Finding inspiration in the world around her and her own life experiences, Carol Larson creates fiber art with layers, depth and intimate imagery. Through her work, she is a visual storyteller who finds peace in the creative process.
Why textiles? How did you get started?
I learned to sew my own clothing at age 11. It fascinated me that a flat piece of tissue paper would yield a 3-D garment to fit my growing body. As I matured my interest expanded into weaving my own yardage, designing wearable art and knitting.
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Because I am tall, people often stare at me, so I decided to give them something to look at! I designed clothes that were fun, quirky, and conversation starters. I transitioned from functional to non-functional art 20 years ago. While I have added vintage linens, hand-stitching and screen-printing to my tool box, I never really considered working with any materials other than fiber. I love the texture, feel, comfort and manipulability of cloth.
Who are your mentors, and how have they influenced you?
Frida Kahlo’s determination greatly influenced my work in that she had an illustrious art career while coping with debilitating physical pain and challenges. I have lived with decades of pain and mobility issues, and have often felt if she could do it, so can I.
Two other women have had a huge impact on my life and art. Handweaver Anita Luvera Mayer demystified the rules & regimentation I learned as a child growing up in the 1950’s. She imparted great wisdom about self-worth and body image; which I was sorely lacking at that time. She taught me that everyone wants to be tall, so to make the most of it. She was the first person who really challenged me to think outside the box, to be myself, to be outrageous, to be whomever I longed to be without regard to what others would think! Can you even imagine not caring what people think (gasp!) It was as if someone opened the door and turned on the lights.
Another mentor has been Marion Coleman, the most generous-of-spirit artist I have ever met. Shortly after we met she became my mentor for the Tall Girl Series. I recognized in her a woman who gets things done, and knew I might need encouragement to tell such a difficult story. She did not disappoint! Her philosophy that when one succeeds, we all succeed has been such a tremendous gift to my artistic growth. She continues to inspire as last fall she was awarded a 2018 NEA Heritage Fellowship. What began as a mentorship has evolved into a cherished friendship.
Much of your work is topical. What issues inspire you to create? How does your work tell stories?
I am inspired to create stories on cloth about current events, historical, cultural, women’s and aging issues. Most recently I have been motivated by climate change and the glut of plastics in the ocean. What began as my own awakening has morphed into a bit of an obsession!
Extending my voice beyond my art, I post about single-use plastic on social media, confront merchants about their overuse of plastic packaging and refuse it myself when I shop. It is shockingly pervasive; why must every consumable be encased in plastic, cellophane or clam shells? It just makes no sense.
In the work about plastic in the oceans, I have stitched my own plastic waste to the textile. It’s a bold move, but someone has to do it! This reaches out and says to the viewer…. Please think about what you buy, and how will you eventually get rid of it? THINK!
Anita Mayer’s early words of who cares what people think nudged my first narrative series. I grew up in an authoritarian household, where it was verboten to express an opinion, let alone speak about anything personal or controversial. When I was surgically shortened as a teenager, I was forbidden by my father to talk about it, and didn’t for five decades.
The Tall Girl Series: A Body of Work was my debut as a storyteller. I began to write my story, not really considering what I would do with it. The burden of carrying this story, in silence, had become too great. I was beginning to suffer painful physical challenges due to long-term effects of the surgeries and I needed to talk about it.
I typed 23,000 words, then changed the fonts and screen-printed the text onto cloth, which led me to designing quilts of the individual stories. With the cryptic font, my father would not be able to read what the text actually said. It seemed like a win-win to me! Eventually he did see the cloth, and not knowing what it actually said, told me how he was impressed by the layering of these words on cloth; and how pleased my deceased mother would have been to see what beautiful work I was making!
I continued on, creating 23 quilts in five years, about the individual memories and also self-published a book. The Tall Girl series exhibited in six venues, including university galleries and the National Quilt Museum. The work healed my broken spirit and ignited my storytelling. As the work traveled from exhibit to exhibit, I would often hear from viewers who saw it. My story resonated with so many people, of all different backgrounds. Everyone has a story, and many of them are not pretty. Once I got past my own healing, I bore witness to how my story impacted others which then became the greatest gift to me.
How important is text in your work?
Text creates depth in my work. The layers of letters draw the viewer in. It doesn’t really matter if it is legible or not, as I know what it says! My intention always is to make it semi-legible as I think it makes the work more visually interesting.
In my most recent series Defining Moments I wrote the story of my own campus rape. I really did not want the entire world to read this deeply personal, long-repressed story. And yet the inspiration was my deep anger at the lenient sentence given to a Stanford swimmer convicted of campus rape. I felt it important to share my own story in reaction to the judge’s decision.
I screen-printed the text in three layers, in white, bright red, and dark red, on white cloth, to represent my lost virginity. One can read bits and pieces of the story, but overall not. The text layering also made it difficult to photograph, but my intention was met, to tell my story while simultaneously not gutting myself for the art. Perhaps the most challenging part was being interviewed live and discussing my own rape. I learned an important lesson, in that sometimes, the art must speak for itself.
What do you hope viewers will gain when they encounter your work?
We need to know more about other people’s stories as it engages community, empathy and compassion. Social media is great for a snapshot into someone’s day but really what do we know about our valued contacts?
When people encounter my work, my hope is they stop for a moment, put down their phone, and consider the story I am telling, as well as think about their own. How could they express their own story in a meaningful way? If you consider every person acting out is doing so as a result of their own experiences, the potential impact of creative storytelling is mind-boggling. We could achieve world peace through storytelling!
What do you learn about who you are through your art?
Just the process of telling a story can be life-changing.
