A little over a year ago, Pamela Caughey's home burned to the ground in the Roaring Lion Fire near Hamilton. Before evacuating, the artist only had about 45 minutes to decide what to take, and she chose, among a few other things, as many of her unfinished paintings as she could load. Everything else was lost, including all of her personal property, decades of art (including her husband's sculptures, pushed too far back in a corner to get to), and one of the family's two cats that they couldn't find.
The year of rebuilding—buying a new home, establishing a new studio, getting new art supplies—was exhausting and emotional, but it didn't hold her or her family back. She'll always remember July 31, 2016, "like you would a birthday," she says.
"Sometimes it comes to the surface, and sometimes it dives deep down," she says. "There have been things in my life far worse than the fire, though, and in comparison, it was nothing."
Caughey rescued a few scorched, warped tools from the burn site for some of her art, along with ash, which she integrated into some of her paints. ("Fire is the death of something, and to turn that into beauty is my aesthetic," she says.) Fire is apparent in her work, but no more so than other landmarks in her life—like the loss of her parents or the mental breakdown she had while studying to be a biochemist when she knew in her heart that's not what she wanted to be.
"I'm not very religious," she says, "but sometimes I think if God wants you to do something, he'll take away other things until you realize what remains is what you want to do. "
Caughey's work is abstract: careful but free, patterned but imperfect, beautiful and ugly all at once. She works mainly in encaustic painting, encaustic monotype and cold wax oil painting. All three processes are time and labor-intensive, especially because Caughey's pieces are often quite large. They involve mixing wax with colored pigments and resins, manipulating the wax with tools and then, in some cases, transferring them onto different media, like paper.
One of the works, currently showing at Radius Gallery, is called "Red Quadratic," which Caughey had pulled unfinished from her old studio before the fire. It sat untouched for months until a visitor remarked that it looked done. Caughey knew that it wasn't.
"I knew I could have sold it, but it hadn't come alive yet," she explains. "I stayed up that night until 2 a.m. finishing it. I took some things away. I added a red square, vibrant and saturated, followed by a smaller one. Finally, it was done. It took me 30 years to learn that in art, there's nothing that needs to be left unfinished once you know yourself enough."
The result is a 36-by-36 inch encaustic, heavily layered and textured with circles and squares. Amid the quiet bustle of the piece float two deep red squares—and it's clear the piece wouldn't have been finished without them.
What could art this abstract mean? They are all self-portraits of Caughey.
And for Caughey, the self-portrait gets more complex and more interesting, more ugly and more beautiful, with each year, and each success and failure.
"One thing that kept coming back to me after the fire was, thank god I'm an artist, because I can go into my studio and express myself through my materials," she says. "I've experienced the highs and lows, the gains and losses, but I've gotten through and survived, and my art benefits. Every mark isn't pretty, but I can transform it into something I love."
Pamela Caughey's art is part of Mind Fields, a group show at Radius Gallery, which runs through Nov. 4.