Path into Art

Carla was an only child. She was raised on the north side of Chicago, in a big townhouse bustling with family. Carla and her mother and grandparents lived in the main floor apartment. Her aunt, uncle, and five cousins lived upstairs. Carla liked to paint from an early age. But she really wanted to be a dancer. However, her knees didn’t want to dance. Art was more in her genes than dancing, anyway. Her mother was an artist and made sure Carla had the best materials. “It was a magical childhood”, Carla says. 

Carla’s mother worked for Marshall Field and Company, a large department store in Chicago. When Carla was nine, they sent her mom to France and Italy for two months on a buying trip. She took Carla along. Carla first painted on location in Europe: oils on canvas in Paris and watercolor in Venice. That trip was where she really got started as an artist.

In the late 50s, Fields moved her Mother to Wauwatosa, Wisconsin where Carla entered high school.  Upon graduation she went to Kent State University in Ohio where she got her Bachelor of Fine Art with a major in painting. The art department at Kent State gave students a good foundation in art with emphasis on drawing and design. The students were not allowed to paint until they were seniors. Working from live models all those years, made the human form the touchstone of her work. It is the thing she knows well inside and out. Students were required to draw the skeleton – the muscles and bones – and know all the names. That is the root from which the tree of her later imaginative, figurative art grew. “When they finally let us paint, we practically exploded onto the canvas.” she says. She also studied art at the University of the Americas in Mexico City, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Ohio. She is a midwestern girl at her roots. 

Carla doesn’t remember a specific moment when she thought “I want to be an artist”. She was always an artist. It was what she knew how to do. For Carla, art school was for honing her skills in various mediums, gaining knowledge and appreciation of art history, exposure to new perceptions and ideas, credentials and coming of age. To be an artist would be a lifetime pursuit.

At Kent, she met her future husband, Mike O’Connor, who was planning on going into the Air Force. Mike and Carla married straight out of college. Within six months he got his first assignment from the Air Force to the “huge” city of Big Spring, Texas. They lived in fourteen different homes in twenty-two years. Still there was only one year where Carla didn’t paint; it was during the Vietnam war when Mike was gone. In the early years of her marriage Carla lugged her babies, sons Colin and Ryan, with her to outdoor art fairs. She has photos of six-week-old in a basket at one art fair. Carla’s creativity rubbed off a little. Both of her sons studied artistic pursuits in college.  One studied acting and the other music though both have gone on to other pursuits in adult life. 

The Traveling Artist and Chapters in the Artistic Career 

In the first few years after marriage, Carla kept trying to get her master’s degree. It proved impossible; they were moving so much and schools wouldn’t accept transfer credits. Because Mike supported their growing family financially, the challenge for Carla as an artist wasn’t financial, it was that being uprooted so many times she had to start over again at every new military base. It was always a challenge to find the local art store. Thankfully, art travels well.  With each move Carla worked by painting consistently and entering local shows. She had some success teaching small classes, both privately and for community colleges.  Nonetheless, it was hard to make a name for one’s self when constantly on the move.

As Carla looks back over the decades of her artistic journey, she has come to realize that there is a major turning point, or new chapter, about every twentieth year. One of those chapters happened in 1986 when they moved to the Pacific Northwest.  Carla says, “Even though I was working and exhibiting and entering shows nonstop, we didn’t have any real roots. When we got to the Pacific Northwest, Mike and I agreed to stop.” For Carla, these local roots are necessary to build a reputation as an artist. She reflects on that process of being local in this way: “Building reputation, you start local and enter shows, make friends, win prizes, and lose those friends. Then you move to the regionals, then nationals, then eventually to the internationals. At each step people begin to recognize your work and if you win an award along the way so much the better. It all helps gain recognition and to open many new career doors.  

Nationally Known Workshop Teacher

Carla’s artistic training, natural, gracious and thoughtful teaching style; analytic approach to creativity; unique imaginative approach; and comfortability with travel launched her into teaching as a popular instructor. Carla was never formally taught to be an instructor. When she started to get her work out in the Northwest people wanted to know how her work was done. She began to analyze how each painting got to where it is. She feels that analyzing the artistic process on her own helped her become a better teacher than if she had a teaching degree. She designed unique lessons based on tapping into one’s imagination and uniqueness. It was inspiring to her to learn that 25 students given the same instructions would produce 25 interpretations. She always felt that she learned 25 times what the students learned.

Carla was much in demand. She laughs, “for the first twenty-two years I took Mike to the airport but for the next twenty-five years he took me.” Her workshops built on themselves. Carla points out that she was fortunate to be a part of the workshop heyday, the precomputer era, in the 1980s. Art students back then had to physically go to an art class or workshop. The workshops were a very special experience. Someone else at the hotel would make your bed and cook your meals so you could immerse yourself in painting all day surrounded by like-minded people talking about nothing but art. People’s history mattered less than the creative process they were in. “I’m married and have three kids,” might be the only thing you hear of their personal lives before returning to the subject of art. “That’s the best part of a workshop and the nicest gift to give yourself.” Carla says! 

There were adventures at those workshops too. Like one time in Italy. They were painting plein air on location and the police came up and started asking questions. Artists in Europe need licenses to paint commercially and exhibit on the scene with students. Apparently, Carla looked pretty “professional” working outside with her travel easel.  The police questioned them about what school they were with and what hotel were they staying at and where were their passports and all sorts of things. It turned out they made the front page of the local newspaper when the workshop sponsor raised a fuss! “Everyone thought that we would be hauled off to the Italian pokey!” The workshop participants came home with a good story to share.  