To give you an example, I grew up in a white suburb of San Francisco. The civil rights movement was the background of my teen years. Yet I was unaffected, ignorant of the struggle, and to me it was just noise on the TV. Only when designing work for the Defining Moments project with my colleague Marion Coleman, did I begin to think about that period in my life; and to question, where did I stand and how did I react? I drew a blank. My recollection was more about superficial things, such as clothes, boys and hairstyles.
To fully examine and acknowledge that as a teenager I did not know much nor care about the civil rights movement, other than what I heard from the nightly news, was incredibly embarrassing and humbling. This excavation work made me feel as though I owe a huge apology to my African American friends for my naiveté at a time that was so important to them and, sadly, still so relevant today. So I’ve learned that we have the ability to change the narrative, to contemplate other ways of thinking, being, doing, speaking, reacting. And as a result of this effort, I learn more every day about the world and my place in it.
I’ve also learned that I am most at peace when I am making something in the studio, hand-stitching or painting cloth in the basement. What drives my work is the challenge of researching an idea, then figuring out how to best convey the message.
If we asked a good friend of yours to describe your style, what would they say?
I actually asked one! She said…”Your work is unique as you are a truth teller. You share your observations, whether autobiographical or in response to current events. People can identify with your work which promotes empathy. You tell the truth!”
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
I have three rooms dedicated to my art. My husband designed my sewing studio initially as a weaving studio, with cubbies for yarn, now fabric, and a closet with storage for my machines and tools. There is also a 4×8’ design/cutting table, a design wall, music, tv, iron, and sewing space.
In the second room, I have a mid-arm sewing machine and office space where I perform the essential left-brain business of a professional artist. In the basement, I have a wet studio for designing cloth, as well as a photography area for shooting my work. It helps me to have these specific areas so I can fully engage the purpose of each space.
Are there indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
My greatest tool is the Juki sit down mid-arm machine. As my work grew larger and more detailed, it became too stressful on my body to stitch on a domestic machine. It is now such a joy to stitch my work with ease. Another favorite tool is an overhead projector for tracing my designs onto freezer paper.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, movies? What kind?
I listen to a variety of music…Pink Martini, Leonard Cohen, Blind Boys of Alabama, Andrea Bocelli, Eric Clapton, Alicia Keys, Chris Spheeris, Willie Nelson, classical, bluegrass, etc. I have over 100 CDs and there is also Pandora. I also will ‘watch’ a movie now and then, but mainly I am listening to it.
When you begin to create, do you visualize the finished piece? Or does the work evolve?
I visualize the design but it takes on a life of its own quite quickly. When I make a freezer paper template, I seldom use it in its entirety. When I am stuck, and can’t start at all, I will sew fabric scraps together making a long strip. With Defining Moments, I sewed these in several colorways before I started the actual series.
Techniques? What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
When I started out, I worked mostly abstract and my signature was a freehand-cut curved line. Today it is more likely the layering of text is my signature. I have designed several series this way.
My series Keeping Up Appearances is based on a book of 1950’s etiquette, which presented social behavior norms. I obtained permission from the author’s literary trust to use this material and have so far designed 15 pieces using vintage linens. The collaged words are rules or customs such as not giving boys names to girls; not eating candy at one’s job, or smoking on airplanes or in the office. It was all about appearances and caring what other people thought, thus the series title.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people – or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I believe everyone has the creative gene. A lot of people say they don’t, or that someone else in the family “got it”, while they didn’t. But something as simple as a signature can be highly creative, doodling in staff meetings is creative, cooking without a recipe is creative. Everyone has it, but definitely must nurture for it to grow.
What are your earliest memories involving your own creative expression?
The most famous is my writing my name in my aunt’s red lipstick on her bathroom wall when I was 5. As a pre-adolescent I loved paint-by-number oil kits, cooking, sewing my clothes, solving puzzles, playing Scrabble and scouting. We learned different skills, then got pretty badges which we sewed on a sash. Scoring more badges was my life goal at age 11.
Tell us about a difficult piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
Much of my work has been autobiographical, so there have been several.
In the Tall Girl Series: A Body of Work, I made a piece about who decided that I have the shortening surgery. My parents had always said it was my decision, yet, as an adult I could not understand that. At 17 I was too young to sign the surgical consent form. I designed the piece using both my parents’ image and my own; in other words, equally dividing the responsibility. I screen-printed their image in blue on the background and my image in red as a question mark. It was very graphic, and took me months to make, despite its simplicity in design.
I designed another about my mother for Defining Moments that was also challenging. As I was designing it, I felt she had a rather privileged life having a black domestic come to clean the house and help with the ironing. Only after finishing the piece, did it occur to me that she nearly single-handedly raised three kids while my father was away on business. So, praise her for having the presence of mind to know she needed help with the house! That piece actually gave me a better understanding and appreciation of her role as my mother.
I have worked out many of my family of origin issues through my art. As for obstacles, I just powered my way through them. The only evidence of struggle was how long it took me to complete those pieces, which was often months longer than normal. The lack of evidence is I have no unfinished work!
How do you define success? What is the biggest challenge you face professionally?
I define success as finding joy in one’s chosen work. So it does not matter to me what a person does, or even how much education they have. But are they happy doing whatever it is that they do?
I am both blessed and grateful to be doing this work at this time of my life. So I am living what I believe is my destiny, experiencing personal success by telling stories in art. The biggest challenge for me professionally is to keep my focus on my own work. It is good to view the work of others and congratulate them on their successes, but comparison is deadly. Competing is outer-focused; creating is inner-focused. This quote sits above my desk and is an important reminder for my artistic growth.