Natural Archivists

Natural Archivists

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Overview, 2010, seawed, palm, and organic beeswax resin, 12 x 12 in.

Gregg Graff and Jacqueline Pouyat have found a way to preserve their nature-based art with an equally natural material.

Many craft artists borrow from nature. But few are as indebted as Gregg Graff and Jacqueline Pouyat, artistic and life partners for 25 years. From their studio in Sequim, WA, the two create lovely minimalist pieces by embedding seeds, pods, reeds and other natural elements in wax on hand-finished aluminum.

Graff started his career as a graphic designer in San Francisco, Pouyat as a trained botanist doing interior design in California wine country. When the two began to work together, they fashioned twigs, lichen and other debris into geometric sculptures. But while they loved working with natural materials, they didn't like that their pieces would inevitably degrade after 10 or 15 years. Graff began to explore ways to preserve their creations. He considered synthetic resins used in jewelry making, but didn't like the toxic chemicals involved.

Then one day, he had a revelation. Graff had been pondering historical preservation methods, along with encaustic painting, the ancient melted-wax technique popularized in the 20th century by Jasper Johns, when the idea struck: Maybe wax-durable, pliable, organic-could hold their elegant natural vignettes in place. The two experimented for three years before perfecting the seal between the wax and the aluminum panels that Pouyat cuts and finishes by hand. The reflective aluminum, overlaid with translucent, pigmented wax, produces the luminescence that is a signature of their work.

"That our pieces are completely archival and will never degrade is the most exciting thing," Graff says. "We're able to capture nature in a way that it is sealed. It will not break down."

Collecting the fibrous ma­terials that organize their graphical artwork is central to their process. "We're always on the hunt for unique elements to use in our pieces," Graff says. In fact, they plan travel around promising collection sites. After exhibiting at the American Craft Council show in San Francisco in August, the couple headed to "a couple of secret spots" near Big Sur to gather eucalyptus leaves. (A recent trip to New Zealand was great for relaxation but disappointing for collection. "We thought it would be like Aus­tralia in terms of flora, but it wasn't," Graff says.)

A year ago, the two burrowed even more deeply into nature: They became beekeepers, harvesting the wax to use in their art. They've become as enthralled with beekeeping as they are with their creative work, they say. The bees are great production partners, Graff explains-"perfect little machines, unchanged for thousands of years, models of dedication and focus."

Harvesting their own wax has paid emotional as well as material dividends for the couple; it has deepened their artistic experience, they say, bringing them even closer to their source materials.

Doing business as Natura- Designs, Graff and Pouyat have made their living as artists for 20 years, and they collaborate on every design. Six-inch pieces start at $300; 18-inch pieces are priced as high as $4,500. Architects, designers and others who appreciate nature's patterns and textures are frequent clients.

About 20 percent of their business is custom, but only once has a client provided natural materials for the couple to work with. "I'd love for that to happen more," Graff says.

Monica Moses is American Craft's editor in chief.