At her Main Street studio near Durham's Golden Belt area, nationally noted artist Stacy Lynn Waddell offers coffee and a bowl of spicy Thai potato chips. It's in reaching for a chip that the plywood floor, which sparkles densely with gold glitter, catches my eye. The effect brings a subtle magic to the mundane attic flooring.
"This space is a bit of a fantasy-making machine," Waddell says. "I sort of pull an idea out of thin air. That's what artists do."
The studio is a single high-ceilinged room above a vacant storefront, long enough that several separate workstations don't crowd each other. Finished and in-progress pieces hang along an interior wall on which blue watercolor drips mark where the bottom edges of other pieces had been.
Waddell works in her studio at least 50 hours a week, and is currently preparing for a group show that will tour through Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale.
"Making art is work," she says. "I don't like to use the term 'practice' to describe what I do. I'm a farm kid. You got up and you worked."
After growing up in Franklin County, Waddell studied at N.C. State's College of Design and earned her MFA in studio art at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2007. She counts a rancher's branding iron among her art supplies. Best known for branding and singeing paper, she combines those techniques with watercolor, gold leaf and collage in historical and tropical landscapes, seascapes and politically charged tableaux. Though highly decorative to the eye, her work often issues stern critiques of the slave trade and the economic powerhouse that it turned the United States into. But today she's concentrating on camouflage.
Waddell has been layering glitter, gold fabric and gold leaf in intricate patterns on paper. At first, the gold-on-gold shapes appear to be sheer abstractions—think hunter's fatigues for Liberace. But keep looking and forms become recognizable. Bird silhouettes from Audubon prints emerge, suddenly obvious.
"These pieces are playing around with images that you can barely see and text that you can barely read," Waddell explains. "I'm thinking about what it means to have buried meanings, but just playing with visuals too: rendering images that require a second and maybe even a third look to get at what's there."
This new work isn't as straightforward as presenting an image as two things at once. Instead, it creates a fractional multiplicity where an image is half of something, two-thirds of something else and—finally—one recognizable thing.
Several in-progress pieces lay amid boxes of gold leaf and tubs of adhesive on workstation tables. Each piece seems to explore a different strategy, like a series of experiments. But Waddell uses a different word for it.
"I'm always playing with permutations. I'm going to ride this thing out until I get sick of it," she says, laughing. Unlike experimentation, permutation produces all possible results over time. It mirrors the additive process of looking that Waddell wants to encourage in her viewers.
At first, Waddell used an acetylene torch to mark paper with flame. Now she has a wider arsenal, including craft-store and blacksmith's tools as well as pieces of metal she heats and sets on paper. Her branding iron has a heavy-duty handle, like a shovel. Instead of signing her work on the front, she brands her signature into the back of the paper.
Her custom-made brands—flat metal plates with a raised image or letter—include an ornately scripted capital B in various sizes, which has become her trademark. It appears throughout her work, sometimes hundreds of times in a single piece, filling in figures or landscapes. She's fascinated with its sound, shape and implications.
"It's an impregnated shape," she explains. "It feels feminine and womanly. I keep a notebook of words that begin with the letter B, and a lot of them are from 19th-century literature—words that have fallen out of fashion. They're also words that are related to the sea."
The late-morning sun is hitting two street-facing windows, tidily covered with glassine paper that disperses the light. Each window has two neat peepholes, like a bed sheet made into a Halloween ghost costume. The paper, put up by artist Harrison Haynes when he shared the studio with Waddell, reduces heat and distractions.
But now it seems to resonate with Waddell's artworks. The peepholes focus vision. The paper makes the windows depthless, luminous. Together, they enable you to see the world clearly and analytically. Side by side, Waddell and I peek out of them, blinking into the Durham sun.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Fire brand"