Carol Mothner | Small Worlds

By Norman Kolpas

Of Science and Nature, egg tempera on paper, 12 x 12., Southwest Art
Of Science and Nature, egg tempera on paper, 12 x 12.

Just a few miles from Carol Mothner’s home is the rugged, high-desert landscape that inspired some of Georgia O’Keeffe’s most glorious paintings. And a few blocks outside Mothner’s door is Santa Fe’s historic plaza, with its adobe buildings that have been immortalized by countless artists. Yet Mothner does not venture out into the Southwest for her artistic inspiration—instead, she journeys inward.

At 6:30 a.m. each weekday, Mothner rises, exercises, has breakfast with her family, and gets her 9-year-old daughter Elizabeth off to school. Around 8 a.m. she walks down the hall to her studio, which feels more like a cozy, cluttered bedroom than an artist’s retreat. She sits down in front of her easel, raises a magnifying glass in her right hand and a sable brush in her left, and begins her almost microscopic explorations into the soul of the natural world.

Rhythm and Blues, egg tempera on paper, 12 x 18., Southwest Art
Rhythm and Blues, egg tempera on paper, 12 x 18.

Dipping only the very tip of her brush into egg tempera—a notoriously demanding medium because each brush stroke dries almost on contact—Mothner peers through her magnifying glass and applies minute strokes of color to surfaces that seldom measure more than 18 inches square. What eventually emerges are life-size images of small objects so exquisitely realized that they invite the viewer to pluck them from the painting—speckled quail and sky-blue robin’s eggs; nests abandoned by hummingbirds, cardinals, scrub jays, and magpies; and flowers such as tulips, Calla lilies, and roses.

Golden Egg, egg tempera on paper, 12 x 12., Southwest Art
Golden Egg, egg tempera on paper, 12 x 12.

“I’m a small person, and I feel comfortable working in a small format,” says Mothner, who continues to paint as she talks about her work. Tempera, which dates back to ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome and can take a lifetime to master, suits her approach perfectly. “I’ve worked in oil most of my life,” she says, “but I switched mediums because I wanted greater accuracy. Egg tempera is wonderful because it allows me to paint really fine lines. It also allows me to convey the mass of an object. I’m no longer interested in a subject if it doesn’t have a lot of detail.”

A sprightly woman with dark eyes, dark hair, and a ready, raucous laugh, this native New Yorker is preparing to wrap up work on this late Thursday afternoon. “I finish at 5:00, just like a shoemaker,” she says, laughing. She is anticipating spending the evening with her husband Daniel Morper, an artist who paints in the studio next to hers, and their daughter.

Celestial Beginnings, egg tempera on paper, 9 x 9., Southwest Art
Celestial Beginnings, egg tempera on paper, 9 x 9.

In the 1980s, the approach Moth-ner [swa jun 91] took to her work and her career were markedly different. “I used to paint 14 hours a day, every day,” she admits. The results of that marathon schedule were paintings that, while still small in size, literally opened doors onto hauntingly empty, unfurnished rooms that seemed to ache for life to fill them.

All that changed when Elizabeth arrived. Mothner cut her hours, working a more conventional day, “because the nights are definitely for her.” Soon, new artistic inspirations presented themselves. At the age of 5, Elizabeth began collecting assorted objects that she found outdoors. Then a friend gave Mothner the abandoned nest of a towhee, a New Mexico bird. “I started thinking that I’d like to draw it for Elizabeth because making an object with a series of fine lines is a little like building a nest,” Mothner recalls. “Of course, birds can do it much more quickly than I can.”

One nest led to another and then another. “I must have over a hundred now,” Mothner says, nodding toward the shelves in her studio where some 30 nests are on display. “The other 70 are stored away in closets.” She quickly adds that, as far as she can determine, the nests came to her without detriment to their former occupants. “You only take a nest after checking and checking for an entire year to make sure that the birds aren’t coming back. Birds abandon nests for many reasons, including the weather and intrusion by predators.”

Often, whole or hatched eggs would be left in the nests, and Mothner began to include these in her compositions as well, along with other objects she and Elizabeth would find—feathers, dried flowers, fallen fruit, insects, fossils, a tiny bird’s skeleton, or the body of a hummingbird mummified by the southwestern sun.

“A lot of these things aren’t intrinsically beautiful,” Mothner says bluntly. “If you saw the individual pieces of a nest, for example, you wouldn’t collect them—they’d be just a pile of sticks and mud. But as soon as they’re made into this cuplike shape, you’re attracted to it. I want people to look at these things as beautiful objects. I want them to say, ‘I wouldn’t have thought that I’d care about these things, but after seeing the paintings, I do.’”

Mothner is surprised by how difficult it is for her to stay away from the natural objects that now enthrall her. “I thought I’d be finished with the nests by now,” she says. “But it’s been four years, and I’m not tearing myself away from them anytime soon.”

She is, however, seeing her approach to them evolve. Where once she painted solitary nests poised on stagelike, plastered ledges built for her by her husband, she now arranges an assortment of objects in a circle or grid that causes them, by juxtaposition, to strike meaningful harmonies. In some of these works, Mothner quietly underscores the profundity inherent in the composition by surrounding the objects with a barely noticeable, otherworldly halo.

Nor has Mothner lost touch with the serendipity of the natural world. About Celestial Beginnings she says, “I wanted to see what it felt like not to arrange things, so I just scattered the twigs and quail eggs, and some of them broke.”

If you guessed from such pieces that Mothner has achieved a new sense of spirituality through motherhood and the latest phase of her career, you might well be right. Further support of such suspicions can be garnered from the title she gave to her most recent show at Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe—Promises.

“I’m painting objects in transformation or things that have already been transformed, like a broken shell or a rose hip,” she explains. “Being a mother definitely has something to do with my fascination for eggs and nests. I am moved by the fact that they once housed a little piece of life, and I feel honored to have the opportunity to paint that.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; John Pence Gallery, San Francisco, CA; Miller/Block Gallery, Boston, MA; Cumberland Gallery, Nashville, TN; and M.A. Doran Gallery, Tulsa, OK.

Featured in September 2005