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Cloth, dye, wax? All in a day's work for Scottdale artist

| Wednesday, June 12, 2013, 6:47 p.m.
Lillian DeDomenic | Trib Total Media
Leslie Sorg describes the multi-step process involved in creating batik art. She blended the ancient wax-and-dye tradition with oil-painting techniques to create a unique art form.
Lillian DeDomenic | For The Penn Hills Progress
Artist Leslie Sorg of Scottdale talks about her batik exhibit currently on display at the Boulevard Gallery in Verona.
Lillian DeDomenic | Trib Total Media
Leslie Sorg talks about her batik exhibit currently on display at the Boulevard Gallery in Verona.

As a student at Seton Hill College, Leslie Sorg recalls an informal introduction to the ancient art of batik cloth art.

“They didn't really teach us, they said ‘Here's the wax, here's the dye — have at it,” said Sorg, 53, a Scottdale resident who grew up in Irwin.

Years later, Sorg said she would occasionally pull out the old materials “and work for three days until I couldn't take the frustration anymore.”

Today, a gallery of Sorg's horse-and-rider-themed batik works is on display throughout June at the Boulevard Gallery in Verona.

The techniques necessary for batik can be traced back to Egypt in the fourth century B.C., according to author Nadia Nava's book, “Il Batik.”

Batik relies on a “wax-resist” technique in which melted wax is applied to cloth, which is then dyed.

Where wax penetrates, dye does not, creating a background. Sometimes the process involves multiple instances of waxing, dyeing and drying.

Sorg struggled with her batik work until a chance meeting at the Three Rivers Arts Festival.

“I met Saihou Njie, (an artist from Gambia in west Africa), who had learned his method from his mother,” Sorg said. “He taught me to do it right at a Pittsburgh Center for the Arts class.”

One of the key features of batik is its “cracked” look — Sorg puts her works into a freezer and then cracks the wax before using black dye, giving the whole canvas a sort of weathered, aged, look.

Once she refined her technique, Sorg — who also creates oil paintings — began applying some of the old-master oil techniques she'd learned in school to her newfound batik knowledge.

Specifically, she found that creating an underpainting — a layer of paint used as a base for additional layers of color — helped add a new dimension to her work.

“The underpainting is then overlaid with other colors, but you can still see some of the darker colors and shadows on the whole painting,” she said. “Once I got the underpainting part down, it took me another few years to work on my wax control.”

The end result of those techniques, combined with Sorg's love of sporting themes such as horse-riding and foxhunting, are on display at the Boulevard Gallery: slightly-abstract scenes of Americana. Sorg said part of her inspiration comes from a love of history.

“I love the old black-and-white hand-colored photographs,” she said. “But I also love modern photography, digital especially. I do commissioned work for people, and one was a painting of a pet dog. It was great to have a digital photograph that I could use to zoom in on tiny little details.”

Part of her inspiration also comes from a lifelong obsession with horses.

“I'm a little horse-crazy,” she said. “I went to college originally for horsemanship, but realized that it wasn't really preparing me for a career. So I got my degree in art, but then I tried to avoid an ‘art career' for years. I didn't want to be that cliché, the starving artist.”

In her website biography, Sorg says her goal was “to do something that no one else was doing” — combining an ancient eastern art form with western sporting themes and traditional oil-painting techniques.

Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or pvarine@tribweb.com.

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