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Island Expressions: Kathy Carlson

May 25, 2008 — Painter Kathy Carlson is busily applying acrylic to the canvas in front of her as she sits in a loft overlooking Al Cohen's Discount Liquors — an unlikely studio for an artist, but one that Carlson enjoys.
The cacophony of chatter coming from tourists shopping downstairs is not a distraction.
"I don't hear it," she says. "It's like white noise. … Sometimes I'm surprised when I look up and there's somebody there. I'm happy to tell people about my work, but I don't sell out of here."
Carlson's work is showing at the Mango Tango Seaside Gallery on St. Thomas and the Design Works on St. Croix.
The large room is brightly lighted. Canvases line one wall. A bench overflowing with acrylics, tubes of oils, turpentines and brushes fills another. She sits down for an interview at a picnic table on the far side of the room. Behind her are rolls of matting, fabrics, webbings and a roll of Japanese cloth paper, from which Carlson tears off a swatch.
"Just look at the patterns in this," she marvels. Much of her current work incorporates textile patterns.
These days Carlson does what she has wanted to do for most of her life: nothing but painting.
"I retired in 1995," she says, "and I've painted every day since. This is my second life."
Ever since she can remember, the kindly looking grandmother says she has had a pen, a pencil or a brush in her hand.
"Maybe it's in the genes," she says. "As a kid, I was always sketching."
Carlson began her higher education as a fine arts major, but switched to education so she could support herself and a young child. After earning a master's degree in education at the University of Pennsylvania, she studied life drawing and painting at the Arts Students League in New York and the University of Buffalo. She taught math for 25 years before coming to St. Thomas in 1992 and teaching math at Antilles School until her retirement.
She sees no dichotomy between mathematics and art.
"Math isn't that opposed," she says. "I really believe there is a connection. The patterns I see in math, like in music — I can see the same thing in art."
She muses, "I don't know, they're supposed to be different parts of the brain."
Carlson and her husband, retired engineer Bill, sailed in the islands for decades before they made it their home.
"We were chartering from the Averys' in 1992 when Maryanne Avery told me Antilles needed teachers," she says, "and I got a job."
At first, Carlson painted at home, in what she calls "a tiny, but heavenly cottage."
"At home," she says, "I'd paint until three or four in the morning. That's another good thing about here. The hours are nine to five. It's discipline."
Carlson's paintings cover a vast range. For years she painted the natural beauty of the islands, narratives of island people. The table in front of us is piled with prints, local scenes — some she describes as "cartoony" — people in different poses, hauling fish, cooking. She pulls up a set of wildly flying figures painted in oils in wild magentas, greens, yellows.
"These are the mocko jumbies," she says. "They're chasing out the evil jumbie spirits."
Carlson has been described as a representational artist or a figurative one. She is hailed for her luminosity. Just in the past year, she has begun work in mixed media and abstracts. She demurs from defining her style.
"Oh golly," she says, "I haven't really changed. The abstracts present a whole new set of challenges. You have to access a different part of your brain, something hard to find for me. I'm learning as I do it. In a way, it helps with my more figurative works, the relationship of shapes."
For Carlson, figurative paintings and abstracts are two parts of a whole.
"It's very much the same thing, except you have to dig a little deeper," she says. "A market woman is a market woman. The art comes in painting the soul. With the abstracts, you have to try to give that same feeling with forms that aren't necessarily recognizable. It's hard to articulate."
She fetches the canvas she is working on. It's a deeply hued abstract in reds, embedded with various textures, with tiny metal cogs in the middle, and stenciled lettering in Latin: "Non tenaes arum totum quod." It means "all that glitters is not gold."
"I'm not sure what's going to happen with this," she says. "I love playing with the different materials; the surfaces are fascinating for me. Some days I start with not an idea in my head until I start painting, and it evolves. At a certain point the creative energy takes over. I'm a lot freer now. I learn from the paintings; I'm always learning."
Asked about her influences, she says immediately and with a sigh, "Van Gogh, Van Gogh." She also credits Matisse, whose influence you can see in whimsical figures floating in some abstracts hanging at the Mango Tango Gallery.
Carlson has exhibited widely and won several awards. For more information, visit her website.
