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Artist Interview – Carolyn Lavender

Carolyn Lavender is an artist’s artist. When asking artist friends, who they admire, Carolyn’s name comes up quite often. In addition, when viewing her work in a gallery setting, viewers seem to relate immediately to her animals and talent. Carolyn’s work is always clear and focused, accessible, yet thought provoking. So, Culture Seen is honored to have an interview with her.

Preservation Woods, 2013
80 x 160″, acrylic, graphite on prepared archival foam core

You can see Carolyn’s work through the end of the month at the Mesa Contemporary Art Museum (through April 28th). The show, Creature~Man~Nature also features the artists, Monica Aissa Martinez, Mary Shindell.

Preservation Woods, detail

When I think of your work, I immediately think of your portraits of animals, and also think about your drawings of animals in a natural environment. What brought you to using animals as your main subject?

I have been drawing animals my whole life. When I was a kid, like a lot of other kids, I drew horses. I drew them endlessly. When my family moved to Arizona in 1977 I had to sell my horse, and I then avoided drawing them. So I moved on to other animals. I mostly drew them without idea, just simply enjoying their appearance in my art. When I was in grad school I eventually restricted myself to only drawing bears. I did that for 10 years. I found the bulky shape of the bear to be a great format for the surface play, linear mark making, and grid elements that I was using to make environmental statements. These were not obvious to the viewer, but created a thought process and a structure for the intuitive process I was using. After 2000 my use of animals was sporadic, since I was focusing on both an abstract body of work and a self-portrait body of work. But in 2003 I made an installation of 33 self-portraits, 16 foot wide, where I put an animal on top of each head.  I was unsure why I did this, but came to the conclusion that my portraits were more interesting with the animal, and the animal was more interesting with my head. Because animal images are so prevalent I am searching for ways to use them in an interesting way.

In your forest drawings, you sometimes have real animals, and sometimes, depictions of animals or objects. Could you tell our readers a little more about your connection to animals?

The forest or woods drawings are never completely naturalistic. The combination of imagery is really collaging, which is something I do a lot of. So, there is an artificial element that I do not try to hide. It seems that the drawings/paintings reflect the city life I live. My husband and I have an urban lot that is heavily planted and attracts a lot of bird life, insects, lizards, geckos, and feral cats. We feel like we are connected to the earth and interacting with nature, but it is nothing like the way a true wilderness functions.The Woods, 2009
24 x 54″, graphite on prepared panel

Two of my wood pieces, The Woods- Fabrication and Fabrication Woods, are populated with taxidermy animals. I am attracted to taxidermy, because animal forms are beautiful to me, but I also find them deeply disturbing. The oddness of portraying them in the woods helps me show the discomfort with them. I especially like the visual effect of putting the trophy mounts up on the trees. I do a lot photo appropriation for my works, but the taxidermy pieces are all original photography. I carry a camera with me and shoot taxidermy when I happen upon it. So the pieces also carry with them the memory of the places where I photographed the animals.

I have also started to photograph the animal figures that I keep in the house and the studio. I am attracted to them much the way I was attracted to horse statues when I was a little girl. They visually represent the real thing that I am attracted to, while they are in themselves objects I can possess and enjoy. Visually collaging these animal objects into naturalistic woods scenes emphasizes their artificial representations.

The Woods- Preservation, 2011
24 x 40″. graphite on prepared paper

 You are a master of pencil drawings, and there are not many artists that have the confidence to work this large with pencil. Would you like to explain your love of this material?

Thank you so much for calling me a master of pencil drawings.  I do love graphite. It is such a humble material that can be used for a math problem or a shopping list. It is also a material that we have used for nearly all our lives.

I also like that a viewer has to work a bit to look at your drawings, and details are not so obvious. Is this something you think about when producing work?

When you say the viewer has to work a bit, I think you are mostly referring to The Woods, which was the first piece in the series.  I wanted to portray a scene where the animals were reacting to something that happened in the woods. This was a fictional mindscape based on a real event. I placed fifty birds and animals in the drawing to create a utopian density because I always want real woods to be full of animals in way that is not possible.  It was a technical accident that lightened the darks so that the piece has lower contrast. But I think it really works for that piece. Like you say, you have to work to find all 50 critters that are contained in the piece. But it is not something I planned for.

It seems like you might have secrets hidden in your drawing, and the rewards are there for the viewer’s patience.

I don’t have any literal secrets, but I am hoping to make art that is more than the sum of its parts. I think it is possible, but it is a form of magic that cannot be controlled. And maybe it is simply that some viewers bring quite a lot with them when they experience art. I love it that you asked that.

I have heard from so many people that know your work and you that you work for long periods of time and have incredible patience when you draw. Is that true? And, do you want the viewer to have the same patience in seeing your work?

I have developed a lot more patience for realistic rendering in recent years. I never expected my work to get so realistic and illustration-like. When I was drawing on Portrait, a grid formatted drawing with 200 graphite portraits of animals, I started getting more and more detailed with each head. I tried to hold back, but gave in. I worked on that drawing on and off for years, but at the end did a huge, six month long, push to finish for a deadline. That meant long, long hours of intricate drawing every day. That drawing changed me.

