The Thread That Binds Us
Carolyn King has been a practicing studio artist and teaching-artist for over 30 years. We stalked her mercilessly until she answered all of our questions. We’ll ask her more after the restraining order is lifted.
How did you become an artist?
My mom’s unfulfilled creativity was channeled through her amazing collections, including: books, photos and crafts from all over the globe. These collections stimulated me in the direction of my own creative path.
I think craft work done by hand is a cross-cultural language. All cultures speak through color and imagery: it’s a global thread. It’s personal and reflective of your culture. This is a really important language that I learned from my mother. Our family values included world travel. When I was growing up, we hosted visitors from all over the world for meals and weekends.
When did you start traveling?
I began traveling as part of a high school exchange program. I was able to live in Belgium and spend a year traveling through Europe. I was in a very meditative place at the time, practicing yoga three to four hours a day. I was inspired by the masterworks I saw, and my travels opened me to the wonders of other cultures. I felt that the art spoke to me … and I needed to respond.
When I first went to Europe, I had studied French for more than ten years, but I found that when I visited a country where they didn’t speak French or English, my visual sense and intuition kicked into a higher gear because I couldn’t filter reality using verbal language.
I began to read people, places, energy and cultures visually, so “visual art” was one of the first languages I learned. It is the thread that connects us to the human spirit. I realized at a young age that everything is relative, that all the cultures are valid and that everything is an expression of the human spirit. I eventually picked up on the verbal languages too and was able to speak in Spanish, Italian, Dutch and German.
My travels set me on my life’s path and for the last thirty years I have worked as a “teaching artist,” exploring and expressing my inner-life and helping others to do the same.
What sort of traveling did you do after that?
I’ve been doing something I call the “decade dance.” It’s where I spend a decade in Mexico, then a decade in America (California or Arizona), and then back to Mexico …
When did you start teaching?
My first teaching experience was with the Native American kids in the Canadian Yukon. I also worked with inner-city kids in Oakland when I was in my late twenties, and then founded a school in Mexico in the early 1990’s, after my daughter was born. During the summers, I worked with children from all over the world, and then some of the adults requested I teach them too, so the adult program grew organically.
When I taught in the Yukon, the kids didn’t come from a culture where the house was full of books. They were living in a different sort of orientation to the land and they did not do well in school, but they were brilliant artistically. In the West, our education system is so verbally-oriented, and kids who are more visually-oriented can fall through the cracks.
My experiences with the inner-city kids in Oakland further convinced that the human spirit speaks through the arts in way we don’t speak verbally: through poetry, music and dance. I saw all these kids who couldn’t speak the English language very well tell me what was going on with their lives through their creativity. My heart strings were pulled by kids who weren’t mainstream. They weren’t the “right” kids. They were struggling to adapt and communicate, and the visual arts allowed them to express themselves. I got hooked and became sort of a “communications midwife,” helping people pull out from inside themselves what they want to express. People hunger for a way to be with their artistic self. Part of being a teacher is wanting to get as many people to recognize what it is to be a spirit in a body, and visual art is one way to understand that.
What can you tell us about your personal art?
I have been doing personal art since I was a kid, but once I started teaching classes, people identified me as a teacher and I struggled with how to tell people that I was also an artist. I have to be in contact with the inner-workings of myself. It’s about personal healing, trying to understand myself in the world, trying to tell other people to get a grasp on what it means to be yourself in the context in which we live. I wouldn’t call it art therapy. It’s a lot of inner-exploration. My reality is revealed to me through my art. I don’t go to a canvas with a plan. I let intuition guide me. I just let it happen. When I teach art to adults, the idea is to let people build their skills so their intuition and creative energy can just happen.
Why do you call your business “Heart to Hand?”
Heart to hand was inspired by “Corazón de Niño” (heart of the child), and also “Corazón de Artista” (heart of the artist). Mexico is still a hand-work society. In America, we don’t make things by hand very much. The idea is to have the heart come through the hand.
What themes exist in your personal work, your fine art?
Color is very important. I am profoundly influenced by folk art from around the world and from my experiences in Mexico. The color in my work comes from the Mexican folk art aesthetic of deep, rich, bright color.
My journey has been through the interior: visual art as a conduit to soul reality. As you evolve as a human being, you circle around a spiral and it gets bigger and bigger. One thing that deeply concerns me is the evolution of the soul, personally and culturally. Making art is one way to experience the soul. My core deepest value is the life of the spirit. I feel that I have received the call to address the world of the spirit thorough the visual arts.
The Feminine Principle & Timelessness
The difference between “the feminine” and being a “Feminist” is that the feminine is a principle that has to do with nurturing, space, pattern, and synthesis. I don’t make paintings as a political statement of Feminism. They are more archetypal – making the point that these qualities need to be respected and honored and carried forward.
My parents had a difficult marriage. My mom was unhappy. I was looking for a different archetype of feminine energy than my mom, which I found in Mexico. Though Mexico is know for being “macho,” the dominant principle is embodied in the Virgin of Guadalupe: it’s matriarchal. Women are at the core of family life. I met women in Mexico who became role models.
