Natalie Guess and the
Ancient Art of Wax Writing

by Julie Clay

SURE, YOU CAN PAINT or sculpt and create beautiful pieces of art. But what happens when you go an extra step (or two) and immerse your cloth canvas in dye, then paint over it with hot wax, let it dry and crack the layer of wax for effect? If you’re Natalie Guess, chances are that piece will be something extraordinary.

Based in Naples, Natalie specializes in this type of art form called batik, a rare style of expression dating back to ancient Egypt where it was found in pyramid tombs. Today, batik is most popular in Indonesia, Africa and Sri Lanka. Literally, the word batik means ‘wax writing’ and involves the painting of hot clear wax on silk or cotton fabric to resist the dyes of color in which the fabric is immersed. This is done one color at a time until the piece is finished. Then perhaps the most defining look to the piece, the ‘crackle’, is done by crunching the waxed fabric in the hands prior to putting in the next dye color. Still never heard of it?

“The people that walk in my door, more than half don’t know what batik is,” Natalie says, “I realized that since it is such an unknown art form, I often have a visual explanation of how batik is done. Sometimes people can catch me in the midst of of my work so they can see how it’s done. I usually have some of my equipment sitting out and a finished piece that has simpler colors so I can do a quick explanation. I figure it’s real important that people understand what they’re looking at, no matter what the medium is. I feel that education is a good thing. It also helps sell the pieces.”

On a Friday evening in her Crayton Cove studio, Natalie shows me the process. As pieces of wax are melting into a gooey clear liquid in a small heated pot, she secures her current work, ‘Early Morning Beach Shadow’, into a wooden frame. Then she carefully paints the melted wax onto selected areas. Wherever the wax goes, the color emerges. She chooses her spots meticulously, as there are no ‘happy accidents’ here. “It’s a totally unforgiving medium,” Natalie says. Then she pours blue dye into a tub and carefully dips the fabric in, creating the next layer of color.

Looking at her finished pieces, most of which reflect tropical Florida vistas, one might never know the extra work that has gone into creating them. But after 30 years, one might figure that Natalie has got this stuff down.

She recalls, “I learned batik in high school in Bloomington, Illinois. We did a two-week session on batik and it just really intrigued me. I had always been into things with fabric and fiber, so I found a book and kind of worked with it. In my senior year of high school, I did well enough with my grades that they were going to stick me in three study halls. My art teacher insisted that I could be her assistant instead, so that gave me in essence three hours almost every day to practice and teach myself whatever I wanted in art. I got my degree in pottery at Drake University in Des Moines, but I continued to do batik in my dorm room. “

Naples residents for the past three decades, Natalie and husband Phil Fisher (also an artist specializing in watercolors and oils) own the Guess-Fisher Gallery and frame shop in Crayton Cove in Old Naples. You can view Natalie’s batik works here, as well as in the von Liebig Art Center’s permanent collection and at local businesses including Northern Trust Bank, Lee Memorial Health Park and the Lely Corporation. Numerous private collections and public galleries elsewhere also contain her batiks.

Standing in her studio surrounded by work, I needed to know which of her works meant the most to her. Natalie recalled three. “The earliest is one that I still have that I did of my children sitting on a rocky area of beach in Naples. I did it expecting to sell it, but I decided to never sell it. That’s on my wall at home. One that I have here that I’m extremely proud of is a scene of Bellagio, Italy. I had been there and was thrilled at how it came out. The mountain came out beautifully. The third is one that I liked enough to make into a Giclee print on canvas. It’s a print I made of a heron silhouette in a mangrove in the water. I like it because of its tie-in with the nature here. That type of nature is what I love down here.

Thinking about trying out batik yourself? Natalie’s advice is to be patient. “Don’t feel that you’re going to accomplish something as intricate as what I do right off the bat. The hot wax is like painting with water on fabric. It takes awhile to get used to it. I had some students who took classes and learned enough to know that they didn’t want to do it. I don’t mind the time and/or the patience involved because I love the process and love the way a batik looks compared to other mediums.“ An artist himself, husband Phil agrees, “I’ve never seen anything like what she does. She labors over her work. What she does is amazing to me. “

You can meet Natalie and view her works at the Guess-Fisher Gallery, located at 810 12th Ave. S., Naples, including Crayton Cove’s ‘Art After Dark’ series the second Saturday evening of the month. Call 659-2787 for more information. •

January-February 2012

Batik involves the painting
of hot clear wax on
silk or cotton fabric
to resist the dyes
of color in which
the fabric is immersed.