Carly White is easy to pick out in a crowd — her red hair and bright smile make sure of that. It’s even easier to identify her as some sort of creative type, dressed as she often is in a perfectly styled, colorful mix of vintage and modern pieces, frequently accessorized with a fabulous hat. Only an artist could be so bold. It might also be easy, then, to pigeonhole her as the typically free-spirited artiste allergic to authority and anything remotely resembling a rule. But that wouldn’t be quite right.
White is an artist. She paints boldly and well, with bright blocks of color and layers of spiritual symbolism. In recent years, she’s seen commercial and competitive success: In 2022, her work “Waiting but a Little Longer” was selected in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ 12th International Art Competition, and another painting, “Faith Deconstruction,” was accepted by the Springville Museum of Art’s 36th Annual Spiritual and Religious Art of Utah Exhibition. She’s young. She’s talented. She gets better every day. And she could not do that without what she knows to be her most valuable tool: constraints. For White, constraints are the gates to creativity.
Her journey to becoming a disciplined artist might be traced back to her teacher, mentor and friend, J. Kirk Richards. In 2020, White was one of the first students invited to enroll in the JKR Academy. For White, the school was an answer to prayer. She was pregnant with her first child at the time and wondered if raising children meant putting away her paints. If she became Richards’ student, she’d be expected to be in classes just one month postpartum. Her art would face the constraints of new motherhood and new assignments simultaneously. But she knew that given the upcoming sore and sleepless nights, if she decided to paint “whenever she felt like it,” she may not feel like it for a very long time. So on the first day of class, weeks after giving birth, White showed up with her pump and her paintbrush.
And as a full-time student and mother, her work exploded. “In the time I was with Kirk and a new mom,” she says, “I made more art than I ever had before.” And “before,” she’d been a full-time artist.
At the academy, Richards focused on turning his students into creative and disciplined artists through two types of assignments. At times, White recalls, the students were asked to do things like “go outside and throw dirt on paper, use whatever material you can see, and just have fun.” At other times, they were expected to dive into the precise, theoretical science of the arts with assignments like cast drawing, precisely replicating a 3-D sculpture in their 2-D sketches. “He pushed us so hard in this direction,” White remembers. “When you think you’re finished, you have another 40 hours to go.” White and her classmates learned that being an artist is more than unrestrained originality – it is also technique and control. Recently, she repainted and redesigned a pre-JKR project. Side by side, the precision, elegance, and taste developed through careful training is obvious.
Carly White, “Plan of Salvation Through Floral Symbolism,” early version (left) and later version (right)
As a JKR Academy alumna, Carly has thought carefully about the constraints that will be useful to her career. One in particular has become fundamental. Each year, Carly designates the six months from January to June as her “creative period” in which she conceptualizes, creates, and completes her paintings. Then, from July to December, she markets and exhibits her work. One strict rule distinguishes the two seasons: No social media.
Every January, White deletes all of her social media apps and takes a forced six-month hiatus from any sort of scrolling. She is the first to admit that the initial withdrawal process is painful, but she has found that her self-imposed social media fast ultimately frees her creative mind. Without her feed, she escapes the crippling comparisons telling her she’s not good enough. She exits the echo chamber telling her to make the same art, the safe art, the art that gets likes and shares, instead of trying something new and taking creative risks. She stops being fed thoughts and starts thinking them, stops running from her questions and turns to face them. Painting is how she does it.
“I love making art about the things that are on my mind,” she says, because it “forces me to figure the question out more.” Even if she doesn’t know the answer or where to begin, through sketching, the problem begins to take fuller shape. Next, selecting colors helps clarify the feelings and emotions tangled up with the question. Then, painting provides hours and hours for mindful meditation. And when she’s done with all that, writing down everything she’s thought and learned and hoped to say with her art spells out what just happened. Finally, she shows her work to other people, asking them if the things that are on her mind are also on theirs. More often than not, they are, and White invites her new friends to look at her work and come to their own conclusions about their shared problem. Unlike some artists, she’s not particular about who imposes what meaning on her art. “Please,” she shouts, “impose your own meaning!” Sometimes it’s through these comments that she finds a new way to articulate what she was trying to say all along.
This year, White’s “creative cycle” was a bit shorter than normal: “I had a baby in January.” As a mom to a toddler and an infant, there are more demands on White’s time and energy than ever before. She loves it. “I’m obsessed with both” — the art and the babies. Instead of distracting her from her goals and passions as an artist, motherhood has made her path more clear. With so little time, it’s become easier to prioritize and hone in on what is most important.
And despite this year’s short three-month creative cycle, White still made enough art to fill her annual solo show, another example of White setting a deadline for herself which inspires rather than interrupts her creativity. This year’s at-home exhibition showcased familiar favorites from the last year, including “Waiting” and “Faith Deconstruction,” which had previously been shown at the Church History Museum and Springville Museum of Art. White also shared several new paintings, mostly dealing with interfaith, the topic that’s been at the top of her mind in the last few months.
“Drawing Compass” in particular is an excellent example of how White’s strict creative cycles, distanced from social media and one another, free her to explore new motifs in new ways. In this painting, she departs from her usual figurative work and delves into the abstract. A geometric compass is placed on an expansive plane covered with international symbols of faith: the dharmachakra or wheel of dharma from Hindu and Buddhist traditions, the Christian cross and ichthys, the Jewish Star of David, the Islamic star and crescent, the Chinese yin and yang and the Shinto torii gate. The compass’ steady leg is anchored in the center of the plane, representing an individual’s core belief, while the adjustable leg, or “drawing foot,” reaches out to draw a large circle encompassing many religious traditions and faith practices. It represents the questions White has grappled with and the conclusions she has reached — at least for now.
To survive as an artist and as a mother, White has learned to create strict boundaries separating her two lives. She’s not a mother who paints during nap time, nor is she an artist who changes diapers while the paint dries. Instead, she carves out specific chunks of time in which she is totally focused and present on her children or on her art. Of course, White misses her children while she’s working. When she’s in her studio and her husband is playing with the children, she wants to go play with them, too. But she knows that, “If I miss them for a few hours a week, I’m a better mom than if I’m with them all day, every day, and a little burnt out.” And it’s better for the boys, too: “They can’t learn everything from me. I just don’t have it all.” So for a few hours every week, Carly makes art and her boys spend valuable time with their dad, grandma, and babysitter. And when they come back together, they’re all happier than ever.
If White could pass on one piece of advice to new artists, it would be this: along with all of the art you are creating, “create pressure. As artists we can dilly-dally a lot about doing a bunch of different things. But if you create pressure, it makes you get things done.” So, try out that art class you don’t think you have time to take. Enter competitions you don’t think you’re ready to enter. “Force yourself to do a solo show even if you don’t have any art. Set a date, advertise it, and you will make art.” Create constraints. Creativity will come. You have Carly’s word.
You’ll find more of Carly White’s art at carlywhiteart.com
Candace Brown received her BA in Art History and Curatorial Studies from BYU. Raised in Utah, she is proud of the state’s extraordinary artistic community.