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Creation Story: Cindy Neuschwander, Painter

Where you can see her work: In her solo exhibition "Euphoria and Anguish" at Main Art Gallery, 1537 W. Main St., through Jan. 31.

How she creates her work: Neuschwander combines pure beeswax with paint to create the gorgeously sensual surfaces that characterize her abstract and evocative work. She starts by drawing on a panel, then brushes on wax, covering different areas of the drawing. She then paints over the wax, incises it and rubs off the paint. She adds more wax, makes more marks, adds more paint, rubs it off, and on and on. Then she paints the whole thing with white gesso and starts over again, continually unearthing the prior histories of her work. She works spontaneously, with no sketches or preconceived plan. Each new layer reveals a visual surprise — "a joyous excavation," she calls it.

Why she uses beeswax: While visiting a show of Davi Det Hompson's work at the Hand Workshop about two years ago, she was taken with the late artist's "skin" paintings, which were done in beeswax. "That just changed my life," she says. "They were absolutely stunning."

She went out and bought beeswax and began using it in her work. "It is such an incredibly sensuous, malleable material," she says. "I have a very quiet relationship with the wax, its color and feel — it's almost spiritual."

The evolution of her career: Throughout her career as an artist, Neuschwander has expressed herself through different media. Photography was the focus at the beginning. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Chrysler Museum and the Mint Museum all own her work.

After she finished graduate school at VCU, she didn't have access to a darkroom and began painting brightly colored wooden bowls to make a living. For seven years she sold them nationally, and although she was able to support herself, she was tiring of the labor-intensive, assembly line-style work.

In 1999, curator and art dealer Jay Barrows visited her Fulton Hill studio during an open house and looked quizzically at her bowls. "Why are you painting in bowls," he asked, a question that peeved Neuschwander. She took it as a challenge to her artistic skills and soon completed 10 paintings on paper. She called Barrows to take a look at them. He liked what he saw, took all 10 with him, and promptly sold them to the Federal Reserve for its art collection. "It was the validation I needed," Neuschwander says. "I haven't painted a bowl since." In September 2002, she and Barrows were married.

How she feels about showing her work: The show at Main Art is Neuschwander's first as a painter, and she's a bit nervous about how people will react. Some people know her only from her bowls; some remember her from days as a photographer. Many think she just recently emerged on the scene, then are stunned when they see the maturity of her work.

"What I've realized is I've always been a painter since day one," she says. "When I was a photographer I painted on my photos, marking on the negatives or finished prints. …The photos were my canvas. I needed something to start with. I didn't have the confidence to just paint." The seven years she spent painting bowls further honed her skills.

On finding her niche: "When I was doing the bowls, I used to wake up every day and say, 'This is great. … I get to do art every day.' But there was always something nagging in the background. Now, this is heaven. … I feel really fortunate that at 50 I get to do this. This is where I want to be right now, this is what I want to be doing. There is no race. This is just about making paintings."

— Jessica Ronky Haddad

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