I sometimes interview artists in coffee shops, but this time I asked if I could see her studio and talk with her in her own space. Thank goodness I did, because talking with Carolyn Schmitz in a random coffee shop would have meant missing out on the tour she gave me of her homestead up in the pines, filled with work sprung from her busy mind. Everywhere you look there is a painting or mixed-media piece with a story, and often a message.
As Carolyn led me from room to room through the several cabins that make up the homestead, I learned of the richness of her life, much of it lived right here in Prescott, where the family moved from Kansas City in the early ‘50s. It was a gutsy move to haul a young family out west and raise kids in the pines, miles from tiny Prescott. Carolyn always loved rocks and had plenty to discover around home and on the many excursions they took to explore Arizona. Local flora and fauna populate much of her art, and I imagine she seldom comes home from a walk without some treasure or other.
The first thing I noticed when we entered her studio was rocks, from which she is building her current series for a show at the Natural History Institute in the fall. She collects rocks of varying colors and assembles them into sculptures that look like buildings. While she sometimes will paint windows on them, the rocks are architectural shapes and she only makes cuts for joints, not to shape the rocks. She assembles them with a clearly well trained understanding of design. These buildings are quiet, cold, and have a post-industrial feel to them, pointing to a dystopian future in which human industry and greed have pushed the earth too far and this is all that’s left. Carolyn has built stone churches, factories, a chemical plant and a whole city piece called Funky Town.
Much of Carolyn’s work is playful, poking fun at convention and misogyny, and often her work carries a surreal feeling. Her pieces always want to provoke you to respond. One painting in particular is familiar to those who know her work. American Icon stops you in your tracks when you see it at Van Gogh’s Ear gallery or on her website (desertdada.com). From a distance, or if you take your glasses off, you see a portrait of Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name in his signature flat-rimmed hat, poncho and cigarillo. Then you take a closer look and see that the face is actually Abe Lincoln. Abe seems about to kick some confederate ass, and our reaction is, “Whoa!” I think Carolyn enjoys poking at our expectations of what constitutes art and messaging through images.
Coming from an artsy family and having studied at the Art Institute of Kansas City, Carolyn is comfortable and productive in ceramic sculpture, painting, and many combinations of mixed media. One of her pieces, Bark Harem, has nude female figures drawn on pieces of bark she collected in the woods. She made a rule for herself that she could not cut the bark pieces but had to find the figures in each shape and draw them on the surface. She then created a three-dimensional framed space for the collection of figures to pull the piece together visually. Carolyn is constantly thinking about new pieces, but feels pulled in too many directions at once. She calls it the “curse of mixed media.” “I keep foolin’ around until I find something to settle on.” She has done many series along the way. I especially loved her Button Bakery, a collection of tiny cakes and pastries all neatly arranged in a mirrored box she and her sister made to look like the window of a bakery, made entirely from antique buttons. The dollhouse-loving child in me was pulled right in and I wished I could have acquired one of her Button Bakeries when she was making them.
Wandering through the rooms in her cabins is like wandering through Carolyn’s mind. Little dolls covered with fetishes and beads, a tall cactus, clearly decades old, with many “leftover rosaries” hanging from it, antique bottles in which she painstakingly constructed spiders made from acorn tops, pine cones, devil’s claws, seeds and twigs. And mosaic. Carolyn and her sister Linda, who lives on the other side of the big oak in the courtyard, collaborate on much of the interior of the cabins. Linda is an accomplished woodworker and mosaic artist, and built a table whose base is shaped like a blue heron, which Carolyn painted, and they then completed the top mosaic together. The mosaic work in the bathrooms is a religious experience.
“I don’t do anything that’s not fun,” shared Carolyn toward the end of the tour. After spending 30 years painting murals in Phoenix, she returned to her home in the pines and will likely never stop creating on some level. “Some people are said to be ‘larger than life’. This is not me. I feel smaller than life, just a minuscule particle coping with the forces of creation and destruction that were let loose on the universe. I am one of many focused on the beauty and mystery of our own tiny Garden of Eden. We are watching plants, animals and their habitats being turned into dust by the pressing needs of a rapidly growing human population. I don’t expect that my art can do much to change this situation, but it can make memories.”
You’ll discover the work of Carolyn Schmitz at Van Gogh’s Ear on Whiskey Row and through her website, desertdada.com.