Carolyn Oberst is one of those artists who really creates a whole world through her paintings  You look at her work and want to step into it.  You see so many things that seem to be working together and taking you to another place.  What inspires her to create such work?  Read our cool chat and find out …

“… The point?  What is the point of planting flowers that one can’t eat?  Reading literature?  Seeing a great movie?  Going to a play or seeing a dance performance?  A music concert?  Or, any other artful experience?  Art feeds the soul.  Artists reveal the magic in the world that others might not see.  Artists make the intangible real ...”

MICHAEL: Hello Carolyn, I see some common elements in the works displayed on your website: dreamy, pastel backdrops, geometry and theme repetition, all with a playful approach.  It's graphic delight.  I don't know. What are you actually doing on canvas? 

CAROLYN: Interesting that you should ask what I’m doing now “on canvas,” as I have only fairly recently returned to using canvas after having wandered off in other directions.  What I’ve been doing in various ways for a long time is to involve the viewer in a visceral way with the various images by manipulating the space - in context, and/or with materials.

For a while I used framing techniques to create a window-like effect, which pulled the viewer in.  But the images could not stay contained and started moving out onto the frame, creating movement into the viewer’s space and, what I felt was, a more exciting viewing experience.  This idea became more pronounced when I started working in wood relief … switching from canvas to wood panels, cutting out some of the shapes in the abstracted images, using different thicknesses of wood and screwing them onto the panels. This made it possible for the shapes to project out from the surface of the painting in all directions in a much more sculptural way.  They were like wall sculptures and made me feel a connection to not only Picasso's cubist sculpture, but also, Elizabeth Murray, Louise Nevelson and Red Grooms’ three-dimensional work.

MICHAEL: Wow. That sounds like fun.

CAROLYN: From this, I moved on to very heavy paper collaged paintings, which had a similar sculptural feel, but were flatter, not as exaggerated and I began to start thinking about working on canvas again, more straightforward, just with paint.  These are the paintings you describe from the last few years.  Drawing the viewer in with the movement and color of the paint, creating atmosphere that allows the objects to move in and out as though they are floating in space, part of a dream and fragments of memory.  I realized then, that this is what I was doing on canvas, trying to tap into more of an expression of the subconscious. Do you want to discuss the subject matter?

MICHAEL: Yes, by all means.  What is the subject matter?  You're making my job easier here.

CAROLYN: I once had a wonderful drawing teacher who encouraged us to learn “to see.” I took his teaching to heart and found that I began seeing the world around me more intensely.  Visually, I became fascinated with the interplay of things most immediately in view, the patterns, textures, and colors of my world, which originally inspired me to create still life paintings. This investigation led me to the realization that objects have emotional power of their own.  What we have around us, what we like to look at, what we save and never throw away, is a reflection of who we are and what we care about.

I started looking for visually-inspirational material.  Through collecting, I discovered a love of damaged and broken, very old or vintage, handmade, weirdly wonderful or strangely colorful, dolls and toys. They struck a chord, with notes of nostalgia, joy and laughter, sadness and fear. My collection grew – dolls and toys of all kinds, the selection based solely on how they looked and what emotion they struck in me. I started using these objects as subjects for my paintings.  In a way, they became my alter egos or, what might now be called, my avatars.

Although my subject matter is based on these sorts of objects, I’ve never been fond of strictly representational work and I’ve looked for ways to take these images and abstract them, making them less specific and more conceptual.  Trying to initiate a conversation, stimulate an emotional reaction and relate the image to themes that I care about. In this way, creating more of a visual poem, suggestive and open to interpretation, than a representation of some sort of “objective reality.”

MICHAEL: Hmm. Very intriguing.

CAROLYN: Currently, I’m using vintage paper dolls as my subjects.  I feel the paper dolls evoke a sense of timelessness and memory.  Using just their silhouettes takes the specificity away from the figures and makes them more symbolic and abstract. Action and interaction is suggested but not defined, leaving interpretation open to the viewer.  The color and painted atmosphere create unusual, non-realistic space, which adds to the abstraction and emotional quality. 

MICHAEL: People today seem to be obsessed with visually documenting things. You're an actual artist so you're operating on a higher plane obviously. Still, what's going on?  

CAROLYN: I don’t know if I’m operating on a higher plane, but I think people have, since prehistoric times, had a need to visually document things. 

