Carla Markwart’s colorful pieces can be seen all around downtown Galesburg. She has painted a mural on the Box, near the Beanhive on Cherry and Simmons, in the entry to the Galesburg Commerce Center, and several of the trash cans scattered about downtown boast her handiwork. Carla is dedicated to the process of exploring and discovering with paint, taking the viewers on an exciting visual journey. I enjoyed writing this post about her art, and I hope you enjoy reading it!
Because color is so important to Carla’s work, I first asked her about the use of color in her pieces. She responded “I try not to plan my work too much. I like to choose colors that I don’t like or respond to...that makes the challenge. I like to make cool versions of warm colors, and warm versions of cool colors. I tend not to use much blue because blue is everywhere and everyone’s favorite color is blue. When I make these paintings, I don’t plan the colors ahead because that makes the process of painting so boring. The fun is choosing the colors and solving the problem of color placement. If the painter is bored, the viewer will be bored.” The idea of solving problems with color is one many painters use: examining the color relationships and how each one speaks to the other, solving and creating problems simultaneously to keep the painting open and engaging.
Carla’s abstract compositions are equally important to her work and rely heavily on circles, a recurring motif. I inquired as to whether or not these circles have any particular meaning to her, and why they are the dominant force in her compositions. “In my recent paintings, I am limiting myself to circles and straight lines. A circle is a perfect shape; it appears in nature everywhere you look; and it's easy to draw! I start by drawing a bunch of overlapping circles, then bisect them in arbitrary places with lines, then erase some lines and edges to make bigger, irregular shapes. Sometimes I make the overlapping shapes a close approximation of the 2 colors combined that are overlapping...but usually I don't because that is too predictable. Every inch of a painting has to be interesting and surprising- especially with the compositional limits I have set myself. It is kind of an all-over composition; no obvious figure-ground distinctions…” It seems that the driving force in choosing her compositions comes from exploring with the color, lines and shapes-- it’s about finding compositions rather than preconceiving them.
The phrase “figure-ground distinctions” refers to the flatness or depth of a painting. There is no real sense of deep space in Carla’s pieces, the shapes aren’t distinguishing themselves from one another as closer to us or further away, but rather all existing on the same plane. There is intense complexity in this painting strategy, because then the artist’s job (like Carla says) is to make the painting interesting to look at without using the tool of differentiation through space. Instead, the differentiation comes from scale, color, and composition.
Achieving these precise shapes and sharp edges is no easy feat. Carla uses a compass and straight-edge to draw the designs on paper or brick. “Then I just paint the shapes. I have a pretty steady hand and I don't have the patience to use tape. And I like the paintings to look like they were handmade.” I find it amazing that she doesn’t use tape to achieve the sharp edges. The handmade quality she’s interested in accomplishing is what is awarded to the viewer once they examine the work closely after being struck by the neatness of the shapes. I enjoy this interplay between the idea of precision and handmade, they seem to exist in different worlds with different goals, but Carla seeks to combine the two, and it works!
Next I asked specifically about her mural work, as well as its relationship to her smaller works on canvas and paper. “My studio paintings had been getting bigger and bigger, so murals were a natural next step. My simple geometric shapes are a good fit for huge walls...I guess I like extremes. Either tiny paintings or very large ones. The large ones envelop the viewer and the little ones draw the viewer in. I don't make many middle size paintings- maybe that is my next challenge!”
In terms of the relationship between her mural works and smaller pieces, she told me “The small paintings started as studies for murals, so they definitely have things to discuss with one another. I like to work on several at once. When one becomes frustrating, I can move on to another- different- frustration. The satisfaction comes from working through the problems I set for myself.” It is amazing that she is able to so fluidly switch from one scale to the other, seamlessly adjusting to the compositional challenges each size presents.
Carla sees her paintings as “joyous, a little bit humorous, perhaps a little too simple, but in their simplicity is a kind of restfulness.” I would agree, her murals certainly fit in the settings they are, becoming almost site specific in their ability to transform the space while still remaining true to its function. They bring a pop of color, brightness, and joy to the places they inhabit. I’m excited to see where she paints next!
If you’re interested in seeing more of Carla’s work, including her earlier work that departs from abstraction, click here to visit her website.
