and Carol Ann Carter
by Rhonda Sonnenberg
A past rich in textiles infuses Carter's constructions.
In Marcel Proust's masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past,
time and experience unfold from the author's piling on of mere
snippets of daily life. In luxurious, textured sum, time lost
and time recalled are expressed through arcane objects like
the little French butter cake known as a madeleine, and testify
to the emotions and relationships of life being lived, if only
reduced to memory.
|Jacket, 1994; raw silk, cotton thread, buttons, miscellaneous
Carol Ann Carter knows all about this, in her own way, of
course. If memory did not exist, Carter would have invented
it. During her 30-year career as an artist working in fiber,
beads, paper, paint, plastic, money, dryer lint, you name
it, Carter has created a unique body of work that is at once
honest and mysterious, not unlike herself. The work is honest
in the materials she uses; mysterious in the meaning she hatches
from them. Her speech ebbs and flows between blunt description
of her deeply felt past, and cagey inference, until she is
prodded back to the honesty with which she seems most comfortable.
"I'm more internal. The past is too rich, too special, difficult,
challenging," she says.
Special, indeed. Carter faces the past by wielding the detritus
of daily life: old letters, pages from journals, paper notes
jotted down to herself, her students, her son. ("Tuesday.
Call Kim. Take box to class. Sign up grads.") She calls the
products of these stuffed wallpaper book-like assemblages
"Bundle Paintings," which may measure as much as four feet
wide and three inches deep.
"These works have to do with accumulating the material of
my everyday life, accumulating and honoring, remembering where
I've been over time. There's something about history and memory,
what went into the effort at the beginning when I was imagining
combinations or patterns. I try everything, even photocopies
of plant life, to make the swatches that become part of the
Of her own history, Carter often uses the word "fractured."
As a young black woman raised in Indiana in the mid-Sixties,
her parents, though upwardly mobile, nevertheless feared white
society and anything nonconformist. They were "from the old
school, from the South," Carter says, and tried to steer her
away from white friends and "low brow," non-European art.
But it was too late on both counts.
As a student at the Herron School of Art of Indiana University
- where she was the only non-white - and then at the University
of Notre Dame, from which she graduated with an M.F.A. in 1974,
Carter was already veering from classical styles, coloring backgrounds
on wet canvas and then scratching away the surface to reveal
pictures beneath. Hardly the method of Vermeer and Fragonard.
|Chest Piece, 1999; cotton, paper (letters, postcards,
photos, lists), pencils, leather, buttons, dryer lint,
all bound under acrylic on canvas; 11.75 by 6.5 by 4 inches.
She was drawn to textures and materials as much as to color
and line. (Nowadays she favors strong saturated warm reds
and "street-line" yellow, which connotes safety.) She liked
beads, too, but only later would lovingly recall the elaborate
beadwork her mother did on formal dresses, cast-offs from
wealthy white women in whose domestic service she worked prior
to her marriage to Carter's father. He, too, bore an appreciation
of fine fabrics; he was the first black haberdashery salesman
"Fiber was all around me. Both parents had a sensitivity
to cloth," Carter says, though she solely credits her mother's
refined taste for clothing and interior design for her own
"sensitivity to textiles, fabric, and form." Recalling her
mother's beadwork, Carter says, "It wasn't art to her; it
was decorating. This is often how native Americans and Africans
look at their handwork. They don't call it art; it's a necessity.
When I approach art, it is with my hands; the relationship
is with my inside voice, hands, and materials."
Not until 1984, however, when an $8,000 Lilly Foundation
grant enabled Carter to visit Nigeria to observe indigenous
textile weaving, did the cache of memories coalesce into artistic
purpose. Two years earlier, while Carter was teaching intaglio
printmaking at St. Mary's College, Douglas Bradley, curator
of ethnographic arts at Notre Dame's Snite Museum of Art,
discerned a similarity between the colors and patterns of
Carter's prints and African textiles, specifically men's tunics,
called agbadas. He suggested she go to Africa to see for herself.
The timing was perfect. Carter's safe upbringing had made her
feel like an orphan of the Sixties' feminist and Black Power
movements, and for several years, she had yearned to make sense
of her African heritage. The trip changed her life, though not
in any way she expected.
|Video still of the artist in performance from Mouth
"I went thinking the elders would give me insight into their
work, but they couldn't talk about imagery because they were
just following their traditions, carrying out their way of
Carter soon realized her truth lay not among the weavers,
who surprisingly worked in modern materials like Lurex (plastic-coated
metallic thread), nor in museums, nor universities, where
Eurocentric art was taught instead of African, but rather
in life being lived in the streets. She was struck by the
gross disparity between rich and poor and by the inferior
status of the Muslim women, who were prohibited from walking
in the open.
"I went in the spirit of the revolutionary Seventies, but
in 1984, I realized it was not there. My identity changed.
I walked in as Carol Ann Carter, and I was seen as someone
totally different by both Nigerians and Europeans. I was Chinese.
I was Moroccan, depending on whom I talked to, but I wasn't
In Nigeria, Carter first picked up a needle and thread. Instead
of a textile surface, however, she used canvas she submerged
in vegetable dye. But the realization that a single stitch
could be pregnant with strong emotion didn't occur to her
until a spiteful driver took her on a terrifying hour-and-a-half
car ride from Lagos to the university at Ibadan where she
had a two-week teaching stint.
"He was Nigerian and I was a woman. He was speeding and I was
terrified. He probably understood me, but he wouldn't listen
when I said 'slow down.' I sat in the back seat making compulsive
|Bundle Drawing I, 1998; canvas, paper,
tapes; 20 by 8 by 5.25 inches.
Upon her return, Carter no longer perceived herself as a
"fine artist." She discarded formal structure and began making
what she terms "mixed-media textile paintings," richly textured
pieces that used vegetable-dyed African stitching and felt
earthy and heavy. Mysteriously, the stitching reminded her
of her mother's earlier handwork. "I thought, 'My goodness.
I'm changing.' But it came naturally because I grew up with
She began tearing self-portraits she had done in college
into fragments, dyeing them and using them as raw material
to express important moments in her life. Explaining her technique,
Carter says, "I began mixing dye beds and submerging raw silk,
cotton, and paper. Then I would weave them, paint over them,
and use them to stuff or embellish other canvas surfaces."
Explaining her motivation, Carter says, "I can see in the
scratch marks, trying to get to the root of some of the pain.
Distressed surfaces are an attempt to humor it, rehabilitate
Despite her allegiance to memory, Carter kept moving forward.
She had become excited by the minimalist wood sculpture of
African-American Martin Puryear, which melds African, Swedish,
and Japanese influences, and by the monumental jute and sisal
sculpture of Magdalena Abakanowicz, and in 1994 Carter studied
in Stockholm on a Fulbright fellowship. She remains enamored
of the Scandinavians' emphasis on form and function, natural
materials, cool minimalism, and water, which produces art
she describes as "energetic, erotic, aesthetic, and practical."
Today, though the University of Kansas professor is adding
video and sound to her installations, the collaboration between
textiles and diverse media remains primary.
"Textiles hold a cherished place," says Carter. "They were
Rhonda Sonnenberg is an author and journalist living in
St. Petersburg, Florida.