The need to record, to make a visual statement as a way of saying “I’m here” and this is my experience and wanting to share and get feedback, or connect with the Gods by visually documenting their experience, is as ancient as the cave paintings in Lascaux, France.  Actually, as of 2014, they’ve found cave paintings of animals even older than the ones in France at Maros on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia.  (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

Today there are just so many ways to do it, to document one’s everyday life and compulsions and interests, and it’s so easy to get an audience for whatever that compulsion/obsession is, that it seems like we’re all being bombarded by everyone else’s lives, when we’re mostly interested in our own. 

Artists are lucky because when expressing ourselves visually, it can be more than just a document, and, I think, it can be more interesting to others than what the fantastic dinner l had looked like or what my cat did this morning.  We’re searching/hoping to come from a deeper place, a subconscious place, not attached necessarily to the everyday – “this is the animal that I shot yesterday” cave man - experience. Our job is to dig deeper.

MICHAEL: Where were you when you were a little girl?  How did your environment influence and inspire you?  Are you now the person you had imagined yourself to be back when you were a child?

CAROLYN: I was born in Philadelphia, row house, nothing special.  However, my father, who was an insurance salesman - no art training, nothing in his background to indicate he would do this, no one else’s father attempting this sort of thing - started painting murals on the walls in our house.  He somehow envisioned a Noah’s Ark on the empty wall above the stove in our kitchen.  He painted the ark and all the animals and filled the entire wall with the image. I think he probably copied it from something, but not sure where he got the idea. In the basement of our house was what we called the “playroom” where my brother and I kept our toys and spent a lot of time. My father decided to decorate the walls with comic book characters.  He painted Blondie and Dagwood and a line of all their dogs taking up one wall.  Down another wall he had Lil’ Abner, Daisy Duck and Donald. Popeye and some other characters in portraits surrounded by square or diamond-shaped framing elements.  He was planning to do another one, upstairs in the bathroom, don’t remember what it was going to be, when he died at age 45. I was nine years old.  I remember them very clearly; they were beautifully done. 

My mother was very creative as well.  She was a stay-at-home mom who liked to sew and taught me how.  She made various things, but her pièce de résistance was making the beaded, strapless gown that she wore to my brother’s bar mitzvah party and also my party dress.  In her later years, she started to paint.  Her favorite thing was plein air painting. She died about 15 years ago.

There was nothing in the greater environment where I grew up that had any connection with “art.”  I, of course, know now that my parents had inclinations in that direction, but there was no possibility or even remote idea about art making as a way of life.  They were of a generation and in a place that could never have imagined such a thing. 

As a child I could not make up my mind what I wanted to be. I found many things interesting, but it was only based on what I knew that was going on around me. Later on, the experience with my mother did affect me directly as I began my creative life in fashion as a designer of women’s wear.  Also, it strikes me funny now, how I hit on toys as a theme for my work.  Something my father would have responded to, I’m sure.  Could very well have come from some memory of his influence in my early childhood.

MICHAEL: You know Carolyn, everyone I chat with, regardless of whether or not they come from an artistic background, can still site strong influences in their lives that led them to art. Art is such a rich legacy in our society and yet I don't think it really gets the respect that it's due.  What do you think about this?

CAROLYN: I think in this society, that’s an understatement. But, it’s really mostly an American attitude. When you travel to other countries you can see differences.  Europe, for example, supports their artists. The Far East and India have great reverence for art, mostly bound up in their religious traditions, because they understand art as being connected to the soul’s expression.

As an example of non-religious appreciation of art, I’ve been spending time the last three years in Oaxaca, Mexico. There, art is baked into the culture from ancient times and is profound in the peoples’ lives. Creativity is a way of life.  Mostly in the crafts – pottery, weaving, carving, embroidery, candle making, jewelry – but also painting, sculpture, dance and music.  Sometimes, the work is in the service of religion, like the paintings and carvings you find in the churches, but often just as an expression of their genetic creativity.  When you study their history and see what is in the museums, there was fantastic work being done 1500 years ago.  Not sure why this area of Mexico has this culture, not the same way in other states of the country, but it’s incredibly strong there.  Interestingly, what goes with that creative streak is tolerance. 

Even though the Spanish over took their religions and languages, they still hung on to their indigenous culture – subversively in some instances.  They are one of the few places in the world where their indigenous languages are still spoken and taught in some of their schools.  And while they’ve become a Christian country, due the brutal Spanish conquistadores, there is no prejudice against homosexuals and the indigenous peoples that you find in other parts of Mexico.  Gay people are in the government, freely running for election with no regard to their sexual preferences at all.  There’s actually one town in Oaxaca where the men are free to dress as women however they like.

That’s not to say that there was not fighting between the various linguistic groups in the past or the tendency for people in power to help their own, but I found myself wondering if the creative urge these people seem to have, en masse, does not help to mitigate the hatred of others one usually finds. Could the love of art foster tolerance?

