Kaller Fine Arts in Washington recently mounted an exhibit of Francie Hester's work.
In her Kensington studio, Hester embellishes aluminum disks, building up layers of paint and ink.

Layer by Layer

Francie Hester's art on metal reflects the ravages of time

“The concept of beauty is difficult,” says Francie Hester, standing beside one of the ravishing new art objects displayed recently in an exhibition of her work at Kaller Fine Arts in Washington, DC. “A lot of beauty comes out of destruction.”

For the past decade and a half, from her studio on an industrial byway in Kensington, Hester has been attacking metal with hammers, drills, sandpaper, routers and a blowtorch. Tearing down the surface, she builds it back up, then repeats the process layer by layer, often drop by drop. This laborious technique mirrors ideas at the heart of her work—the passage of time and its ravages, the hard-earned beauty that comes from experiencing life’s turbulence.

“You can’t have joy without pain, highs without lows, life without death,” Hester says philosophically. In her art, light and shadows coexist peaceably. She points to one example, “Relic #4.” The free-standing disk is covered in brilliantly mottled blue shades as indefinable as the colors on peacock feathers. 

“Everybody knows what a pretty blue looks like,” says the artist. “But that’s a little ordinary.” To deconstruct it, she added contrasting rust tones. Wherever Hester detects a particularly beautiful passage of color, she feels compelled to counter it with a dark place. “It may be buried in the piece,” she notes, “not seen on the surface.”

Hester likes creating new buried treasures and rediscovering old ones. Her Relic series is based on artifacts unearthed in Chinese burial sites—simplified, enlarged and embedded with new meaning. She begins by roughing up the smooth surface of 29-inch-diameter aluminum disks as they arrive from a fabricator in Minnesota. She adds and subtracts acrylic paints and inks, and sometimes simply water, using squeegees, rubber spatulas, a fork, eyedroppers or whatever is called into play. 

Subtly blended colors emerge from beneath encrusted layers, suggesting the erosion of age. Within a perfect circle, radiating borders imply “the continuity of life and death, and the infinity of time,” says the artist. By contrast, in her Convex series, circles are divided into separate segments. Each section is spaced out on the wall and further subdivided into well-defined patterns. These pieces signify a different rhythm—a break in the action. 

“There are events in life when we stop and start. And there are times when life is fluid, when things happen in waves,” Hester reflects, tracing at the same time her own life trajectory. Arriving in Washington in the late 1980s, Hester had a lofty downtown studio on the top floor of the then low-rent Lansburgh Building. She earned a master’s degree in art theory from the University of Maryland, and by 2000, her painting had moved from canvas to wavy aluminum panels with a honeycomb core. Then 9/11 hit. 

After that momentous day, she recalls thinking, “‘I can’t just paint what I was painting.’ I had to stop and start again.” The everyday imagery in her work vanished. Seeking a spiritual connection, she listened to the pure, extended notes of Gregorian chants. She remembers, “I would hear an absolutely gorgeous passage, then sand away a portion of the paint and build again. I realized then that there was beauty in shadows.” She called that first series Strata—Italian for “layers.” 

Subsequent losses triggered further reflection and change. In 2004 and 2010, beloved friends tragically died—journalist and editor Diane Granat Yalowitz, age 49; and Brendan Ogg, a 19-year-old college sophomore, poet and best friend of Hester’s son. In an elegiac tribute, Hester and her studio partner, artist Lisa Hill, brought family and friends together for a communal arts project. All performed a simple task: wrapping cutout paper around paper clips. Each piece bore words scanned from magazine stories by Yalowitz or poems by Ogg. 

Some 80,000 paperclips were wrapped. Linked together, they form studded streams grouped into 16-foot-long cascades. Part of the billowing testament, “Wordfall,” is now on view with other works by Hester at the Athenaeum in Alexandria. It is one of five exhibits of Hester’s work to open from March to June in Washington and New York. The shows represent the result of two years of intense work. 

Hester talks a lot about “circling back” in her art, as she has done by revisiting her early Strata series. Starting out with a single theme in mind, she lines up several pieces and paints all with the same grid or swirls. Then the paths of each diverge. “It’s almost like writing a novel. You know all the people, but not how they’ll interact,” says the artist. “There’s an evolution that happens.” To decide when a piece is complete, Hester may take it home and live with it. “It has to offer something different each time I look at it,” she adds with the renewed pleasure of discovery. 

Tina Coplan is a freelance writer based in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Francie Hester’s new work can be seen in “The Spaces in Between” at Kaller Fine Arts (kallerfinearts.com) through June 14; in “Words and Letters” at the Athenaeum in Alexandria, Virginia (nvfaa.org) through June 22, and in a solo show there from June 26 to August 3. Find more at franciehester.com and wordsaslegacy.com.