Interview: Carol Powell

Last week marked the end of Textural Play, Carol Powell’s solo exhibition at the dA.   This exhibition surveyed her recent work including watercolor paintings, fabric sculptures, and textile mixed media pieces.  Over the past decade and a half, Powell has exhibited in countless solo and group shows all over the US, England, France and Germany, and her art has found its way into both private and public collections.  Carol Powell took the time to answer a few questions about her art, process, and inspirations.

dA: Tell us a bit about yourself.

Carol Powell: My name is Carol Powell, I am a California native, I grew up in Norwalk, CA. I am the youngest of nine. I have always drawn things. I started copying the art on the wallpaper in my room, things my dad would draw or images from picture books. Snoopy was a favorite and when I was a little older I had a “how to draw” Marvel comics book to copy. I was asked to draw things for others at an early age. I would practice at drawing because I knew it was something to help with my painful shyness. I didn’t draw for a few years until my junior year of high school where they offered an art class. I picked my love of art back up. It was exactly like I remembered it. When I got to junior college I signed up for a drawing class, where the teacher suggested I take printmaking because of my graphic art style. I was home. Printing was everything I could want. It had drawing, painting, it was graphic and could be dark and or beautiful. I was also taking fashion courses because I always had a quirky style of dress. I wanted to design clothes that I wanted to wear. So I did a double major for a few years. I finally dropped the fashion because I knew I was an artist and not a seamstress. I transferred to Cal State University, Fullerton, as a Printmaking major. There I got my MA degree in Printmaking. After a few years I decided to finish my degree and went back to get my MFA. I’ve been showing my art professionally since I was 18 and have shown in Los Angeles and all over the US and Europe. Making art is cathartic; it helps me get through life.

dA: What made you first want to become an artist?

CP: I don’t think something made me want me to be an artist, it just happened. I gravitated to artistic toys and had a vivid imagination, and still do. I was alone a bunch so I would find things to keep me busy, I could spend hours drawing and tracing things. My parents encouraged it, because it kept me busy. As a young adult, a teacher noticed my skills and put me in an art show where I won an award. I think then I knew that I had talent.

dA: Your textile mixed media pieces incorporate many layers of different mediums, can you tell us about the different materials you use?

CP: I use fabrics that I find at the thrift store or that have been given to me. I like vintage fabrics, because of the patterns and that they have a history. I use vintage ephemera, mostly from children’s books, magazines, paper dolls and toys, also because they have memory and history. I paint with acrylics, draw with markers, pen, glitter and thread. I will add collage items like buttons, rhinestones, tiny toys, and decorations. I also use contemporary fashion magazines or books for lines of text. Pretty much I use anything that I find that’s interesting to me or has some humor or relevance to what I’m thinking about at the time.

dA: What came first the sewing or the painting? How long have you been doing each? What inspired you to bring the two together?

CP: I guess drawing came first, then printing, painting and finally sewing. They all were being used around the same time for different reasons. But the combination of all came around 2003.

I have been drawing since I was a child. Printing since I was a teen, painting for 20 years, sewing on and off for 20 years.

At some point, I became allergic to the solvents used in printmaking. I had to find something else to do. I have this really awesome collection of fabrics, ephemera and junk. I thought I should use them all together somehow and began to experiment.

dA: Describe your creative process. How do your works come together? Do you careful plan each piece ahead of time, or do you let them develop as you go? Physically what layers do you start with, and how do you build upon each layer? How long does it take for you to complete each piece?

CP: I begin with the base, which is usually pieced together fabrics, no canvas. I then will sketch out a main figure on small paper, in most of my paintings there is one large figure. I will then blow up the image and transfer it to fabric to applique by sewing it onto the base. I may decide to put on decorative stitching as another drawing element and for texture. After that, I begin to collage and paint, I don’t think out anything but the main figure, the rest comes to me while I’m working on it. I’ll usually draw some pattern or collage before painting so that I can incorporate the collage with the paint to make it more seamless. The story builds with collage items, paint and drawing. It’s about layering. I’ll add text near the end because by then I know what the piece is trying to say, once all the elements are added, I’ll finish up the pieces with details, whether by drawing or painting to make each element sharp.

Each painting takes roughly one month to a year to finish, depending on the deadline, size and detail.

dA: Tell us about your “studio,” and how art fits into your life.

CP: My studio is where I live, my living room, is where I sew and normally paint; my bedroom is where I draw; my kitchen is where I do messy stuff; and my bathroom is where I wash brushes. I live my art. I have never had a formal studio, even when I was in grad school, I worked at home and only used the facilities to print. I like to work in my own environment without being distracted; it helps me think about the piece better. As you can imagine there are projects everywhere; I usually have to clear spaces for people when they visit. Living in your studio means there’s always art going on and you don’t have to drive somewhere to make art. No procrastination when things are staring you in the face.

dA: There are many reoccurring images throughout your work such as birds, carrots, and teeth. What meaning do these images hold?

CP: Each body of work has a thematic element. My work has a lot of symbolism that is relative to my life.

Birds: The Birds are my newest work, I am currently a volunteer at IBR (International Bird Rescue-they do work with oiled and injured sea birds). The bird pieces were made for a show I did that connected to their charity, and a portion of my proceeds went to them. They symbolize freedom in life. In my pieces they are with people who don’t recognize their presence; they are the freedom that we all miss because we’re too tied down to our lives.

