Artist Profiles | Visual Arts

Heavy Paper: A Conversation with Carolyn Coalson

Carolyn Coalson feels another change coming on.

Best known for her lyrical works in oil on paper, the artist says she believes she is going to move to a different format after this show at Phillips Gallery. She doesn’t foresee continuing to do the paper works that she has been doing. “I had the feeling when these were done that I wouldn’t be ordering more paper.”

Of course, it’s difficult for an abstract expressionist to predict exactly what’s going to move her to create the next time she picks up a brush. And this artist certainly can’t say what she will be doing in the future.

Coalson broke with her poetic side for her still-talked-about 2007 Phillips show with ceramist Dorothy Bearnson. There were no flourishes to her pictures then, she acknowledges from her Arizona home. “I turned ‘Untitled Blues’ upside down after I did it. The drips went up instead of down. For some reason I flipped it. It confused people, but it set a tone I wanted.”

There seems to be anger in the under-painting in “Untitled Blues,” as well as something else less easily defined. Particularly if compared to the poetic “2 Blue” in her current show. There, the flourishes are back with a flourish. “I had some fun with ‘2 Blue,’ Coalson says. “It was much more deliberate than ‘Untitled Blues.’ It didn’t have connotations. I put it away and said, ‘It’s too blue, but I like it,’ then I maybe put another glaze over it and it was finished.”

Coalson says that blue is a hopeful, optimistic color while green is a healing color – and it’s a new color for this artist to use en masse as she does in “Crossing.” “I crave green. I think this painting has an oceanic quality. It is water; it is not water. I don’t have any reference for it.” She does acknowledge a second piece of paper gives a horizon to the picture. “I flipped that bottom piece over so it does look like a landscape. It makes it a very calm place to be.”

The act of painting something that isn’t there visually, of finding a harmony between a developed technique and a state of mind can be unsettling for an artist. Take Coalson’s 2010 picture “Am.” “This one was a gestalt. It just came and went. It didn’t get built up like the others. It didn’t segue between the other pieces. It just happened,” she says. It appeared spontaneously almost exactly in the middle of the paintings she was preparing for the show. Some of the emotion when she was painting for 2007 at Phillips came from the fact that her great friend Lee Deffebach lay dying in a Salt Lake City hospital. Coalson had moved from her Avenues home to Prescott, Ariz., some time before and Deffebach had only grudgingly forgiven her for leaving Utah.

She worked hard daily on a painting during Deffebach’s 2005 illness that she titled “Lift (For Lee).” She recalls talking with mutual friends about Deffebach’s situation every day. “Painting is a subconscious thing that keeps coming up. I stopped painting when Lee died because I knew the painting was finished.” An artist friend visited and said, “Carolyn, you need to put more staccato in that painting,” she recalls, and Coalson said “No, it’s done.” It’s a stellar picture.

Like Deffebach, Coalson earned her MFA when she was older than most of the students around her. She started at the University of Utah in her 40s following a divorce and years of “domesticity” and found painting to be the connection “between me and the future life and the questions of the past life. It was a metaphysical bridge between the two.”

She took the same class from Tony Smith for three quarters because she found it/him fascinating, and she learned about the glazes she uses so proficiently from Paul Davis. “He used to say, ‘Pull it up, bring it down.’ And you do it all with glazes.” She recalls discussing the subject with Bearnson at the 2007 show: “Dorothy got it with the glazes.”

A big change in her work came, Coalson says, when she stopped trying to hurry the painting process along. “I spend time looking rather than painting when something begins to emerge. There’s lots of stuff under that first thing you see, OK? That doesn’t happen hurriedly. I have to let them cure and dry and I have to look at them. I have to spend a lot of time just letting things happen and seeing what they are going to become.”

Coalson says she mixes ideas, content and intent into the pigment. “A lot of painters do this; I’m certainly not original. There’s just a history that I want to keep going back into. I go into it, paint over it, come back out of it, go into it and go back out again.”

That process creates some very heavy paper.

Sky Rider

A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She also worked for Salt Lake City Weekly and has written for such publications as Utah Business Magazine and Salt Lake Magazine.

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