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Creating A Permanent Phillips Collection Exhibit Entirely From Beeswax

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Wolfgang Laib uses organic materials in all his work, such as the pure German beeswax in the Laib Wax Room at The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
Rhiannon Newman
Wolfgang Laib uses organic materials in all his work, such as the pure German beeswax in the Laib Wax Room at The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Up until recently, one might wander into the Phillips Collection kitchen and smelled the scent of honey and wax.

“You don’t really notice it now, after working with it so much,” says Jeremiah Holland, a student at the Corcoran School of Art. “But you miss it when it’s not around. It’s very pleasant, even after you’ve worked in it for quite some time."

Jeremiah should know. He and three other 20-something local artists have spent nearly a week in the kitchen. Some, like Jeremiah, have been recruited from the Corcoran School of Art, others from the Phillips staff, to help with the museum’s newest installation: the Laib Wax Room, named after Wolfgang Laib, a German artist who specializes in using purely organic materials, like beeswax and pollen.

Phillips Collection staffer Rhiannon Newman is another member of the assistant team. For an entire week, she would arrive in the kitchen at 6:45 a.m. and turn on the double boiler that melted the wax.

Wolfgang would usually arrive shortly after with his assistant, Bjorn Schmidt. He’s an expert with the wax mixer, which looks not unlike an enormous, electric egg whisk. They’d begin mixing and continue until the pieces were tiny.

Jeremiah compares the melted wax to a lumpy, golden cake batter. “Bjorn’s so good at it,” he says with a laugh. “He can make cakes for me any day!”

Meditation through art

The Laib Wax Room is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a tiny, intimate chamber with its walls and ceiling coated in layer upon layer of smooth, fragrant, golden wax. It’s the first permanent installation in the Phillips Collection since the Rothko Room, which opened more than 60 years ago.

“The Rothko Room is something that we are determined to preserve because it was the only room that [Mark Rothko] anointed,” says Phillips Collection president Dorothy Kosinski. “He gave us the clues about how high to hang the works, about the lighting conditions. So this permanent wax chamber, I think it’ll end up being a bookend to Rothko’s very special serene environment.”

When the Laib Wax Room opens this weekend, she says she expects visitors to find it nothing short of meditative.

“Wolfgang manages to create like a vessel, and then he fills it with the beauty of this natural material, of the beeswax, which has this extraordinarily glowing presence,” Kosinski says. “It has an olfactory presence that’s very seductive. People can visit that chamber and allow themselves to be enveloped within the environment and protected from the chaos of everyday life.”

However, the initial thought of making this serene, meditative room a financial reality wasn’t exactly serene or meditative.

“After ‘What a great idea!’ probably the next statement was ‘We can’t afford to do that!’” Kosinski says.

Working together for the Laib Wax Room

So The Phillips Collection teamed up with long-time donors and local galleries to raise funds for the Laib Wax Room. It raised more than $15,000 through online crowdsourcing.

“A couple of artists in our community made a gift,” Kosinski explains. “And they said, ‘We’d love it if you could make it into the challenge grant.’ So we worked with IndieGoGo and we matched that money.

“We’ve had help from many corners, and that reveals how embedded we are in our communities. And it’s all built on meaningful relationships.”

Back in the Phillips Collection’s kitchen, the art assistants have definitely been forming “meaningful relationships” with one another this past week. But another relationship Jeremiah Holland says he’s been forming is with the work of art itself.

“We’ve seen it from the start,” he says. “It’s very rewarding knowing that our hands touched the wax that’s going into this room. And we mixed it and we cleaned the tools and made sure that Bjorn and Wolfgang have everything they need.”

Rhiannon Newman agrees. For her, assisting with this permanent installation is a chance to help make history.

“It’s really humbling and really different being kind of like a little cog in a great big machine, and being able to take my kids, or grandchildren, some day, and be like, ‘Hey, your mom. Sledgehammer. She did that!’”

And she did it with the help of an entire community: all of its members coming together to create this aromatic, peaceful space for everyone to enjoy, for years and years to come.


[Music: "Hear in Colour" by Nightmares on Wax from Thought So... ]

Photos: The Laib Wax Room

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