The viewer’s relationship to drawings and paintings is an interesting one. You can look for a few seconds and never look again. Or you can spend hours, spread over years, if you have regular access. Like everyone else, I have quickly walked past rooms of paintings, giving most of them just a glance. It is legitimate to be bored by something that took a massive amount of time to execute. Our interests and understandings change through time. I make the work I do because I am compelled to do so. I do not ask or demand the viewer to have patience in viewing my work. Hopefully the work will warrant it, it is extremely rewarding when that happens.

Portrait, 2011, 45 x 86″
graphite, gouache on prepared canvas

It seems (to me) that your animal drawings are drawn as individuals, but not given human qualities like many artists would do. Do these animals you draw represent anything in particular, or are they a stand in for people?

Interesting question. My animals are definitely not stand-ins for people. It is my intention that animals get the same respect as people. That is why, in Portrait, I rendered them accurately so that they were portraits of each individual animal. Each animal is making eye contact with the viewer the way people do in yearbook photos. When you stand in front of the piece there are 200 pairs of eyes looking at you. I am trying to advocate for their right to exist in natural spaces. But I am not trying to portray a blatant environmental conservation message. The people who need to hear those messages aren’t listening anyway. I am thinking about certain things when I make art, and the viewer brings their own thinking into the viewing experience.

Portrait, 2011, detail

What else inspires you?

I have a collecting, hoarding, coveting type personality. I am able to direct that energy into the gathering of images. I grab anything that I respond to from magazines, flyers, postcards, on line, or by shooting snapshots. I collect stuff for years and then use it to collage with.  Which is an activity of visual play. Animals are a large part of the images I collect, but I am also interested in decorative architectural details, especially Medieval and Victorian. Both were periods where they decorated obsessively and with unending variation. There were other decorative periods, but with less connection to nature.

Are their any particular influences for your work?

I love art history, but my interests within art history have evolved through the years. I am a huge fan of Northern Renaissance painters and printmakers. I also spend a lot more time in the Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Medieval sections of the Museums. Combine that with curio cabinet/natural history type subjects and I am in heaven. I listen to a wide variety of music and read a lot of artist biographies.

Have you always made art? Do you remember when or where you first found the artist in yourself?

I have always made art, and was encouraged to do so. But I don’t think I was any more talented than my fellow classmates. My gift may have been that I was bit odd. An example was during 6th grade I, for some reason, became interested in looking for four-leaf clovers. At every recess for weeks and weeks, I went outside and sat in the grass finding clovers with more than three leaves. I remember one even had seven. I took them into the classroom and poured Elmer’s glue on them in a thick puddle, which encased them when the glue dried. I still have them, but the glue eventually became milky so you can no longer see the clovers.

What else are you doing now?

I have the video Urban Water, created with a motion activated home security camera set up on my birdbath. I love camera trap photographs taken in the wilderness. You can see animals unaffected by human presence. The birds and feral cats in my yard give the impression of wild creatures, but within a very urban setting.

I am overdue for some extended collaging. This summer I plan to lose myself in it. I fill up spiral notebooks, most of which become journals. But I do have some more animal based pieces planned. Thanks for asking.

Bear Gifts, 2012
8 x 11″, graphite on prepared paper

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  1. Duane Roen (Reply) on Monday 22, 2013

    Your art is breath-taking, Carolyn.


  2. Linda Merriman (Reply) on Monday 22, 2013

    I loved reading this interview. I know Carolyn, although not as well as I wish, and the interview is a wonderful insight into how she makes art and what art means to her.It also makes me think harder about how important both art and nature are in my own life. I recently acquired one of her pieces and it is very exciting to think about having it in my home and engaging with the animals in varying ways over time.

  3. […] time. After all the hype, you just never know what to expect. So, I went to  Christy’s (and Carolyn Lavender’s) show, Fauna/Fauna at Willo North Gallery last November. I’m sorry it took me this […]

  4. Kim Anderson (Reply) on Monday 22, 2013

    Your art is amazing and inspiring, Carloyn. I so enjoyed your interview.


  5. Sharon Hughes,Napa (Reply) on Monday 22, 2013

    I love the “odd”the taxidermy,the animals on heads….but I beg to differ about her “no more talented than my classmates”.I lived with a piece of Carolyn’s for a year,15 self portrait heads,”Mirror” and every day I looked at it,drawn in, either involuntarily found staring,or talking to her.The technique blew me away every time I studied it.The detail engrosses. The viewer comments are right on,every person saw something personal in that art.
    Her early bear work was the first of Carolyn’s art Id seen and they were even more obscured,overlayed with scratchmarks,grids.Intense.
    Her journal pages were later enlarged and I realized the depth of her collecting and interests.
    This latest work brings together all the elements of her past work,and highlights her conservatory bent.Depth beauty vision.

    • Olanibi (Reply) on Monday 22, 2013

      Oh yes! You are indeed an arstit Patty! I’ve always thought that you had an arstit’s soul in the way that you approach photography which of course is yet another art form in and of itself. Your mixed media artwork is amazing. You also are so gifted with words. What is very interesting to me is that your responsible path of being a physical therapists has given structure so to speak in how you aaproach your art in all forms be it mixed media, photography, prose in this stage of your life. It is rare that one is able to use their left and right sides of their brain with such efficiency one complimenting the other as you do. You are very gifted and I am so glad that you share your gifts so generously with others. Have a wonderful week!

  6. FELIPE GOES (Reply) on Monday 22, 2013

    Great interview !
    I`am very pleased to know more about Carolyn`s art and creative process.