Art Philosophy and Personality

Carla has come to her own philosophy of art over the years. It is one that fits her personality. She is an organized person. She doesn’t work in the studio until her house is in order. If things get too cluttered while painting, she has to stop and straighten up before starting again. Chaos and confusion hinder her mind. Thinking, tapping into imagination, relinquishing control to the process are very important to Carla. She thinks a lot and urges students in her workshop to be aware while they paint. She notices, when students start to daydream or get distracted, that a little redirection is in order. However, that does not mean that Carla approaches art from only a rational angle. Her philosophy relies much more on imagination and the creative process. She doesn’t see the final painting in her mind. She says, “that isn’t art. It’s just copying what I’ve envisioned.  I want to get challenged and frustrated in the process. I don’t want to know what it will look like beforehand.” For Carla, the painting process doesn’t have a clear end. She waits to judge a piece “finished” because she might see something she wants to change or refine or continue to develop. “We think we have to get to the end too quickly.”

Studio and Material

While Carla has done lots of plein air painting, most of her work is done in her studio. For many years that studio was a little closet with French doors, 3 feet deep. They put a board to work on in the closet and Carla spread out in there. She could close the closet and keep the kids from the paints. When they moved to Washington thirty years ago, she was spoiled in her Gig Harbor dream studio of 625 square feet over their two-car garage. Mike and Carla now live in Olalla, just north of Gig Harbor. Her new studio is smaller, but is peaceful, warm, and quiet and a has a lovely view of the woods. Carla’s unique rational-imaginative watercolors take shape there. 

She prefers to work on hot press paper, which is smooth, compared with the cold press paper, which has a texture to it. Her simple reason: “I love textures in the paintings and it is easier to make rough texture for a rock on a smooth surface than to make the cold press paper look smooth. In the last few years there are some new products of clayboard panels that are put on deep cradles that do not require frames or glass.” Carla has mixed feelings about the panels. They do give you freedom with how you paint because watercolor works on them beautifully, but when finished they require time to seal them.

Lessons

Carla strongly believes in using your imagination otherwise it will leave you. “Strive to be original” is her mantra! What is your song or voice? What are you trying to say? Art is a very personal thing for her. When you are worried about sales, you get away from the original purpose of art. How you see life and your perspective and your place in it is what you should be painting.

In one of the many articles written about her, Carla gives a picture of the creative process an artist should enter and allow: “There are moments of complete surrender and absolutely uncontrolled events. An artist can either throw up their hands and give up or be excited by the prospect of figuring out a solution to what appears at first to be a total mess. Here is the chance to lift or scrub out a shape and see what is texture underneath. One can always paint it back on. But it might be the hint of your first masterpiece in the making. I do try to stay focused on what is happening at the moment, adjusting, and reacting to what the painting is trying to tell me.” (Creative Catalyst interview, October 23, 2018)

Mentors

Carla list of mentors include wonderful contemporary teachers and some of the masters. Her favorites are Nicolai Fechin for combining abstract with the figure; Milton Avery for color and shape making; Edward Manet for beautiful figures; Edward Vuillard for complicated patterns. She studied with Frank Webb from Pennsylvania and George James from Southern California and other watercolor masters. 

On Watercolor

Carla was classically trained in oils. She moved to acrylics on canvas and then to acrylics on paper. When they were stationed in St Louis, she met David Hares, a watercolorist, and loved his paintings. Carla then switched to watercolors for many years. She then discovered gouache which is transparent watercolor pigment with ground marble or chalk. It takes the paint and allows it to sit on the surface instead of soaking into the paper. Gouache gave Carla great freedom in lifting the paint off and creating a huge variety of new textures. It has different properties than watercolor. It dries darker than watercolor and tends to be softer in hue. It can be painted similar to oils by layering and opaqueness which brought Carla full circle, back to her original training in oil. Carla emphasizes that gouache is not for covering up mistakes!

The Joys and Struggles of Watercolor

Carla does a great deal of exhibiting and competitions. This keeps her sharp and striving for improvement in her art. The downside is, of course, that the reject slips keep coming and she says, “that can smart sometimes. Even at your best at the top of your game you can still get them.” Nevertheless, the joys of getting in are wonderful and worth the rejections.  For Carla, art is a passion: “I just can’t not do art. Whether in a sketchbook or painting I have to paint and I get cranky if I’ve gone too long without creating something.” 

Legacy

Carla hopes that over the thirty years of workshops she was able to help someone I their creative journey. Besides her legacy of encouraging the imagination and unique voice of other artists, Carla has carved out quite a bit of renown for her own work, from coast to coast. She is a signature member of the American Watercolor Society (AWS), based in New York, and of the National Watercolor Society (NWS), based in Los Angeles. 

These are top tier watercolor societies that are incredibly hard to become a signature member in. For example, in the AWS show five jurors that have to agree to accept you. You have ten years to get into five shows to get signature status. Carla’s eyes light up when she tells how her mom and she were both accepted in the 1996 AWS show. Her mom, who loved to paint but was a working single mother, started entering art shows after she retired. One year she got into the AWS show and so did Carla. It was the first time ever, before or since, that a mother and daughter pair were accepted in the same AWS show. 

Perhaps Carla will be known most for how, in her creative and instructional works, she brought the right side, the imagination, and the left side, the analytic, of the brain together. Her fascination with how the brain works meets with her imaginative, creative process. We are all thankful that the little girl who wanted to dance instead became a painter. The world is a more creative place because she did. 

If you are interested in purchasing one (or more) of the watercolors Carla displayed at the 2020 Vintage Watercolorists of Washington show, contact Jason Dorsey (j.dorsey23@gmail.com or 317.209.6768).

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