MICHAEL: Yes it could ... and would.  You know, I'm envisioning your work also as BIG, 3D sculptural works.  What do you think?

CAROLYN: Wow! You’ve read my mind! No one else has ever mentioned that and it’s been my dream.  What I see are large video installations – the paintings blown up room size with all the parts animated and moving through space, creating a total environment.  I think it would be fantastic.

I’ve always wanted to do a large mural. I also envision the possibility of a sculptural version with the shapes moving off the wall, out into the viewers’ space, in order to create more drama.  But it would have to be a light material, fabricated somehow, while still being something that I could paint on.  Or, maybe, structured canvases like Elizabeth Murray used to use, which are very complicated to make. 

The problem is I don’t have the money it would take to hire the expertise needed to help me realize any of these ideas.  Or, know of a gallery, right now, where I could to show them. Sometimes it’s hard to fulfill one’s most expansive artistic vision. 

MICHAEL: I understand. 

CAROLYN: I stay contented making paintings on canvas and feeling happy that I get to express myself, as I want.  But I do have more ambitious ideas that I hope to see realized in the future. 

MICHAEL: You know Carolyn, what you just said really got me thinking about my own life and how it can be so frustrating when you're trying to make your vision happen - in art or life.  How much of a daily struggle is this for you as an artist?

CAROLYN: I’ve had to think about this a lot, as, in today’s world, “struggle” is a loaded word.  Compared to people who are truly suffering, it is hard to say that trying to fulfill one’s artistic vision is a struggle. 

But, given that, the life of an artist is difficult.  On the local NYC level, artists need to find an affordable place to live, (almost impossible), as well as a studio where they can work, and frequently have to have a full-time job at the same time. So, being an artist is saying that I’m going to have to work two, full-time jobs.  Not easy.

I’m sure that part of the surging popularity of video art-making stems not just that’s its fun working with technology, but from the fact that making art on a computer screen only takes the initial investment of buying a computer and a printer which takes up very little space, allowing for low overhead and no expensive art supplies to continually buy. Being a painter and/or sculptor is a financial challenge.

As I’ve said before, I feel lucky I can paint, but one can feel stymied in many ways. I have always had a lot more ideas about what I’d like to do than I have had the time or wherewithal to accomplish.  In addition to the funds, days seem so short and time rushes by. I guess since the frustrations are so ingrained in this lifestyle I seem to have chosen (or, has actually chosen me), I try not to let them build up. I do what I can, I hope for the best, I make art that interests me and I stay as content as I can.  Making art, after all, is a compulsion, an itch that must be scratched and there’s nothing to do but to give in to it, whether one gets to fulfill their complete vision or not. Being an optimist, there’s always the possibility that something could change, a path could open up and one’s complete vision could be realized.  Hope never dies.

MICHAEL: That’s true.

CAROLYN: One thing that has helped me to keep frustrations from building up is yoga.  I started practicing at the same time I made a commitment to being an artist and I’ve always viewed them as working together.  I started writing a book about the connections between the two disciplines.  Excerpts were published as a magazine article, not the complete book I had planned.  But, even in the truncated form, I thought it described a thesis that was worth exploring as I found so many connections in my research of the topic.  Anyone in a difficult, often frustrating, occupation needs to find a way to relieve the stress.

MICHAEL: I'm a yogi too, so I know exactly what you mean.  Finally Carolyn, why should everyday people even care about art?  They don't buy art and art isn't curing cancer.  What's the point?

CAROLYN: The point? What is the point of planting flowers that one can’t eat?  Reading literature?  Seeing a great movie?  Going to a play or seeing a dance performance?  A music concert?  Or, any other artful experience?  Art feeds the soul.  Artists reveal the magic in the world that others might not see.  Artists make the intangible real.

To get back to something we discussed earlier, people have been drawing since pre-history and also making music as ancient humans made drums and flutes. These things are innately human activity.  So, everyday people care about art whether they are completely aware of it as “art” or not. 

And, as studies show, people who live creative lives, who find fulfillment and satisfaction in what they do, are healthier physically.  Music helps people with Alzheimer’s, making art can be therapeutic for people who have suffered traumas, children learn better if they have art classes or study music.  Movement, such as dance, is good for the brain and can help to prevent dementia.  So, while these things do not cure cancer – though they might help prevent it in some people – they can be curative on many other levels. Artists are like shamans; they turn spirit into matter.

MICHAEL: Very lovingly said.  Thanks Carolyn.  Very cool chat.

CAROLYN: Michael - Just wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed our conversation.  Good questions and I loved thinking about the answers. 

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