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May 25, 2008 -- Painter Kathy Carlson is busily applying acrylic to the canvas in front of her as she sits in a loft overlooking Al Cohen's Discount Liquors -- an unlikely studio for an artist, but one that Carlson enjoys.
The cacophony of chatter coming from tourists shopping downstairs is not a distraction.
"I don't hear it," she says. "It's like white noise. ... Sometimes I'm surprised when I look up and there's somebody there. I'm happy to tell people about my work, but I don't sell out of here."
Carlson's work is showing at the Mango Tango Seaside Gallery on St. Thomas and the Design Works on St. Croix.
The large room is brightly lighted. Canvases line one wall. A bench overflowing with acrylics, tubes of oils, turpentines and brushes fills another. She sits down for an interview at a picnic table on the far side of the room. Behind her are rolls of matting, fabrics, webbings and a roll of Japanese cloth paper, from which Carlson tears off a swatch.
"Just look at the patterns in this," she marvels. Much of her current work incorporates textile patterns.
These days Carlson does what she has wanted to do for most of her life: nothing but painting.
"I retired in 1995," she says, "and I've painted every day since. This is my second life."
Ever since she can remember, the kindly looking grandmother says she has had a pen, a pencil or a brush in her hand.
"Maybe it's in the genes," she says. "As a kid, I was always sketching."
Carlson began her higher education as a fine arts major, but switched to education so she could support herself and a young child. After earning a master's degree in education at the University of Pennsylvania, she studied life drawing and painting at the Arts Students League in New York and the University of Buffalo. She taught math for 25 years before coming to St. Thomas in 1992 and teaching math at Antilles School until her retirement.
She sees no dichotomy between mathematics and art.
"Math isn't that opposed," she says. "I really believe there is a connection. The patterns I see in math, like in music -- I can see the same thing in art."
She muses, "I don't know, they're supposed to be different parts of the brain."
Carlson and her husband, retired engineer Bill, sailed in the islands for decades before they made it their home.
"We were chartering from the Averys' in 1992 when Maryanne Avery told me Antilles needed teachers," she says, "and I got a job."
At first, Carlson painted at home, in what she calls "a tiny, but heavenly cottage."
"At home," she says, "I'd paint until three or four in the morning. That's another good thing about here. The hours are nine to five. It's discipline."
Carlson's paintings cover a vast range. For years she painted the natural beauty of the islands, narratives of island people. The table in front of us is piled with prints, local scenes -- some she describes as "cartoony" -- people in different poses, hauling fish, cooking. She pulls up a set of wildly flying figures painted in oils in wild magentas, greens, yellows.
"These are the mocko jumbies," she says. "They're chasing out the evil jumbie spirits."
Carlson has been described as a representational artist or a figurative one. She is hailed for her luminosity. Just in the past year, she has begun work in mixed media and abstracts. She demurs from defining her style.
"Oh golly," she says, "I haven't really changed. The abstracts present a whole new set of challenges. You have to access a different part of your brain, something hard to find for me. I'm learning as I do it. In a way, it helps with my more figurative works, the relationship of shapes."
For Carlson, figurative paintings and abstracts are two parts of a whole.
"It's very much the same thing, except you have to dig a little deeper," she says. "A market woman is a market woman. The art comes in painting the soul. With the abstracts, you have to try to give that same feeling with forms that aren't necessarily recognizable. It's hard to articulate."
She fetches the canvas she is working on. It's a deeply hued abstract in reds, embedded with various textures, with tiny metal cogs in the middle, and stenciled lettering in Latin: "Non tenaes arum totum quod." It means "all that glitters is not gold."
"I'm not sure what's going to happen with this," she says. "I love playing with the different materials; the surfaces are fascinating for me. Some days I start with not an idea in my head until I start painting, and it evolves. At a certain point the creative energy takes over. I'm a lot freer now. I learn from the paintings; I'm always learning."
Asked about her influences, she says immediately and with a sigh, "Van Gogh, Van Gogh." She also credits Matisse, whose influence you can see in whimsical figures floating in some abstracts hanging at the Mango Tango Gallery.
Carlson has exhibited widely and won several awards. For more information, visit her website.
Back Talk Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.