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Artist profile: Sara Mast

Drops of color as seen through the strata of wax and pigment, transferred images of diagrams, laboratory scrawls, and random numbers linger like ghosts between dendrites and synapse structures, in Sara Mast’s new series she calls “Dialogues,” reaching across science and art, memory and time.

Upstairs at the Visions West Gallery in Livingston, encaustic painter Mast combines her artwork with the artwork of her family in homage to her father, an inventor and early pioneer of American industrial design, a physicist and optics expert, who in 1972 succumbed to a brain tumor while Sara was young teenager. This unique outreach bridges her life and those of her relatives to a man of both vast and personal influence.

“My dad died when I was fourteen so I could never talk to him as an adult,” Mast says. “By putting together his patents and my art, I can have that dialogue with him now.” In the multi-media exhibit, “Soundings,” on view until August 23rd, Mast invited her siblings, nieces and nephews to contribute to the show by sharing their memories or influences of Gifford Morrison Mast.

A row of four-by-four Plexiglas boxes contains: a pine cone, written music, a ball of used encaustic wax, leaves from a gingko tree, a light-washed family snapshot, and a crumpled piece of engineering paper. Across the room, an iPhone app displays a graphic of Sara’s heartbeat on an image of her brother’s fingerprint and over the background of the family tree. In the center of the room are three tripods each with an iPod Shuffle and headphones, set with her nephew’s compositions. On pedestals throughout the exhibit stand a few of her father’s inventions like the first stereoscopic viewer and a mechanical Dot Counter, a photo-interpreter to accurately record a number of identifiable points on a surface. Both were assigned patents by the U.S. Patent Office, and the identification numbers sometimes reappear in Mast's artwork and painting titles.

“By uniting art and technology in an interdisciplinary collaboration with members of my biological family, I am attempting to ‘measure the immeasurable’ which was a passion for my father,” Mast says. “This exhibition explores the echoes and depth of familial bonds in myself and perhaps all of us.”

For me, the glue linking the multimedia components of the installation is the ten paintings by Mast herself. Each one is so dense, so layered with depth and meaning, it is hard to leave one, even if it is to look at another. The images she uses are transfers of her father’s patent illustrations, equations written in her father’s hand and bits of his typewritten words, offering us an intimate glance into the minds of both father and daughter. But it’s more than the content, it’s the soft patient colors, and above all the medium of encaustics, so perfectly matched to portray memory with its not quite transparent layers putting space between images.

The word “encaustic” comes from the Greek enkaustikos, meaning to “burn in.” The ancient Greeks used it at first on ships as a waterproofing layer, until ancient shipbuilders realized they could add pigment and use it for decoration as well. The Ancient Greek statue, commonly remembered as impeccably carved human figures simplistic in their undecorated stone, originally was painted with wax and pigment. Over time the wax wore away, and all we see now is the marble we have come to associate with the sculptures.

Some encaustic art has survived from the ancient world, most notably the Fayum Portraits of Egypt. During the 1st Century AD, many Egyptian caskets for prominent individuals were adorned with the portraits of those buried inside. These portraits are some of the best and most well preserved in art history, offering a realistic and stirring glimpse into the faces of people who lived and died two thousand years ago.

“When the wax is mixed with resin it hardens and can actually stand the test of time better than oil paintings, where the varnish can crack,” Mast says. “But for me, it’s all about the metaphor of the material. The wax is very flesh-like and I use it as a stand-in for the body.”

In some of Mast’s work she uses the wax layers as skin; constellations and patent drawings become tattoos.

“It’s also a perfect vehicle for memory,” she says. “I can have things there without being in present time. It creates a sense of chronology. Memory fades and the actual imagery fades into a distant fog, which is what the wax creates.”


In her painting “Dialogue: 2,771,013” (shown above) with its rich depth and exploding shades of orange blanching at times to white, fragments of her father’s handwriting, banded with layers of wax, allow the viewer to follow but not get lost in the words. They come and go like a far-off signal. Images from his patents float in space, like morning-remembered dreams. Low in one corner, small and unassuming, is a physics equation, loitering like an unanswerable question—a reflection of the scientific mind as discovered by the artistic soul.

“By launching this experimental show in the living laboratory of a creative family,” Mast says, “I am investigating the subtle forces that shape who we become by the stories that we tell and the memories we keep.” -TBM

Learn more about the artist at

Michele Corriel is a regular contributor for The Bozeman Magpie.

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