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Jan/Feb 2002


Life, Memory,
and Carol Ann Carter

by Rhonda Sonnenberg

A past rich in textiles infuses Carter's constructions.

Jacket, 1994; raw silk, cotton thread, buttons, miscellaneous objects; stitched.
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.

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 books."

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.

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.
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.

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 in Indianapolis.

"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.

Video still of the artist in performance from Mouth Peace, 2000.
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.

"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 life."

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 black."

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.

Bundle Drawing I, 1998; canvas, paper, tapes; 20 by 8 by 5.25 inches.
"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 stitches."

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 it."

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 it."

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 there first."

Rhonda Sonnenberg is an author and journalist living in St. Petersburg, Florida.

This profile first appeared in:

Jan/Feb 2002

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