“I call them installations now, but we used to call them environments,” says Daniella Woolf, pointing to long hypnotic “totems” of folded paper and wax hanging from the high ceilings and walls of her Westside Santa Cruz studio.
“I always worked large,” she says with a mischievous smile. “When I was 13 I won a scholarship to an art institute in downtown L.A. And even then I was making the largest things in the class, out of papier-mâché and plaster of Paris.”
Woolf, whose raven curls appear to have their own electrical outlet, is something of a legend in fiber art circles. A pioneer in encaustic sculpture, she was co-founder of WaxWorks West and has authored texts, workshops and online tutorials that incite creativity the world over.
“I grew up in a Hollywood movie family,” she explains. “We went to the theater and opera all the time. My dad had a prop house—a huge warehouse, the entire place filled to the brim with things that could be used as movie and theater props. This was the environment I grew up in.”
After “taking every art class they had at Cal Poly,” Woolf transferred to Cal State Northridge. It was a summer weaving program in Maine that pointed her toward her ultimate specialty. “The weavers were having more fun than anyone else,” she says, with a twinkle in her eye. “I was now a fiber artist.”
In graduate school at UCLA, Woolf discovered that she was in the epicenter of the exploding field of textile and fiber art. So she left her husband of three years and acquired a girlfriend whose family had a house in the San Lorenzo Valley. “If I had stayed in L.A. I might have gone into my dad’s business,” she says. “I came up here to find my own art. I thought it was heaven.”
The woman who once wanted to be a surgeon found a responsive audience for her artwork. “I was starting to get commission for public buildings, and I had an art agent who was getting me work,” she says.
After a stint living in San Francisco, Woolf returned to Santa Cruz in 1985 and became lifelong friends with fiber and conceptual artists B. Modern and Beth Regards. “I’ve had every type of job,” she admits. “I’ve worked at UCSC, been a telemarketer, done food demos wearing a hairnet, you name it. And in 2005 I was asked to teach encaustic at Cabrillo.”
Encaustic—involving color and texture embedded in and applied to shaped wax—came into her life via a gallery on Whidbey Island in Washington. “I saw an exhibit of poured-wax surfaces with things embedded in them. I was physically drawn to them. They were pulling me,” she says, rising up from her chair to dramatize. And that was it—she researched encaustic techniques and mastered them to the point of starting up her own workshops, writing two books, and co-founding WaxWorks West in Corralitos. “It was, and is, wildly successful,” she smiles, finally retiring from the school two years ago. What’s glorious about encaustic? “It’s the most versatile medium,” she says. “It’s the glue that will hold everything together. I’m really a mixed media person—I’m nuts for materials. Encaustic allowed me to mix, embed and sculpt.” And travel.
“I still get a complete kick out of travel and giving workshops. It’s given me this entree to the world as guest, as opposed to being a traveler,” she says. Woolf will be leading another Day of the Dead workshop in Oaxaca, Mexico in October.
“And I’ve started this crazy offshoot, stencil design,” Woolf says, showing me examples of designs she’s created from photos of textures—the surface of rivers in Vietnam, signs on Thai streets—punched out on mylar sheets, which she sells under the Stencil Girl Designs logo.
Woolf loves materials. “Those are encaustisized bank checks of my mother’s,” she says of a hanging sculpture in her studio. “A mixed-media portrait.” Woolf and her lover of 20 years now have three grandchildren. “We’re thinking of remodeling this studio space into our granny palace love nest,” she chuckles. The big house would be occupied by the children.
It’s a time of transition for Woolf. “The grandkids give me something I’ve never gotten from my art—a force of love, so innocent and potent. Time is flying by. In 1975, when I was only 27 years old, I showed a piece at the Lausanne Biennale,” she says, clearly enjoying the recollection. “It was a giant crocheted forest of sisal that weighed 600 pounds! I had to pay $1 a pound to have it shipped. That’s how I learned that I had to make large artworks that were both lightweight and modular. Now I work really small, but create really big exhibits.”
An avowed tool junkie, Woolf is having fun with her work. “Box cutters—they’re my favorite tool right now.”
Paper, fiber, thread, wax, paint, fabric—if it’s a workable material, it’s probably in use right now by Woolf. daniellawoolf.com.