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Artist Carolyn Dahl with a few of her paper bowls and a partial view of her painted silk wall hanging, Galaxy Storm. (Photo – Kevin Douglas West)

Houston Artist And Poet Carolyn Dahl Fills Her Life With Inspired Accomplishments

Interview by Mara Soloway

It’s rare that Carolyn Dahl creates artworks with muted colors. The vibrant hues she uses for her artistry are inspired by the first box of crayons she received as a child growing up in rural Minnesota.

“I think I became an artist because of dimestore crayons. When I saw the rows and rows of colors, I was in awe. I colored all day long when I had the chance,” Dahl said.

Dahl is a successful and prolific artist, author, poet, teacher and lecturer. Many of her ideas come from the journals she’s kept since she was 11. She has written two books about transforming white fabric with numerous techniques using paint and dye, and one about making prints from nature (first and second editions of Transforming Fabric and Natural Impressions). The books contain many photographs of her colorful creations. She is also an award-winning poet and the co-author with Carolyn Florek of The Painted Door Opened, a book of their poetry along with their artwork.

Dahl has been a featured artist on HGTV and PBS programs. She has also presented workshops and lectures across the U.S. and Canada on surface design, nature printing and creativity. Her artworks have been exhibited in museums such as the New Orleans, Mint and Santa Fe museums, and galleries in Houston, Los Angeles and other U.S. cities and in Europe. Her commissions and collections are found in Houston, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere.

A nature lover, she also raises monarch butterflies by safely keeping the caterpillars in the kitchen until they hatch.

Dahl knew at a young age she wanted to be a creator. “I wanted to make things – that’s all I knew in my definition of myself.” But having a career as an artist seemed like an impossibility because she believed you could only be an artist if you could draw realistically. Although there were no art classes in her small town school, she did have two creative influences in her childhood: her paternal grandparents. Her grandfather spent the long winters carving animals and birds from wood. Her grandmother worked with textiles – weaving rag rugs from old clothes and hooking rugs from stockings she dyed herself.

“They were interested in having beauty in everyday things. I remember drying dishes with intricately embroidered towels that might have taken most of the winter to stitch,” Dahl said. That family love of creating something that held the spirit of the maker ­– and knowing that the processes could be time consuming – are part of what formed her own philosophy toward art.

While she can finish a drawing in a week or two, Dahl might spend months on a textile work, especially because everything in her studio starts out white, or blank, which excites her. “I begin with unadorned fabric and add the color, pattern and texture myself. I love the moment when color stains the surface,” she said. “I never tire of it.”

Dahl works mainly in fiber, which can be fabric or paper made from cotton or other plant materials.

In her silk hanging Carolyn’s Cows Break Loose at the Dance, she pays homage to the little wooden cow her grandfather carved for her as a child. Dahl uses her grandfather’s original paper template of the cow shape to create different configurations of it: cows gathering, cows separating into pieces and dancing in a conga line, some doing the cha cha, others aspiring to ballroom elegance, or acrobatic and break dancing. “They have a great time. But they have to be home for milking so they start reassembling into their normal shapes and arrive home before the farmer misses them,” Dahl said.

The work is an example of the multi-layered process she uses to create her large resist paintings on silk. The 6-foot-high by 3.5-foot-wide panel began as a drawing on paper of the same dimensions. Once the design was completed, she laid the silk on top of it and used a resist to trace over the drawing. Then she prepared her dyes. She said her vision of those early crayon colors affected her color choices. She didn’t use formulas for the colors, but intuitively mixed the dyes as if by memory. After she slung the fabric horizontally, like a hammock, she painted the colors into the open areas outlined by the resist.

Cows seem to have been important to her during her childhood. The cows on her maternal grandparents’ farm, which she found to be sweet and tender creatures, were the first audience for another of Dahl’s talents: her singing abilities. When it was discovered she had a good voice in fourth grade, her artistic desires took an interesting detour. She began performing in school operettas, state contests, and was chosen to sing on the national TV show, The Ted Mack Amateur Hour. She earned a music scholarship from the University of Minnesota and after graduation moved to New York City where she worked for 10 years as a professional singer and actress.

Dahl said, “I didn’t make a conscious decision when young to go into theatre as my first career – it was fate that moved me toward it because I had been given the ability to sing.”

