As a grammar school student, artist Raye Bemis would return a creased piece of paper to the teacher and request a perfect sheet. “The pristine surface was my starting point,” she explains, “and something on it would somehow interfere with my taking crayon to the surface. The blank piece of paper represented the unknown in a way, and that’s what I seek today; that’s why I avoid art history references or anything that feels like I’ve experienced it before.”

In lieu of cultural references, Bemis draws inspiration from her exhibition spaces. Such was the case with a piece she installed at the Rockford Art Museum in 1996. “I poured wax in the reveals and painted the walls two shades different from the rest. I was using the elements that were already in the space to energize that area and change its atmosphere. The director was upset, because she didn’t know what to tell people when they asked where the art was.

“I’m doing something that I don’t think language is adequate to describe,” says Bemis, whose untitled grid of 291 beeswax panels is now on exhibit at Fassbender Stevens. “One of the reasons that art is so conceptual now is that in the university system they’re brewing artists and art criticism in the same vat. You know that if you’re going to have a career in art you need to be written about, and you have to appeal to the writer’s sense of language. I think most of it is fueled by caffeine, which stimulates the language part of the brain, which kicks in with too much thinking in too many directions. Caffeine is also my drug of choice, but for 20 years I’ve been involved with tai chi, and so I experience culture less cerebrally. I like work that strikes on a subliminal level; whenever I can pare something down to the bare minimum it makes me happy.”

Born in Dixon, Illinois, in 1947, Bemis moved to Chicago when she was five. Her mom was a social worker, and her father was incapacitated by polio when she was young. Growing up with four siblings, she says, was “pretty chaotic.” Hers was the only white family in a high-rise housing project in Bronzeville; later they lived in a three-bedroom apartment in a project near 106th and Torrance.

In the mid-60s Bemis won a scholarship to the School of the Art Institute, but she was dissatisfied there–it was smaller and more traditional then than today. With the exception of professor Tom Mapp, Bemis says she “didn’t get any stimulus or guidance from the teachers.” She was also dissatisfied with much contemporary painting: “I felt the image was this cheesy thin layer on top of something else more substantial–the stretcher and the canvas.”

Bemis left school and got a job selling books door-to-door. Already married, she soon had two sons; the marriage broke up when she was 27, and she found work as a housepainter and paperhanger. She made art all the while, her work ranging from “real simple big abstract paintings” to charcoal drawings that emphasized the material’s “powdery quality.”

In 1978 she traveled to Italy, where she was impressed by “the quality of the white light reflected off of building facades; the surface absorbed light in a way that made the buildings look like they’re emanating that light.” Looking for a material “that would strike me the same way the buildings in Italy did,” she removed the paper skin from Sheetrock, added ground pastel, and carved lines into the exposed surface.

By the early 80s Bemis was doing restoration work on large Chicago churches. Time spent on scaffolding under “that beautiful vaulted ceiling” of the Basilica of Our Lady of Sorrows at Kedzie and Jackson sensitized her to the possibilities of large interior spaces and encouraged her to start making installations. For a 1991 show at Klein Gallery, she built a set of hanging walls whose form inverted the barrel-vault shape of a basilica ceiling. She coated these in tar and covered a neighboring wall with paraffin wax. “It had to do with light and materials,” she explains. She next discovered beeswax, which she loved for the odor and the density of its color. “It has this structural integrity, because its substance and its color are the same thing,” she says. Using store-bought cake pans for molds, Bemis shaped the wax into eight-by-eight squares, which she nailed to a curved wall for a 1997 installation at ARC Gallery. A couple who saw it commissioned a similar wall for their converted barn loft in rural Illinois.

Bemis’s current wall installation, a grid of flat wax tiles with curved edges, occupies an entire gallery at Fassbender Stevens. Originally she had envisioned the entire wall undulating, but discovered she “could get the undulation to happen by curving the top and bottom edges of the tiles.” The result is impressive in scale, and an inner light seems to emanate from various depths.

Like the Rockford installation, it was affected by the surrounding architecture. “At Fassbender Stevens there’s an expansion joint in the concrete floor and the piece is keyed off that,” Bemis says. So she extended the line of the floor gap with a break between the tiles. Though affected by the flatness of the lake and prairie in general, Bemis rejects the suggestion that the organic materials and undulating forms she uses consciously emulate nature. But she hopes viewers of her piece “will have a similar wordless response to the one I have looking at the lake.”

Raye Bemis’s untitled beeswax wall is one of two pieces in her exhibit, “Morph,” at Fassbender Stevens, 835 W. Washington, through February 8. It’s open Tuesday through Friday, 9:30 to 5:30, and Saturday from 11 to 5:30. Admission is free; call 312-666-4302 for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.