If every experience we have in life alters the chemistry of the body and mind, good or bad, then there is the possibility that we transform, grow, heal, shed, regenerate and become something of a new material every waking day. Where we begin does not determine where we go in life. Where our creativity can bond to ideas and materials can become a unique view point. Is this something learned, nurtured or there in us, awaiting release?
Learning about Carol Es makes you think about these things. Carol is a self-taught artist living in Los Angeles County, California. She is very upfront about her difficult childhood and challenging life experiences that inform her work. Growing up in the sweatshops of Los Angeles more often working as a pattern cutter in the apparel industry than attending school, Carol was an introverted child and subsequent teenager learning to read in the public library stacks and fending for herself in life. Her family relocated continuously making it difficult for Carol to feel security or stability. Leaving home at age 14, her survival was determined by her creativity, finding work as a musician, artist and writer. For years Carol traveled as a drummer for bands touring, recording and writing music. After being diagnosed with a medical condition that made professional drumming difficult, Carol decided to stop working professionally as a musician and devote herself to making art.
Carol's work has been featured in the Getty Museum, Brooklyn Museum, UCLA Special Collections, the Jaffe Collection, and Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. She has exhibited extensively and was recently awarded the Pollock-Krasner Fellowship.
Art has been a point of redemption, healing, processing of life experiences. Her website and newsletters overflow with vitality and creative energy. She makes installations, dolls, sculptures, paintings, books, drawings and journal projects, all fervent bodies of work. Carol has fine tuned her visual language and created a volume of work that reflects a contemporaneity and shares a bond with countless artists who out of challenges and adversity use their own creativity to survive, thrive, rebuild and live beyond expectations.
Q: I was surprised but fascinated to learn that you are a self-taught artist. I am most curious about your perspective on making work. You have a very active exhibition history. You have a great studio setup for your work and work in a variety of media. You are in LA where there is a pretty terrific contemporary art scene. Having spent years as a drummer and on the road before committing yourself to visual arts, are their perspectives to being a self taught artist or going from the music industry to the visual arts, are critical to the work?
A: In my years of being a drummer, I was painting and making art all the while, although I wasn't able to exhibit much. In those years, I was slowly developing techniques capturing my voice, but it wasn't until after I walked away from music as a profession that I was really able to put my whole heart and time into art. It was only then when I could truly hone in on knowing myself. And it had to be a full time gig, just like music was. It had to be that same commitment, and I knew that.
Being self-taught in art was a lot harder however, as I wasn't a self-taught musician, which not only gives you the confirmation you need as you learn, but it catapults connections and networks. I had none of that in art and I felt literally blind. But what's good about that was that I had to rely solely on myself, and that built confidence in the work. Because if I wasn't going to believe in the work, who would? That was absolutely critical.
Q: There are a few pieces where you have deconstructed a part of a men’s shirt and systematically assembled the element in a composition almost like it is an icon. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind the piece with the blue collars and the piece with the pink sleeves with the cuffs?
A: Well, I can't tell you much about the pink sleeves piece, as that literally came to me in a dream, which is why I titled that one, "Ask the Dream." The one with the 40 blue collars is definitely a thinking piece and I can tell you about that one, since it comes from my past when I worked in the garment industry.
I wish I could say I had a fashion background, but really I worked in the apparel manufacturing side, sweatshops if you will. I admit, I had it a lot better than the immigrant workers because I worked privately with my family, but there were earlier times when we worked in Downtown at 9th and Los Angeles in the heart of the Garment District. My brother and I were too young to be working at all. I started at 11 years old. He was 14. My father could have gone to jail, but he's gone now.
We worked on the cutting room floor making master patterns for women's high fashion apparel, but it was anything but glamorous. It was a blue collar job. We'd clock in and clock out and eventually did a 40 hour week. I wasn't able to go to school after the 7th grade.
You can hardly see it, but behind the collars are time cards that I painted over translucently in darker and lighter blues. They are all filled out in white pencil so that each card adds up to 40 hours. There is also the word "Almost" written in tiny white handwriting on the middle collar, which represents a couple things. One reason is personal because all I remember was watching the clock and saying to myself, "almost" (almost break time, almost one hour to go, almost time to go home...) And the other is for the workers that put in their 40 hours every week in hopes for a better life, desperately trying to reach for the next highest rung on the economic ladder.