My mother was a gifted visual artist but she was looking for healing and another way of being.
Mexico grounded me – chopping wood, carrying water. The spirit lives in the body. That’s what counts. We have to figure out how to make it meaningful and real, living in a body. If you look at the history of the evolution of the human spirit, it has always manifested itself through the arts. It feels like lineage, homage to the ancestors, to draw and paint and dance and drum. It connects us to all of humanity.
What can you tell us about your large paintings of women?
The “big lady” paintings started happening in my late 20’s when I attended school at JFK University. I started doing artwork for the program based on symbolism and personal growth. I was looking for a way to express internal reality in a physical form, and I happened upon a book that was large-scale Polaroid photos taken in Japan of the Japanese mafia. They were completely tattooed, except for space they left for where their shirts opened at the collars. The tattoos are deeply symbolic – related to mythology and cultural history. When I saw those images, it looked as if their skin had become fabric. I realized that a person’s inner-life could come through the skin: one’s personal symbolism could emerge. My work sometimes ends up looking like tattoos. I was working on this in the 1980s, before tattoos really exploded in popularity in America. I was also learning about goddess culture, studying mythology, and learning about matriarchal lineages in history. It all just interwove and connected for me.
What are your collages about?
The collages are about relationships. They are much more about emotions. The thread that relates this to my other works are the patterns. Pattern is the thread that connects throughout my work.
Would you say that your work is purely personal?
On the one hand you could say my work is personal, but I feel that what makes artwork reach other people and makes it resonate on a more universal level, is the fact that we are all “vibrational beings “ and color and pattern and symbolism are a language that speaks through our bodies. I feel that my work is accessible in a universal way because of this.
What is the story behind your mosaic work?
This work, which I call “community-based collaborations” has multiple purposes. First, it reinforces the idea that everyone has art in them. Second, everyone gets nourished.
I’m on the Arizona Commission for the Arts teaching roster and have done large-scale mosaics for ten years in schools, clinics, hospitals and retirement communities. I work with kids with disabilities, grammar and high school students, and adults. I am a facilitator that helps students, a technician and creativity mid-wife that helps people do their art. The imagery is created by the participants. I lead them through a process where the students create drawings and then I blow them up and help them figure out how to turn their ideas into mosaic artwork. I guide them through a process to make the tile. It’s laborious but fun.
How does your work integrate with your family life?
One of the main reason I started doing mosaic work was so I could be on the same vacation schedule as my daughter. It was critical as a single parent. I feel blessed that I figured out a way to make a living that was creative and could also coordinate my schedule with my daughter.
My daughter, Ani, is a special needs child. She is now twenty-one and is graduating from a special pilot program at the University of Arizona (Project Focus – the kids in the program do six years of high school. The first four are regular high school, and the last two are about learning to transition into the community).
Several of my collages are about parenting my daughter. I am a single mom of a disabled kid, but since everyone has challenges, I try to figure out how to express myself without it just being about my own life. I prefer for my work to be universally accessible.
What are you doing currently?
I am currently in a major life transition. My disabled daughter is leaving the structure of school; my heart is being pulled back to Mexico; I’m struggling with a sense of place. It feels like things are wrapping up.
The last series of work I did had no women in it, just pattern. I’ve been creating mandalas that are all about energy. Now I’m taking the mandalas back into the figures, that’s the next series on which I’m working. I’m currently in a more interior place. It’s scary but exciting. I have to change gears and do new things. The best work comes out of that uncomfortable place, with shifting content, letting it evolve. If you keep cranking out the same stuff, you become commercial, not authentic. Visual art is the vehicle for my soul so I have to honor when a change happens. I want the voice that comes through to be reflective of what’s really happening.
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Click on the images below to see examples of Carolyn’s work.
CAROLYN KING has been a practicing studio artist and teaching-artist for over 30 years. Originally from the Chicago-area, she trained as a print-maker at the Instituto Allende in Guanajuato, Mexico as part of her BFA studies in the 1970′s. Carolyn received a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1979. The 1980′s found her deeply engaged in study of Arts & Consciousness at John F. Kennedy University then located in Orinda, California. She received the M.A. degree in 1985. Carolyn and her daughter, Analyssa, have resided in Tucson, Az. for the past 12 years where she has worked as a free-lance ‘teaching-artist’ in schools, hospitals, clinics and retirement communities for over a decade. This work has embraced several different media including mosaics and painted murals as well as a huge range of projects like mask-making, drawing and painting, 3-D installations linked to grammar school curriculum and more. Carolyn’s students range in age from pre-school to late 80′s! Her community-based, collaborative public art projects are located in schools, Pediatric Intensive Care bedrooms, Speech & Language Clinics, retirement community patios and The Children’s Clinics for Rehabilitative Services in Tucson. Her most recent ‘public art’ project included 11 high school students who designed, created and installed hand-made mosaic tile for an extensive project for the City of Oro Valley.
See more of Carolyn’s work on her website: http://www.hearttohand.com