Carrots: The Carrot pieces were in my first body of work, the carrot is in reference to the “Golden Carrot,” which is a goal that we’re trying to reach. To grasp the Golden Carrot means to achieve a goal. I have put a twist on this fable by making the carrots real carrots with faces, so that you don’t know weather the goal is a good or bad goal. Most of the faces look bad, but that may only be because they’re about to be picked or maybe they’re just bad.

Teeth: The Teeth started out as plush characters. I was really tired of people stealing my ideas, and I chose imagery that I knew no one would be interested in. Carrots, who’s going to be painting those? I was known as the carrot lady, and then I started to see art with carrots sprouting up. It’s so frustrating to try to be original. The teeth were in reference to “biters” which is someone who can’t formulate their own ideas, they then grew into another thematic element, I did a series of work that had to do with my Diabetes, where the tooth became a sweet tooth who battled the happy cupcake.

I have other characters that show up often, the Girl, Bears, Armless Hare, the Mouse or Hamster, the Cat and Mary Jane shoes.

The Girl: The Girl is representative of me, not the actual me that everyone sees, but the idealized me that everyone wants me to be.

Bears: Bears relate to me because they are cuddly and dangerous and also my sister use to give me bear things.

Armless Hare-The Armless Hare is about not being able to do what you want.

The Mouse or Hamster: The mouse or hamster is about smallness and vulnerability.

The Cat: The Cat means innocence and strength.

Mary Jane Shoes: The Mary Jane Shoes are representative of innocence and childhood.

My work is autobiographical so the symbolism always returns to the source, me…

dA: Where does your inspiration come from?

CP: Mostly my environment; what’s happening to me at the moment. I am inspired by a lot. I go to galleries and museums to see art, I sometimes get inspired by that. I look at imagery online, I can be inspired by that. I read magazines and books, listen to music or watch movies, I can be inspired by that too. I absorb my environment and paint how I feel.

dA: Your work has a storybook quality to it. Were there any children’s books either growing up or now that influence your work?

CP: I love children’s books. I have a collection. I didn’t have many books as a child. My parents didn’t have money to buy books. I went to a school where we could check out books so I would check one out a week. I liked the “Lonely Doll” books by Dare Wright, “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak, and Richard Scarry books as a kid, I collected Heinrich Drescher and Lane Smith books in my 20’s. I love Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, Edward Lear, Dr. Seuss, and of course, Alice in Wonderland, although Alice wasn’t inspirational for my work, I hear it referenced while looking at my stuff. It’s cool. What an honor to be referenced to such a magical story. Most of my collection of children’s books are vintage because I am more fond of old illustrations, but I have current book artists too; David Shannon, Lisbeth Zwerger, Dave Pickney, David Carter, Chris Rashchka, and Lois Lowry among many others.

dA: Tell us about some of your influences both the obvious ones and the less obvious ones, including musicians, writers, artists and movies.

CP: I’m inspired by a lot of artists, although my work doesn’t represent some, they were influential in my art at some point or just as point of reference.  Artists like Mike Kelley, Tony Oursler, Raymond Pettibon, David Shrigley, Marcel Dzama, Edward Kienholz, George Gross, Otto Dix, Edvard Munch, Modigliani, Clayton Brothers, the Chapman Brothers, William Burroughs, the De La Torre Brothers, Louise Bourgeois, Mark Mothersbaugh, Joe Coleman, Simon Rodia, Francis Bacon, Edward Gorey, Arthur Rackham, Ernst Haeckel, Chas Addams, William Morris, Hokusai, Kurt Schwitters, Nek Chand, Henry Darger, Judith Scott, Gaudi, Adolf Wolfli, Hundertwasser, Isaiah Zagar, Botticelli, Betye and Allison Saar, Duchamp, Louis Wain, Andre Courreges, Pierre Cardin, Remedios Varo, Man Ray, and many more.

I love music, my taste runs from jazz to punk. I like to listen to it while working. My list is equally as long as the art list. Some of my favorite music is punk, it was the era I grew up in and formed my music tastes. Some musicians I like in no particular order are Alice Donut, DNA, NO Means NO, Dead Kennedys, Nina Simone, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Parliament, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Elvis, Ornette Coleman, John Cage, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Black Keys, Vivian Girls, the Pretenders, Devo, Scratch Acid, Johnny Cash, TV on the Radio, the Cure, the Ramones, Bad Brains, the Psychedelic Furs, Led Zeppelin, the Who, Television, Lou Reed, Echo and the Bunnymen, Mastodon, All Hail the Yeti, Joy Division, the Damned, the Eels, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Cyndi Lauper, the Pixies, I could go on forever.

I enjoy writers like Phillip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clarke, I like Sci Fi, and also read Milan Kundera, Kafka, Camus, William Burroughs, Ginsberg, Bukowski, lots of stuff on history and art. I’m dying to read Haruki Murakami’s IQ84, he’s a great read.

Like books I’m fond of Sci Fi movies, especially ones from the 70’s, but watch most new movies. I’ll admit I love Muppets, I’ve seen them all. I like animated films and shows, right now I’m re-watching the Russian Animation Masters series. I like comedies and watch tons of documentaries about art, history, music and culture.

dA: What’s next for you? Do you have any upcoming shows?

CP: Right now I’m concentrating on making some work for a few group shows and building a website. I’d like to curate some shows in the future. I am also planning to make a new series of pieces to show next year, I’ll be starting on those in May.

Couldn’t make it to Textural Play? Powell has submitted pieces into this year’s Simply Red, opening this Saturday, and Glitterati, opening March 10th:

The dA Center for the Arts Presents:

Simply Red | February 11-25, 2012
More Info
Facebook Link

Glitterati | March 10-31, 2012
More Info
Facebook Link


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