Q: From when you first started making work to now, do you find the emphasis on personal narrative to be shifting or intensifying?
A: I have been moving away from the personal narrative in my work, and I feel I am doing that on purpose. I want the work to be less about me now and more about the experience between the work and the viewer. This has been the case since the ladder part of my grieving the passing of both my parents, as they both died very close together a few years ago. Now I am trying to work in video where I can connect with my viewing audience in the realm of producing personal narratives. I think that medium is better suited for it. This way I can have the freedom to be more abstract and conceptual with my tangible pieces.
Q: Are there any new projects on the horizon?
A: Yes! Always!
I have been working on The Exodus Project which will essentially take me about a year. It began as a Kickstarter campaign that funded a self-made artist's residency in the high desert near Joshua Tree National Park. I stayed there for 10 days to gather preliminary work and pick up video footage that I have later taken to create art with, which I have been doing since April.
I have been working on paintings and drawings, as well as a video installation that will all exhibit next spring at Shulamit Gallery in Venice, CA.
Q: I really adore the Connected piece with the little four legged figures that are repeated over what appears to be a stretched linen canvas. The little figures in different patterned fabric swatches in varying sizes are appliquéd to the surface with the delicate strings of thread hanging. The outline of each 4-legged figure is stitched with different subtle emphasis on the edge of figure or the slight curve of the mouth illustrated with a simple single line. You feel the hand in the work and this is prevalent in many of your other pieces as well. Is this of importance to you and the experience that you are hoping for the viewer to have?
A: Yes, I would prefer this exactly, but I really do not have any expectation on what my viewers should experience. I want them to have their very own experience private to them. I will admit that I do try to put as much craftsmanship into my work as possible, but there as also a fair amount of freedom that goes with it as well. I look for a balance.
The four legged animal you see there is named Dan. He is a Non-Discript Animal that can be a cat, a dog, a bear, horse or whatever the viewer wants him to be. He appeared in my sketchbook one day when I needed intense cheering up - and there he was. I liked how he had a totally indifferent look on his face, yet he has an undeniably happy affect on people anyway.
Q: What kind of experience are you hoping for your viewer to have with you different pieces?
A: I really do not have any expectations here.
Q: The dolls are characters in and of themselves that have a strong emotive quality to them. You are pretty upfront with viewers about the life challenges that you have faced. You grew up in an apparel sweatshop in Los Angeles and in the course of family life and personal relationships there have been really difficult moments. Many artists such as Louise Bourgeois worked without abandon drawing her personal narrative and the complexities of her family dynamics into a complex body of work. Are there artists that you feel you share affinities with?
A: Yes, it's true that I am senselessly candid about my life.
I did not know too many other artists, nor was I even aware what I had been doing for a long time. It took a lot of therapy and being immersed into the art world before I "got it." Since then, now that I know her, Louise Bourgeois is a very good example, as is Rita Ackermann, Judith Scott - the Outsider artist, Eva Hesse, Charlotte Salomon, Kiki Smith, Do-Ho Suh, and I also have been following Jean Shin's work. I like that she too pulls from her family background. I've also been really liking a watercolorist named Maja Ruznic.
Q: How do you balance personal narrative and connecting with your viewing audience?
A: Balancing these two things has not been easy because I still want to do both. I lean towards telling stories. I am also a book artist, so this helps me with narrative, and like I was saying, I have been playing with video lately, and animation too, although that is very new for me. I have a lot to learn. I want to do this transition because I had been feeling that my paintings and soft sculptures were too personal, perhaps even too self-centered for people to be interested in at all. Don't get me wrong. There are people that connect to my work on a very visceral level and it is a kind of healing experience for them and for me. I am in awe when this happens and it rewards my art making ten-fold, but when it's all said and done, the work is created only for myself in a vacuum.
I want to begin to allow a conversation with the world - open myself up more and stop isolating. I think it will be more healing for me and evolve my art in a way that I don't even know about yet and have yet to experience. I am looking forward to seeing what happens in this new conversation.
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