It’s been said that the harder the battle, the sweeter the victory. For Canadian artist Tony Scherman, who paints in a rarely used and challenging technique called encaustic, that saying has proven to be true.

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This article was published 31/8/2019 (823 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s been said that the harder the battle, the sweeter the victory. For Canadian artist Tony Scherman, who paints in a rarely used and challenging technique called encaustic, that saying has proven to be true.  

"Encaustic is one of the oldest and most difficult painting techniques known," says Winnipeg Art Gallery director Stephen Borys of Scherman’s encaustic portraits, on display at the WAG in a new exhibit called Heroes, Ghosts, and Dreams.

"It’s using hot melted wax and a variety of pigments which are mixed and then applied immediately to a surface."

While it may sound simple enough, the process is immensely challenging. As the layers of wax and pigment begin to harden and take form, the artist must work against time to shape their vision on the canvas before it sets permanently. 

Though challenging, the technique is also versatile, which helps to explain its continued use.

"You can get a variety of thicknesses and textures," Borys says. "It can be transparent or translucent." 

Encaustic painting can be traced back all the way to the Ancient Greeks and Romans but has consistently been used in some form throughout history, right up to the contemporary period. 

Although there are numerous artists who dabble in the technique, the Toronto-born Scherman, 69, is the only known artist currently working exclusively in the medium, and it’s rare to have the opportunity to see encaustic paintings inperson.

Borys points out that it’s also rare to see encaustic works created on such massive canvases — Scherman’s portraits in the Heroes, Ghosts and Dreams series are monumental in size. 

Aside from Scherman’s unique technique, what truly sets him apart from other artists of his generation is his longevity and ability to defy categorization. 

"Here’s an artist that’s been painting for close to 50 years," Borys says of the painter, whose work is represented in 30 public collections in Canada and internationally.

"He’s painted through the major movements of post-modernism and contemporary art, but rather than responding to some of those key moments — like pop art, conceptualism and even late abstraction — he’s dealing with image and figure over and over."

Today, Scherman is considered to be a leading figurative artist of his generation. Scherman grew up in a creative family — his father, Paul, was a professional conductor and violinist — and he spent his childhood and young adult life in Europe, including Paris and London, where he earned an MA from the Royal College of Art. 

Upon his return to Toronto in 1976, he narrowed his creative focus to portraiture and began working exclusively in the rare encaustic technique that has come to define his artistic practice. 

Since then, he has had more than 100 solo exhibitions across Canada, the United States, Europe, and China during his career.

Serge Saurette photo</p><p>The Heroes, Ghosts and Dreams exhibition will be on display at the Winnipeg Art Gallery until Oct. 20.</p></p>

Serge Saurette photo

The Heroes, Ghosts and Dreams exhibition will be on display at the Winnipeg Art Gallery until Oct. 20.

His work has been included in numerous group exhibitions since the 1970s. Heroes, Ghosts, and Dreams was curated by Borys and it contains 28 pieces that span the last 40 years of Scherman’s career. 

It includes work from several different series, including About 1879About 1865Difficult Womenand The Junkies. Portraits of historical figures in the exhibit include Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln and Simone de Beauvoir. 

Borys was inspired to curate the exhibit during his recent travels, which happened to coincide with a donation from the artist himself. 

"I was travelling in the southern United States, in Richmond, Virginia... that’s the heart of the whole U.S. Civil War," Borys says.

"We had recently acquired a series of works from Tony Scherman, About 1865 — which is about the Civil War — and it just really hit me. I thought, ‘Wow, I’d love to bring those works to an exhibit.’"

As director and CEO of the WAG, Borys is often busy with the daily running of the gallery and the construction of the Inuit Art Centre, which is set to open its doors in 2020.

"It’s a luxury for me to curate an exhibit," he admits, but when he does, he keeps three things in mind: "I curate for learning, enjoyment and engagement."

For Heroes, Ghosts and Dreams, Borys "wanted to share with our audiences what Tony was thinking, particularly about some critical themes right now: political, historical and social. When I think of what’s going on right here in Winnipeg, I was interested in how we look at race in art, and how we look at the discrimination that is very much around us.

"I thought it was interesting looking at it from a different perspective and a different context."

For those who are unable to visit the exhibit, an exhibition catalogue is available for sale.

It features critical essays, an intimate interview with Scherman, and full-page photos of the portraits in the exhibit. 

However, Borys is passionate about the importance of seeing art the way it was meant to be seen: in person. 

"You really need to see the works in the flesh. In a media-saturated age, where you can see high-res images on your screen, that cannot replicate or duplicate standing in front of those large-scale works and feeling the presence of the artist.

"When you’re looking at Scherman’s works in a book or a screen," he continues, "it’s one thing, but when you’re looking at them in the flesh you get a three-dimensional sculpture. You really can’t experience the depth and dynamic of the portraits until you’re in the physical space of the gallery."  

Heroes, Ghosts, and Dreams runs until Oct. 20 and is presented by the WAG Foundation in honour of the 70th Anniversary of the Associates of the WAG. For more information visit wag.ca.

frances.koncan@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @franceskoncan

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