It all started with the proclaimed “Year of Yes.” In 2013, artists Carra Garza and Kari Englehardt were both motivated to make a change in how and where they created their work. With an open-ended directive of saying “yes” to opportunities, Garza and Englehardt retooled their studio practices.
The acquisition of studio space was next. The two found a wonderful old house on Olmos Drive that needed some attention but had lovely light and a happy vibe.
Part of the work done on the house came in the form of an urban meadow in place of the studio’s front lawn. The native wildflowers and grasses, which attract all forms of pollinators, has since become a tiny bio-community. The artists’ observations of the meadow served as the genesis for ROOTED: Fieldworks from the Meadow, their shared exhibit, which opens Jan. 7 at REM Gallery.
Much like the exhibit shows each artist’s take on the same phenomenon, the following interviews – conducted separately from one another – reflect Garza and Englehardt’s individual responses to identical questions.
Tracy Lynch: Looking back on your life, what was the point where you just knew that you wanted to be an artist?
Carra Garza: That would have been when I was probably 4 years old … I was very, very little. I remember my parents were at a party and they didn’t know what to do with me, so they basically put me in a corner with paints. I made a self-portrait. I remember being very quiet and very engaged in that process.
The world fell away. I wasn’t interested in playing with the other kids, I wanted to be in that moment making my own little self-portrait. And I did. Of course my parents loved it because I wasn’t bothering anybody. I was totally and completely happy. So that was the first time, and I knew that there was something to that, something very wonderful about that feeling. And I always wanted it.
That was the feeling… me with my work. That was it.
TL: The encaustic work that you are doing now is a departure from the B&W darkroom based photography that you’ve done in the past. How did this evolve?
CG: I’ve always been a bit of a dabbler. When I was printing my still life photographs I always wanted to try to make them appear more three-dimensional. Not that I couldn’t do that with the darkroom process – because I could – and I felt like I did that very well. But I remember thinking that it would be really wonderful if I could find another way to present my work.
My subject is nature and certainly that ground has been covered. The challenge is to create a fresh experience. I never intended to like encaustic; as a matter of fact I wanted to focus my energies on other photographic processes. But I did.The wonderful thing about wax medium is that its translucency allows for a certain layering of information. In one respect those aspects are related to what I was doing in the darkroom anyway, I was doing that with my photographs. I didn’t realize how much I was.
Removing the camera was very liberating. I’ve been working with the 4-by-5 field camera and the mechanics of always having to go somewhere, or everything always being scheduled, so many other factors always controlling the outcome. I sort of stumbled on this as a way to continue, a way to stay engaged. I felt like I was getting overwhelmed with balancing darkroom time, with work and family, and my heart wasn’t in it even though I love the darkroom very much. I was getting away from it and I thought, “Let me play without a camera and see where it goes.”
I’ve had an enormous amount of fun experimenting with the meadow and old darkroom paper. It is playful. Collage is playful. That’s what I love about it. I fell into this process, and it was seamless as art making should be.
TL: I would like to talk about process: What is the journey from the genesis of your idea to the finished piece?
CG: Well, it’s quite a journey. The process started initially with moving into this space when Kari first had the idea of putting a meadow in front of the studio. I thought that was wonderful. So this meadow comes up in the spring and it’s a riot of color and wildflowers and with that comes this life.
We have the city around us and then in front of the studio we have this completely different world of insects, birds, lizards, and even little frogs. In the morning I would watch birds fly out of the meadow, and in the afternoon I would watch them fly in. I could chart how the seasons were coming. I knew when the wildflowers were dropping their seeds by how many birds we were getting. There were an enormous amount of butterflies and the place was busy and teeming with life.
About that time, I was researching digital negatives for cyanotypes, and I stumbled on this process of making lumen prints. A lumen print is a photogram process where an image is placed on expired black and white paper and exposed to sunlight. Unlike a traditional photogram, it does not require a darkroom or developing chemistry. Well, here we have this meadow and as for old darkroom paper – God knows we have plenty of that at the Southwest School of Art, right? We have bins of that stuff.
I guess you could say this is where it started: me not wanting to see old photo paper go to waste. Why don’t I play with what I can do with regular old photo paper and plants from the studio meadow?
The beauty of it is, all the wildflowers react differently based on their cell structure, coloration, time of day, type of paper, and length of exposure time in the sun. I had to play with timing and different papers. There was a lot of experimentation. Ultimately my exposure times were anywhere between an hour and a half to three hours. Ultimately this work deals with time, and there is something that happens within that time period. There is a shift in the plant as it’s being exposed and breaking down, it’s constricting and moving. It’s also reacting to the old paper, most likely to the additives in the paper that are unstable. After exposure, the images were scanned, fixed, and printed. From there I collaged them, and I added layers of wax and pigment on top to control contrast, to make them sing a little bit more.
To me what’s beautiful about photography is the detail. And in some respects, I’m obliterating detail. I needed work where detail isn’t what you’re looking for; instead you’re looking for the essence of something and the specifics are insignificant. If I wanted the detail, I’d get myself back in the dark room and be using a 4-by-5 camera. This is different; this is the essence of a form. It is the essence of a wildflower.
TL: What is the work about for the show at REM Gallery?