Thanks for reading! If you need a pick-me-up, stop by our shop to check out Carla’s smaller pieces, or take a walk downtown and look around--they’re sure to brighten your day!
Paulette Thenhaus is in the business of color, emotion, and nature. Her work seeks to evoke feelings of happiness and comfort, something she thinks isn’t given enough weight in the art world today. She is committed to and passionate about painting landscapes in the midwest, which certainly shows through her pieces! I was fortunate enough to have a phone call with her about her process and other projects she has in store, I hope you enjoy it!
Initially I asked her to tell me about her plein air practice. For those who don’t know, plein air literally translated means “open air”, and refers to landscape painting on site, or on location. This kind of painting means you are at the mercy of the weather, temperature, and other natural elements that can influence a piece. For this reason, every plein air painter has their own tricks and specific methods when going out into the field. I asked Paulette about hers, and she told me about the materials she uses and the time frame in which she paints. She primarily uses acrylic paint, as she likes how quickly it dries and enjoys the immediacy in seeing the final product. Because of it’s quick-drying nature, this also means that Paulette is outside for an hour to an hour and a half painting with short, open brush marks. Most of the time she completes the paintings out in the field, but if need be, she’ll bring them back to her home studio to finish. She normally brings smaller canvases out into the field, typically sized at 16 x 20”. She told me she likes to try and put the temperature, textures, colors, and scent of the location in her paintings, wanting it to feel as real as her experience in the place. The smell aspect is particularly important to her, and to communicate it through her paintings she relies on color, texture, and brush marks to translate the aromas.
These elements of color and texture change based on what season she’s painting. During the warmer months, Paulette is able to stand outside with her composition and paint, but during late fall and winter she tends to paint from the view of a window, tucked inside her house or car. Before settling on a composition to paint, she walks around the site for a bit, observing what sparks her interest. She typically goes outside to paint when she’s feeling positive about the day, as she prefers not to paint when feeling negative or grumpy. Her interest lies in making people happy, upbeat, and positive while looking at her paintings. This is achieved through her color combinations, particularly her use of complementary colors that have high contrast and make the pieces pop, immediately drawing the viewers’ eyes to the piece, much like the immediacy with which she paints the scenes. She wants to create paintings that are easily felt and accessible for all to enjoy and bring a positive experience to.
The complementary color combinations also reflect the season and (some) the time of day. She noted her painting "Dusk" as an example, directly reflecting the time with soft grays and blues. Then there are the paintings done in the bright sunlight, which use more saturated colors. Every now and then she makes a night painting, and likes to paint in a variety of weather. In particular, she is interested in what happens when natural elements find their way into the painting, as they directly reflect her experience outside-- they help the painting remain “in the moment” of its creation.
Paulette’s goal with these paintings is to recreate the experience of being in the place and not rendering the place as it’s seen. She referred to Van Gogh’s paintings as inspiration with their emotional saturation: each brush stroke and color represents his feelings being in the landscape, the light and temperature reflective of his experience as well. Like Van Gogh, feelings and colors decide her compositions, what she “sees and feels determines what she paints.”
We talked a bit about some non-landscape pieces she has made, specifically the big gold piece hanging in our gallery space called "Autumn Glow". For this piece and several others, she created stencils before applying paint. In the case of “Autumn Glow” she spray-painted gold over the stencils, which was superimposed over a pink-hued fall scene, a scene whose composition was created entirely in Paulette’s mind. Her goal was to make both the gold and the autumn scene peeking out from behind the leaves, which inspired the creation of the composition. In general, Paulette’s pieces really do glow-- her color combinations catapult me to a world filled with rich light and textures, an upbeat, dream-like space. Not a bad place to rest during the craziness of the world right now!
Paulette is currently working on self-publishing a book titled “Drawing From Life, Adventures of the Midwest.” She was inspired to write this book due to her experience in New York as an artist, when she entered a cowboy piece into a juried exhibition called “Is there Art in the Midwest?”, poking fun at what New Yorkers thought of midwesterners, and responding to the title of the exhibition with “is there nature in New York?". We remarked that there is indeed a lot of art in the midwest, as the landscape inspires people to depict the rich beauty here.
We hope to have access to Paulette’s book once it comes out, and are thankful to be a space where she shows her wonderful pieces!
