Cynthia Schildhauer: whole new meaning to ‘paint by numbers’

Unearthing the creative process that yielded ‘100 Paintings / 100 Days’

IN HER ELEMENT<br>Cynthia Schildhauer shows her encaustic-painting technique on a landscape.

Cynthia Schildhauer shows her encaustic-painting technique on a landscape.

Photo By Evan Tuchinsky

More about Cynthia Schildhauer

Going, going …
With purchase of #15 (“The Gift”) at the end of the Open Studios Tour, just a third of the “100 Paintings / 100 Days” pieces remain on display—and, along with other Schildhauer originals, for sale—at Chico Paper Co., 345 Broadway, across from City Plaza.

If you want a glimpse into the “creative brain” of Cynthia Schildhauer, you need look no further than her studio … or her “100 Paintings / 100 Days” project.

Schildhauer, renowned for her art as well as art therapy, paints in a compact attic space in her Chico home. Peeking in from the top of the stairs, you’ll see crowded shelves and workbenches along the perpendicular walls to the left, framing a pink carousel horse that draws the eye; an easel facing the back wall, partially hiding the portable storage units that hold her paints; and, to the right, a comfy couch ahead of a small window that you must lean inside to see.

It’s here that she creates her encaustic paintings—textured works on wood (instead of canvas) featuring layer upon layer of waxen paints, often overlapping (or even obscuring) words, patterns, fabrics and small objects.

And it was here that her most ambitious undertaking came to life, seemingly of its own volition. “This hundred thing was the epitome of the creative brain unconsciously working on its own behalf,” she said recently, with the mid-afternoon sun and a light breeze flowing through the window.

Flash back almost a year. Schildhauer was teaching at Butte College, drawing a part-time paycheck that was her sole source of income for the foreseeable future. She had a mortgage to pay and two teenagers to support … oh, and it was coming close to Christmas time.

“I was freaking out,” she relayed. “The whole committee [of internal voices] started to spin, saying, ‘How am I going to do it?’

“I know this lady who told me that when she gets stressed, she walks and counts. It brings her relaxation. So, I have this walk that I do with my dog, and we were walking along and I’m trying to count my steps. I get to 20; then I get to 25, and I’m all thrilled, and then my goal is to get to 100.

“It might have taken the whole walk, or it might’ve been a split second, I’m not sure, but I got this idea: ‘I wonder if I can make a hundred paintings?’ Then I started to get with a concept while I was walking. ‘Whoa, if I sell 100 paintings for $100, that’s $10,000. There’s my house payment for four months.'”

Schildhauer applies layers of hot, pigmented wax on the wood, upon which she’ll also place other material.

Photo By Evan Tuchinsky

For the next few days, Schildhauer tried to “unthink the idea"—talk herself out of it. Her internal dialogue changed while heading out to get wood for her paintings.

“I thought, ‘A small piece: 10 by 10, 100 square inches.’ So I got on a roll and decided 100 paintings, 100 square inches and sell them for $100—and I found myself driving home from Home Depot with all these little pallets.

“I didn’t get 100; I just got 30 or something, but even the 30 were this tall,” she gestured to a spot about four feet off the ground. “I just kind of took a breath, looked up, and there was my first painting: ‘Look Up.'”

Sometimes she’d paint after reading a quotation or book. Other times, the weather or her mood guided her brush. She painted 81 straight days before coming down with the flu, but when a friend pointed out she never said the 100 days had to be consecutive, the project was saved.

Self-censoring is the bane of a creative brain, so Schildhauer had to resist the urge to redo paintings she didn’t like. She loves many of “the hundred,” but not all, and she’ll tell you which she does and doesn’t, which of course isn’t something an aficionado or gallery owner loves to hear.

“That’s why we’re selling them and she’s not selling them,” Chico Paper Co. co-owner Jana Strong said with a gentle smile. “She’s wonderfully open about her work … but artists are always their worst critics because they’re always pushing, always wanting to get better. It’s better to let the viewer look at her work and let the viewer decide what they feel about the work.”

Strong, a collector since Schildhauer’s early works, displayed all of “the hundred” in a show titled “100 Paintings / 100 Days.” She was among the people who pointed out that pricing these works the way she wanted could affect the value of her other works, so she agreed to a price of $150 each … provided Strong schedule 100 minutes opening night when they’d go for $100.

Fifty-one sold in those 100 minutes. From that May show through the closing of the Open Studios Tour, 16 more have sold. “Even though most of the pieces are gone,” Strong said Sunday afternoon, “ones that are left are tactile and fabulous.”

Schildhauer is talking about creating a second “hundred.”

“I’m a person who is a complete volunteer in my life. My schedule is all self-imposed, for the most part, so are all my criteria on my art. So I created this self-imposed discipline for myself….

“Looking back, it’s pretty exciting, but at the time I was in my own little world.”