CG: This work is really a play of opposites. It’s black and white. It’s about light, time, and energy. The work is about the power of sunlight, what light means to me as a photographer – its presence, and its absence too. When you make the photogram you are, in fact, making something more like a two-dimensional object. You’re creating a handprint. I love that. These are so much made by nature; I almost do not make them. There is so much of a happy accident in the creation of this work. I orchestrate it, I control the composition, but the rest is all the sun, and I think there is a tremendous amount of power and wonder to that. It makes me think of photography in its purest form. And I needed that and I needed to be brought back to that. I needed to be reintroduced to that. It’s light drawing and that’s exactly what these are. These are drawings of light.
TL: Looking back on your life what was the point when you just knew that you wanted to be an artist?
KE: Intrinsically, I have always known that I was creative. I looked at things from a different perspective. When presented in grade school with an object, I would think, “I wonder what this would look like upside down? I wonder if we had two of them? What would it be like inside out?”
When I was 9 years old, my father was diagnosed with an aggressive terminal cancer and I was overwhelmed with how to handle my emotions. Ultimately, I decided to make a painting of his boat, the Brigadoon. His sailboat was incredibly special to him and I somehow knew it was the only way I could truly express how I was feeling, how I could cement some type of lasting connection between the two of us. Not that I had a sophisticated thought process at 9, but I innately knew that I could express myself on canvas in a way that I could not articulate.
So, I made him a painting of his boat that was buried with him. To this day that connection with him feels very permanent and very alive at the same time; it will always be there as something I did just for him. From that experience came this knowing sense that I can express myself more intimately and directly through art.
TL: What sparked your interest in working in the encaustic medium?
KE: Encaustic has an incredible flexibility within the medium that allows for a myriad of adaptations through the process. This ability to manipulate the medium to express an artistic voice is very appealing. I was living in New York and our lives were very stressful. I found that I was painting as a salve, a positive outlet. About the same time, I was exposed to encaustic through the work of other artists such as Dusty Griffith, Tony Hernandez, Joanne Mattera and Nash Hyon. Something that their work had in common was their surface treatment. Their work has this beautiful organic surface; a luminescence and layering that I was not experiencing in oil paint. I was drawn into this contemporary use of such an historic medium.
It was Nash Hyon who taught me the process working one on one in her Connecticut studio. There was definitely a learning curve, but I was hooked from that first experience.
TL: I’d like to talk about process: What is the journey from the genesis of your idea to the finished piece?
KE: I feel there is truth and authenticity in that moment of inspiration. To generate an idea and how to express it is uniquely yours. This does not mean, perhaps, it is something that has not been done before, but when you come up with an idea directly, it’s impossible for it to be anything but yours, truly yours. And going from that moment of inspiration to finished work for me is this incredibly circuitous, pinging experience.
There is no direct line. There is success and failure. There is frustration. In my mind, I can see the work finished, and it’s amazing. What I wish I were, and what I’ve always wanted to be, is a methodical person. An artist who took an idea, articulated it first verbally through journaling, then sketching and then working out the concept visually. Maybe then moving to some studies, and from those studies to, like, you know, more finished work.
But I don’t do that. In a moment of hyper excitement, I pull the panel out and I start working immediately on what I deem to be the eventual finished piece. Is it a particularly academic approach? Probably not, but the fun is in all those left turns that create something in my hand and voice. All that working and reworking is maddening as I physically ping-out and journey towards completing a piece.
TL: What is the work about for the show at REM Gallery?
KE: For REM, this body of work is titled Rooted. It is a cataloguing and visual appreciation of the tiny meadow we created in front of our studio. The intention for the meadow was to create a place of native wildflowers and grasses for the pollinators. A little bio-community that seemed to belong within it’s own sense of place and natural habitat. Eventually, what I observed was time. The meadow had its own sense of time, a natural time. This relationship between time and place fascinates me. Among the constant change and chaos of our everyday experiences, there is something reassuring about these native wildflowers – their unchanging individuality.
In a continuation of my previous two series, which incorporated rust as an articulation of time, this body of work allows rust to represent time, both measured and natural.
It also reflects the tension between the man-made environment and the natural environment. I found the patterns from perforated steel sheets, auto transmission plates, and steel security mesh to be the perfect beginning point. Using rust relief prints of these patterns as the visual substrate, I began quickly capturing and cataloguing the essence of form and shape of the wildflowers in ink.
In doing this, I am looking for the unique shapes and forms of the individual flowers; balancing the composition between figuration or representation and abstraction. If you observe a Bluebonnet , it is beautiful. If you really look at a Bluebonnet, the shape of each bloom and leaf and the way it connects to the plant is beautiful. It is inherently and radically different from an Indian Paintbrush or an Evening Primrose or an American Basket Flower; each of them are such a wonderful expression of form.
In finishing with an encaustic surface, I am able to play with physical depth, introduce complexities of color within the blackish forms and allow just some of the rust relief print to show through, thereby keeping the natural plant form as the primary focus.
I hope that somebody viewing the work would be able to worm out that sense of time, the organic quality, and sense of place. That these ideas would be evident in the material choices I’ve made and that it would be evident in the way I have approached the subj