Carolyn Anderson’s distinctive style balances abstraction and realism
By Rosemary Carstens
“Painting is all about seeing. It is truly a marriage of craft and creativity,” says Montana-based artist Carolyn Anderson. “When values, colors, and shapes are put together in interesting ways, when the artist has shown us how to look at something differently, there is poetry.”
Anderson knows all about the poetry of paint. As a Montana gold prospector might once have swirled earthy aggregate to separate gold from sand, Anderson has an exceptional aptitude for reducing superfluous detail to the bare essentials. Her ability to create paintings of great beauty and energy while showing us something new about her subjects lies at the foundation of her success.
Master painter Quang Ho also points out Anderson’s unique ability to see and paint atmosphere, which, he says, “translates into beautifully portrayed, soft, lost and found edges. She is a top-notch draftsman, to be sure, but her use of paint and the expression in her works is what sets her apart.”
Anderson is keenly aware of the science behind how we see art—the physiological dance between the eye, the brain, and a viewer’s individual perspective on a painting’s meaning or subject matter. She has studied the works of perceptual psychologist and art and film theorist Rudolf Arnheim (Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye) and art critic and historian Sir Ernst Gombrich (Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation), among others, and continues to be fascinated by ideas about what we see compared to what we think we see.
When Anderson takes up her brush for a painting such as PORTRAIT OF A DANCER, she strives to interpret and present visual information distilled down to its most essential elements. She uses her experience and craftsmanship to re-create an illusory reality from what she calls “mark making,” as she carefully chooses which details to exaggerate and which to sublimate. She asks herself, “How much can I deconstruct this subject matter and still have a recognizable image?” Anderson is aware that the eye focuses selectively on only a small part of any scene, leaving the rest a blur of impressions, and she makes good use of that physiological principle in her work. Shape, light, shadow, and color whirl around a central focal point, in this case the dancer’s more sharply delineated face, to create an aliveness that draws viewers into the experience. She purposely leaves space for viewers to access her works through the lens of personal memory and knowledge.
“Carolyn’s ability to capture the essence of her subject matter while allowing the viewer to participate is sublime,” confirms Meredith Plesko, co-owner of InSight Gallery in Fredericksburg, TX. “Whether Carolyn is painting a bird, ponies, a beautiful woman, or a woodsman, her approach is her own but is always rooted in representational art. She communicates the beauty of life’s simple things and captures those often overlooked moments in life.”
Born and raised in the Chicago area, Anderson dreamed of attending the Art Institute of Chicago but, instead, pursued a teaching degree at Illinois State University to satisfy her parents’ insistence on a more “practical” path to earning a living. In the early 1970s, she joined Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), founded in 1965 to fight poverty in the United States, and was sent to the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation in Montana—a far different landscape than that of crowded, urban Chicago. Some 25 years after her VISTA service, she returned to Montana and now lives and works in a home she designed herself, with her studio at its heart. It’s located near Havre, a small community close to the Canadian border. In the middle of Big Sky country, she is surrounded by vast open spaces: Gently rolling plains spread out in all directions, with few trees and only the low profile of the Bear Paw Mountains to the south to disrupt the view. She refers to her region’s topography as being all “middle ground and background.” Interestingly, it is not this spare landscape that is reflected in her work. Instead, she says, “my work is all middle ground and foreground,” up-close-and-personal imagery that almost never incorporates a distant backdrop.
Building on her art studies at the university, Anderson has developed her own singular style, learning from other artists who inspired and supported her but fearlessly experimenting with the boundaries of traditional techniques. She credits the late western painter William Reese, whom she calls “an artist’s artist,” with having opened her eyes to new ways of looking at what art can be. It was Reese who said, “I believe our memories have a much better idea about what art is than our eyes do, plus our memories do not recall unnecessary detail.” Anderson took those words to heart in shaping her philosophy about life and art.
Sometimes working from life and sometimes from reference material, Anderson is adamant that a painting be an interpretation, not a copy, of her subject matter. She often begins by employing a dry-brush technique, creating a characteristic scratchy look that avoids the smooth appearance of washes or blended paint. Forms are blocked in but retain a gestural quality. Balance between negative and positive space is critical, and the work must have a sense of integrity, reading well.
A good example is found in her painting THE RED SKIRT. While not as loosely rendered as many of her artworks, the edges are still almost nonexistent in non-focal areas, giving the painting an ethereal quality. Anderson uses edges creatively; their amorphous borders are areas where one concrete object transitions into another. As with all of her figurative work, this piece is extremely painterly—she rarely blends a single brush stroke, instead depending on countless touches of paint closely related in color and value. Note how negative spaces (those surrounding the figure), as well as light and shadow, echo and balance one another and the triangular mass of scarlet skirt, yet they also add variety and texture to the viewing experience. Even though there is little actual detail, the artist creates a feeling that you know what is there—you bring what you know about life to seeing what has been portrayed.
An active teacher since the 1980s, Anderson conducts at least six workshops a year and has taught for the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, Walt Disney Imagineering, the Scottsdale Artists’ School, and the Fechin Artists School. While working at Disney, she began to explore concepts of visual language in the extensive art library and to apply them in her workshops. She finds it rewarding to push her students beyond the technical aspects of painting, to make them question what they see—to ask, “Is that subject really solid? Is that really an edge?” She tells them, “Painting is about learning to see. We need to be open to the adventure of exploring visual information—to looking at something and clarifying our thinking. Decision-making is a part of that process. The decisions we make are part of who we are as individual artists.” Her goal is to open her students’ minds to new ways to look at art and to help them understand the uses of illusion as they transform three-dimensional subjects into two-dimensional paintings. It’s a challenge she never tires of.
Anderson has garnered the admiration of collectors and peers alike. She is a Master Artist in the American Impressionist Society, and a member of the Northwest Rendezvous (NWR), and she participates in many of the nation’s largest shows. Her work has received widespread recognition, including such accolades as the C.M. Russell Artists’ Choice award, several NWR Awards of Excellence, two C.M. Russell Best of Show awards, and, most recently, in the 2010 and 2011 annual American Impressionist Society national shows, her entries won the Master Award of Excellence.
William Reese, Anderson’s friend and frequent inspiration, once said, “What is difficult and will take a lifetime to perfect is a painting or sculpture that rings like a bell or sings like a song. To make art that is more like music, we need to start thinking of ways to capture more of the essence of what we see.” Anderson is well on her way to achieving this lofty goal.
Featured in January 2012.