But her desire to make art never disappeared. While her fellow actors would go out after performances, Dahl often went home and created things – she painted, knitted, crocheted and drew, but she still didn’t think of herself as an artist. After traveling to California to perform, she decided to remain in the Bay Area and started taking art classes. “They gave me confidence and opened up something that had been quiet in me for a long time.” Around the time her future husband, Thomas Perry, was transferred to Houston, she decided to get serious about art and enrolled in two college study programs in Florence, Italy for a year. Among other things, she learned the European method of portrait drawing. In a studio with northern light and a live model, the class practiced drawing one pose for several weeks, learning the delicate shadings and proportions of the human face. By the time she left Italy, Dahl felt she had finally become a real artist. “Having that credential of proficiency in drawing gave me enough confidence to follow my own path – to create from my imagination,” she said.

Returning to Houston, Dahl continued painting on canvas and cloth and drawing, occasionally going to New York City to study at the Parsons School of Design and the Art Students’ League. She began meeting other artists and exhibiting widely. She credits the Houston International Quilt Festival for allowing her to support her career in textiles. She showed her work in their exhibitions, scheduled workshops in other states, and met all three of her book publishers at their markets. “I was able to have a career and support myself teaching for 25 years all over the country. I was very lucky, and I’m very grateful,” she said.

In tandem with her artistic success, her writing talents have also earned recognition. Her nonfiction work brought her a PEN Texas finalist award, and in 2015 she was the grand prize winner in a national ekphrastic poetry contest (poems about art) co-sponsored by Public Poetry and the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston. “Because I’m an artist, my poetry also contains visual elements. I feel I’m operating the same way whether I’m creating art or poetry, so the contest stimulated both imaginations,” she said.

Dahl and her husband, who is a potter, collaborated with each other after a trip to Japan, when Dahl started painting on his pottery forms. The result was an exhibition called Solos and Duets: Works in Clay and Cloth. They each also had a piece selected recently for the Holocaust Museum Houston’s Genocide exhibit.

Dahl has several textile and poetry projects in the works at any given time, each in a different stage of completion. “I come to a point in every work where the momentum stops and I have to wait for the piece to tell me where it wants to go,” she said. “And one day it will if I give it an opening.”

These pauses – what she calls “stare time” – is a technique she always advised her students to do. “You can’t constantly fill your mind with too many things – being on the computer, reading, rushing here and there,” Dahl said. “You sometimes need to sit and stare at a blank wall and not think of anything in particular. That’s when the originality that has been pushed back will start sneaking forward.”

Dahl has long trusted that ideas for art and poetry will come to her. Maybe that’s a gift from her childhood box of crayons. Just as there are many colors, there are many possibilities.

“Those crayons were pretty important to me,” she said.

Visit carolyndahlstudio.com to see more of Dahl’s artwork and her full list of accomplishments as an artist, author, lecturer and instructor.

 

Save the Turtles, paper casting of a real turtle shell, photo transfers, dyes on silk. (Photo – Kevin Douglas West)

 

Detail of Transformations, silk painting with dyes and resist. (Photo – Mike McMormick)

 

Dalhl’s Gallery room is filled with color from silk paintings and her paper baskets,along with colorful home furnishings. (Photo Mara Soloway)

 

In a Mythical Garden, collage of papers: hand painted, dyed, plant printed, wood block stamped, old wallpaper. (Photo – Kevin Douglas West)

 

A detail of Carolyn’s Cows Break Loose at the Dance, dye on silk. (Photo – Kevin Douglas West)

 

Helena, charcoal on paper. One of a series of realistic drawings Dahl made while in Italy that gave her the confidence to begin to call herself an artist. (Photo – Kevin Douglas West)

 

Kimono Vessel. A collaborative work inspired by a trip to Japan. Thomas Perry created the pot and Dahl painted the surface with underglazes, incised the kimono patterns, and modified the rim for the exhibition Solos and Duets: Works in Clay and Cloth. (Photo – Kevin Douglas West)

 

When Fish Fly, paper collage: painted, dyed, fish stamped (stamps by Fred Mullett Co.), woven rectangles, origami butterflies. (Photo – Kevin Douglas West)


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