Richard Frumess: Building Community in Pigment and WaxAugust 20, 2014
“The interesting thing about what we do, which is rare, is that the business was started as an extension of artwork,” Richard Frumess begins. Richard is the founder of R&F Handmade Paints, a Kingston-based art supply company, well-known for its development of encaustic and pigment sticks, and an honoree at Women’s Studio Workshop’s 40th Anniversary Gala.
Through his experience building R&F, he’s been intrinsically connected with the lineage of encaustics, a medium composed pigment and wax which dates back to ancient Greek art, and has helped this network of encaustic artists flourish into the thriving community it is today.
“We share a passion for serving artists,” says WSW’s Executive Director Ann Kalmbach. “Richard Frumess represents the best kind of art business leadership any nonprofit could look for. Though R&F is a business, his motivation is to help artists through a specific medium that he’s deeply engaged with.”
Richard’s fascination with materials started in the basement of his parents’ house, where he had a tiny studio, experimenting with egg tempera, oil paint, and graphite in high school. However, his parents discouraged him from pursuing art as a kid. “I didn’t pick [art] up in college, which was probably too bad because I ended up flunking out of college,” Richard chuckles. “Working for an art store was my education.”
Richard started out as a painter living and working in New York City in the 1970s. Richard’s dissatisfaction with the poor service and insufficient knowledge of art supply stores drove him to find Torch Art Supplies, a small store run by Joseph and Pauline Torch. “This one point was the beginning; the big bang, for me, was going there,” Richard marveled at Torch’s impact on his life. Richard’s first encounter with “old man Torch, who had a big, white, handlebar mustache” fulfilled his search for hands-on knowledge. “I asked him about some oil paint,” Richard says. “‘What was the color like?’ And he opened up the tube and smeared some out. ‘That’s what it is.’ I thought, ‘Wow, that’s great! Here’s someone who really cares.’ And to this day, I will do that.” The materials-oriented approach of Torch has been with Richard ever since, and it’s been deeply influential in how he’s structured R&F.
A year before he started working for Torch, Richard began experimenting with encaustics in his painting practice. Coincidentally, Torch was the only place in the world that carried encaustics. But the store hadn’t made its name brand products for over fifteen years, and there were only a few colors left. Richard began mixing new paints for Torch from old formula sheets no one knew how to use anymore. “I couldn’t stop fiddling with the pigment; it was so much fun,” he explains as he pulls out some original Torch encaustic bricks from the ‘40s. Even as the new guy stuck with bagging pigment, Richard found his home with the materials.
When Torch folded in 1987, Richard continued to make encaustics, along with the help of former coworker Carl Plansky (of Williamsburg Handmade Oil Colors), who suggested he develop a paint stick. Richard found problems with other paint sticks because “they weren’t made by artists,” he says. “They were hard. They weren’t what I wanted. I wanted something that was really juicy, and that was what I developed.”
Richard’s sensibility as an artist has influenced the selection of colors, their richness, and their complexity. Rudimentary methods of mixing encaustics requires that the pigment be blended with a wax base. After relocating to Kingston, NY, R&F began using more sophisticated mills and supplemental mixers, which allowed for more control over the grind of the pigment. These methods, developed by the company’s experience with the materials, produce the luminous colors we see in R&F’s current line.
With a growing operation, the demands of production started to outweigh what one person could produce, and Richard relocated his business from New York City to the Hudson Valley. (His business saw several more production rooms before settling into its current home on Ten Broeck Avenue.) Through a call to the art department of SUNY New Paltz, Richard began working with Jim Haskin, who was pursuing a degree in painting, and expanded with a small staff from the college.
Jim quickly revolutionized their efficiency by introducing a computer to process paint formulas, and he later became a partner in the business after establishing R&F’s gallery for encaustics. Richard has always made it a priority at R&F to hire artists because of their inventive spirit and energy. “Not that they’re better mixing paints,” he points out, “but these are people that say, ‘You know what would be a great product…’”
Richard’s drive to make products of uncompromising quality also motivated him to provide accessible, thorough knowledge about the encaustic medium, of which there had previously been very little available. In 1994, after Richard had been developing encaustics for almost ten years, he got a call from a woman in Illinois who had fallen in love with R&F’s pigment sticks and was eager to learn more about encaustics. Richard explained that he didn’t do workshops—he didn’t even have room in his tiny workspace—but she insisted: “‘No, I want to take a workshop. I’ll be out there in the summer. Here’s the setup and how we’re going to do it.’ So she came and then I married her,” Richard says with a laugh. Since then, his wife Pamela Blum, a practicing artist and teacher at Dutchess Community College, has had a huge influence on his teaching style, helping Richard grow as an instructor.
When asked if he felt some responsibility to offer educational opportunities for artists, Richard exclaims, “Oh, absolutely! We used to say, anybody could figure out how to use a paint stick, but nobody knew how to do encaustic. There was no literature. The schools didn’t really teach it.”
Another colleague, Patty Tyrol, recommended that Richard teach an encaustics class at WSW. After offering two summer courses there, R&F started its own encaustic education program—the first of its kind—and drew artists from all over the country. “You guys showed us the way,” Richard says of WSW. “I’ve said this many times: Without your example, we wouldn’t have understood workshops. And the people who built our workshops came out of WSW. There’s always been a real affection.” Since then, R&F and WSW have had an ongoing collaborative relationship, exchanging students and instructors to develop their respective programs.
In 1997, R&F Handmade Paints started the first biennial exhibition featuring contemporary encaustic practice, which has since developed into a regular publication. And 1999 saw the first major museum show dedicated to encaustic work (for which, of course, Richard wrote an introductory essay). “That was a very important thing,” Richard says. “Having exhibits of it, having literature on it, and having workshops. That’s what started to build the encaustic market.” Now, there is a proliferation of educational material on encaustics, all of which R&F has been involved with. As a contributing writer and collector, Richard has also developed an incredibly extensive research library of over 700 works, catalogs, and technical manuals.
In the last few years, Richard has seen his vision shift to encompass the greater Kingston community. Now at age 66, he’s passing the torch onto more energetic successors like Darin Seim, now President of R&F; Kelley McGrath, Exhibitions and Workshop Director; and Cynthia Winika, a regular instructor at R&F. “What we’re doing in the community…That’s where I’m still going to be involved. We have a reputation and we have a lot of contacts, and to not use those, especially in this city, is almost criminal,” Richard says.
Working with city officials, he’s focusing on building an arts district in Kingston with a grander vision for establishing a large exhibition site to feature well-known, local artists and support emerging practitioners in the area. He even sees a time when arts will be connected all along the Hudson Valley, from NYC to MASS MoCA. “Everything is very unformed right now. I’m open to almost anything,” Richard says, emphasizing the creative possibilities for investing in the local arts community. With R&F in good hands, he’s excited to say, there’s still so much to do.