Heart of the Matter

The Great Wall of Post-Its hangs in a corner of Carolyn Rosenberg Evans’ studio, each with one or two words, phrases with double meanings, quotes from Thoreau, wordplay; each in search of a painting. With titles like Drama Queen, Daddy Throw Me A Line, Two Stories, and Day at the Breach you know Rose is a storyteller whose paintings are as much about characters and atmosphere as they are about color and composition. I knew Carolyn Rosenberg growing up in New Orleans so I knew she talked a lot. After spending 3 days with her in the studio I realized how very much she had to say. 

Watch for recurring characters and scenes in her paintings like the indomitable Queen and her Crown, swamp houses sitting on little legs able to make a run for it at any moment if the water starts rising too fast, the fish, reminders of time spent with her father fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.  Lying somewhere between abstraction and figurative painting, the eye flits back and forth, lounging pleasurably in luscious color and composition then suddenly the Constellation of Orion, a shoe, a slew of tiny flying fish, a story emerges from abstraction. As Carolyn says “I give them their titles; viewers give them their labels.”

The quiet grays, greens, and blues of Drama Queen belie the hurricane force energy sweeping through the swamp house. A small hot red sun pops in contrast to the mouse colors. Is it on fire? Or could it be the sparkle of the Queen’s scepter? That grey whale in the back, diving for protection? I saw the striped tower of a tanker moving slowly down the Mississippi in the painting What Thoreau Said. The hovering dark cloud would be ominous if not for the playfulness of the strokes, the title, the lovely colors. Ever optimistic Rose says, “It’s probably just an isolated shower”. The title, she explains, comes from Thoreau’s Walden where he wrote “flitting hither and tither”…“you know, rhythmic, like bippity boppity boo.” I doubt Thoreau ever said that but filtered through the good humor and dancers love of rhythm it all coalesces in this vibrant painting.  

If you see her paintings are you meeting Carolyn? Well yes, and probably also her mother, her kids, and the city of New Orleans. Still reeling from growing up in a house where windows weren’t to be opened and where art may have been appreciated but artists certainly were not, she was a wild Rose in a garden of cultivated Magnolias. 

She tells the story of drawing a 4-legged bird in Kindergarten. Her art teacher sent her outside to observe and when she returned the teacher asked, “How many legs does a bird have? How many eyes? How many wings?” 

“Two, two, two” she answered. Her wise teacher said, “Good, as long as you know that, I love your drawing.” A less than wise drawing teacher her Freshman year at Boston University upon viewing her figure drawing from the model one day in class advised her to go into Art History instead of Studio Art. Only a tender bud of an artist then, the always well mannered but feisty 19 year old answered, “Well I’m going to do my best to stay in Studio Art”. A year later that same teacher wandered into the sculpture studio where Carolyn was covering up a monumental head in progress. “Who did this; it’s terrific” he asked. How good must it have felt to answer, “It’s mine.”

She became a sculptor; also wife to painter John Evans, mother to Jocelyn and Jeffrey, dancer, and very good tennis player. She paints with the vigor of a dancer and athlete, shoulder to arm to hand to brush all getting into the act.

The transition Carolyn made from sculptor to painter was a natural one. She was attracted to John’s great gobs of gorgeous paint, leftover, drying and thickening on his palette, not so different from the hot wax used in her sculptures. It’s hard to imagine today, 25 years later, looking at her exuberant and fearless use of color, that she ever worked just in bronze. Thank goodness she followed the rainbow!

Yes there are stories here, and then there is pure visual observation. Though her art may look naïve, and it should, because she is still an innocent at heart, make no mistake, she’s thoroughly schooled. Behind the joyfulness resides a timeless elegance. John and Carolyn, two serious artists living side by side for 40 years having discussions about turning your insides out onto a canvas, about art history, balance, color theory, departure, and arrival. Most importantly I learned over my 3 days how crucial stopping, standing back and looking away, was to her process. She might start with a light wash to take away the white of the canvas; then marks made and wiped away, ghostly shadows of strokes past, topped with a hit of pure color at the end, bright cadmium red atop a duller wiped away red, strong areas of color painted out except for an exposed phrase here and there, deliberate. She mixes broad brushstrokes with fine details delivered via a tiny palette knife, balancing the bravura with the delicate. She regularly turns the canvas to get a fresh look. Many of her canvases look square; in fact they’re a little off; she plays optical games, leading the eye on an intentional route via a horizontal swath here or amping up the verticality there. When you view her work, Carolyn wants you to have as much fun puzzling it all out as she had creating it. 

These paintings deliver on so many levels; the color of course, but also the tales they have to tell, the underlying geometry, the remnants of layers long gone but still whispering. 

These are the things she thinks about as she paints. A canvas has edges, is a finite Universe and the painter is the supreme ruler of that universe. You put down a color; what’s your next move? That next step, whatever it is, will change the entire canvas. Step away, look at The Great Wall of Post-its, squint, have some tea. The choice of what to do next is infinite; be brave; the next step could destroy it all! It’s this scary progression, this series of connected steps that lead to a finished painting. In ancient Aramaic “Abra” translates as “to create”…abracadabra to “ I create as I speak”. Carolyn speaks, brush in hand and makes magic.

As she says, “There’s nothing new under the sun but what’s unique about all art is the personality behind the art”, a personality very much present in all of her paintings. She’s wild! And sweet, a good girl, but also boisterous, hilarious, unstoppable. This is a very New Orleans sensibility; a city where the check out girl in the drug store likely gives you your change with a “thank you Baby” even though she’s 25 and you’re 65, where big men walk tiny Chihuahua’s named Frank, where music is wall to wall 7 days a week. As Carolyn’s husband says “Rose is a party ready to happen.” So join the party; Carolyn’s bringing the joie de vivre… and the paintings. 

Carol Pulitzer