If you are interested in Paulette’s work and want to see more, check out her gallery page on her website, which you can access here.
Thank you for reading!
You might recognize the Galesburg native Christopher Reno’s work from our gallery, particularly the biggest piece of his we have on the wall facing the window of our gallery space. Many have marveled at the piece’s scale-- the largeness of the canvas compared to the minute dots layered preciously over its surface. His pieces are truly astounding, such a meditative air and obsessiveness exist simultaneously within the careful dots he constructs, senses of calm and mania imparted at once to the viewer. I was fortunate enough to ask him some questions about his work, and a lovely conversation unfolded, which I hope you enjoy!
My first inquiry was regarding the perceptions surrounding his work-- the way these pieces make him feel, his motivation for constructing such surfaces, and what he hopes others feel from his work. He responded by establishing a connection between his work and the work of Agnes Martin, a prominent abstract American artist, active from the 1940s through the early 2000s. The two share a meditative and inward quality to their work, both focused on pattern, abstraction, and repetition. Chris said “I love the transcendent serenity that she achieves through obsessive manipulation of the grid. I share some of that obsessiveness but I’m also willing to let the grid fail and sag…In fact I’m most drawn to this tension - will the piece fail? Is it just a bad painting? Can it transcend its homely appearance and process?” Chris hopes that people are relieved when they look at his work, but “can also just as easily imagine that they would make people annoyed and perplexed.”
Chris’s interest in transcendence and time is integral to his work. The process itself relies heavily on a long amount of time, and the relationship between the work and the viewers is in conversation with that lengthy process. I can get lost in the pieces for minutes, hours. Often, measuring the time spent discovering the work becomes insignificant once I’ve fully given the pieces my attention! I asked about the time aspect of his work, and he said “They take a while to make, but because they are like a hobby it doesn’t really matter. I can do them whenever I want...It’s a very similar thing to my Mom’s hobby of knitting/quilting/crocheting...She made the work for the simplest of reasons, because it gave her pleasure and it helped her occupy her time with something creative and pleasant. There wasn’t a deadline, there was a process. What could be better and more poetic? It’s actually a great relief to find a process that is simple yet rewarding...I’m continuously surprised by what comes out of it.”
His connection to Agnes Martin through pattern and repetition is shown through his use of materials--the textures and colors he uses--but departs through his appreciation for letting the grid go and moving through the “flub-ups” by incorporating them into the piece. He thinks a lot about pattern, texture, and color throughout his process. “I love painterly painting from the New York school - de Kooning, Guston, Pollock. My oil paintings are chunky and gooey on purpose...I want them to have a texture like woven cloth. I like the idea of a painting being like a textile, or that I’m weaving with the paint. And with the watercolors, I like bleed, drip and handmade wrinkly paper. I like the flub-ups and blobs and I like to weave them in.”
As for his color palettes, he said “I choose [them] at the outset and modulate them very carefully throughout the process, but I don’t have any endgame. I just follow a careful process and see where they go...eventually the strategies and processes exhaust themselves and it’s time to move on to a new piece...If I’m not happy with where the painting is at that point, I’ll partially destroy it by painting over areas, or sanding and scraping the work down, to look for new possibilities.”
Lastly, I asked him about the importance of words in his work, namely in his titles, as they often address something so specific, such as the titles “It All Comes Apart” and “Lemon Scented Radiance”. How do the titles and pieces themselves relate? Chris replied “The titles come spontaneously. Sometimes they are a clue to the origins of the work and sometimes they are simply associative because they came to mind while working. I like when they have a poetic, opaque quality to them...sometimes the work is inspired from a source - a song, a picture, or another artist.”
Chris has most recently been working on nature photographs printed using a plotter and sharpies. He said these pieces relate to Agnes Martin in their adherence to the grid and the buildup of material, though they are “the objects I make that are most loyal to the source imagery.” The pieces are made from 30-40 layers of various spot colors, and they take a long time, a very patient process indeed! “Each color takes from 4-8 hours to draw. That's why there are only 5 of these new ones because they each took weeks to create.” You can check out this most recent body of work as well as the paintings on his website by clicking here.
Thank you for reading, and thank you to Chris for this wonderful conversation!