Watching Margaret Hesford create a classic Australian landscape painting using an ancient Greek art technique is mesmerising.
She uses a hand-sized electric iron to melt three or four blocks of coloured wax onto a small piece of card, then, with the aid of the iron and a few deft sweeps of her hand, rapidly transforms the wax into a lush depiction of nature.
Margaret, now 90, is an Australian Unity Home Care customer who lives in Lake Macquarie. She receives fortnightly assistance with housework and gardening and continues to live in her own home.
A stroke in 2010 affected her vision slightly and Margaret now relies on the help of her close friends Phil and Jean Hurley to continue to paint and demonstrate her art.
She discovered encaustic art in 1995 during a painting class in Lake Macquarie when her teacher Bruce McLellan showed his students a video he had purchased at a garage sale.
“I had three or four one-hour lessons with the other students and loved the unique effects,” she says. “I bought the video, the equipment and an instruction booklet, and set out to teach myself.”
Over the years, many of Margaret’s works have been striking landscapes. As she melts the wax, its colours blend to create an impression of dimension and a vivid scene wherein lakes, mountains and valleys come to life.
Love of the land
Landscapes, it seems, were always a part of the life of this determined woman who grew up on a farm in New South Wales, where “Cowra, Young and Grenfell were the nearest towns, each more than 18 miles away”.
“I attended the nearest little primary school set up for surrounding farmers’ children. From memory, there were 10 or 12 of us with one teacher all in one room,” Margaret says.
After secondary school, she returned to the family farm and, encouraged by her father, began to rear pigs for “some income and interest”. She married a local farmer and grazier and they had four children – two girls and two boys.
She joined the Country Women’s Association and helped to cater for local events; she learned how to draft patterns for clothes and made her own and her children’s clothes. She later learned typing and secretarial duties.
Following the breakdown of her marriage, Margaret moved to Sydney, where she met Ian, her second husband. Ian has three children, two boys and a girl, and seven grandchildren; Margaret has 12 grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.
A new way of life
Margaret and Ian were running a kitchen installation business in Dubbo, then moved to Lake Macquarie in New South Wales, where they purchased a removalist business. It was here that Margaret took her first encaustic art lessons.
As her interest and skill in the painting techniquegrew, she began to receive attention.
She entered an exhibition in Newcastle and received acclaim, and a gallery in Morpeth in the Hunter Valley region wanted exclusive rights to her first 15 paintings.
“There was so much interest in this ‘new’ concept with its ancient history,” she says.
“People could not believe that I created my pictures with a flat iron and I came away with many requests for lessons.
“I set up classes with the help of my original teacher, but he became very ill and was not able to continue.”
Margaret began to receive invitations to teach and exhibit her work. “I became an artist and an entertainer without even trying and crowds gathered to watch me,” she says. “It just snowballed.”
It was the start of a new business and a new way of life for Margaret and Ian, and the couple sold their business in 1999 and bought a motorhome and began to travel around the country. Margaret estimates they travelled more than 30,000 kilometres teaching and demonstrating encaustic art. The couple set up a website displaying Margaret’s work, and many of the people they met on their travels purchased art equipment from it.
“Ian always helped me by setting up and helping to sell supplies and materials, but he didn’t paint. He said one artist in the family was enough.”
When Ian became ill, the couple took a break from travelling. He passed away peacefully in December 2015. Margaret has passed the website and business onto another local artist to look after it. She continues to enter local shows with Jean, her former student.
“Encaustic art is able to be enjoyed by many people of varying ages and abilities,” she says.
“I expect to be able to continue painting for a long time. The small electric travelling iron makes painting much easier for older hands than a paint brush.”
Words: Leanne Tolra Images: Chris Elfes