchemical process is nothing less than exhilarating.