This Spotlight interview is with landscape artist Virginia Carstarphen and marks the occasion of her one-person exhibition at ARC Gallery in Chicago, May 28-June 19, 2021.
Where were you born?
I was born on an Air Force Base in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1968 where my father was stationed while serving in the military.
What were you like as a kid?
I was curious, serious, and shy. I loved nature and animals from the beginning.
Can you describe one event from your childhood that left an indelible mark?
When I try to think of one event it is hard to think of just one that stands out. So many of my happy early childhood memories center around being outdoors with my parents, whether on a hiking trail in the north Georgia mountains or on the beach at Anastasia State Park in Florida or on a canoe trip on the Altamaha river in south Georgia.
When did you become aware of art and having an interest in making things?
I loved art from a young age. My mother and grandmother were both educators and there was always a supply of paper and art materials around. My mom also painted and had a pottery studio in the basement of our home in Atlanta so making things was a part of my upbringing. I remember my grandmother giving me a stack of assorted paper that contained a silver foil embossed paper. It was the first material I remember falling in love with. I made lots of cut out pieces with it and used it in collages. I also doodled endlessly. I remember getting in trouble in school for drawing on the margins of papers and books and once, to my parents' horror, on a neighbor's coffee table (I was maybe 5 and the urge to make marks was strong!).
As a teenager I was lucky to have many wonderful art teachers in high school, especially Mr. Peterson who I remember fondly. I also spent time as a junior docent of the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester NH. There I spent a lot of time wandering the galleries and falling in love with paintings. I remember a Neil Welliver painting of birches so distinctly still to this day. I remember wondering then how he had painted the birches so that you could understand what they were but also what they meant to him.
What types of books do you enjoy reading?
I love a good novel. Something that I can get really absorbed in. I think of reading as another way of traveling. I like to explore cultures, other times and places through stories. Some of my favorite recent reads: Where the Crawdads Sing, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, and About Grace.
What has been your favorite job to date?
My husband and I have been business partners for 25 years in the hospitality industry. It’s definitely the best job I have ever had. Although being a small business owner can have its challenges, the rewards are great. At our restaurant, b & b, and marina, I have been able to use my creativity in everything from menu planning and interior design to social media and websites. Creating spaces that people come to for special occasions, celebrations, or just as their “third space” is gratifying.
Who and what inspires your creative work?
I am inspired by the natural world and science. I love to look at microscopic pictures and old textbooks of geology, geography, botany and biology. Lots of artist have influenced the way I think about and make art: Lucas Samaras for his use of the common object and variety of media, Georgia O'Keeffe for her reverence to landscape, Cy Twombly for his gestural writing-like mark making, Jasper Johns for his use of maps as subject, Vija Celmins for her clear affection in her depictions of the natural world, Eva Hesse for her use of the unconventional and ability to make things that were both simple and complex at the same time, Anselm Keifer for his lush use of organic materials to create landscapes, and then Vincent Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo for documenting their personal journeys through art.
What materials do you like working with?
I enjoy watercolor and acrylics when painting. I like all kinds of drawing materials from pencils and pens to crayons, markers to pastels. I like making monoprints with block ink. I find myself drawn to other less conventional materials - things I find at the office supply or hardware stores. I enjoy using materials that might be meant for crafting and using them in another way - like embroidery floss, stamps, and rubber bands. Found objects are also attractive to work with - either as inspiration or as part of a piece. I enjoy exploring sustainable or recycled materials too.
Can you tell us about your exhibition at ARC Gallery?
The work in my show Wanderings: Maps and Memories is a collection of two groups of recent work. One includes cut and manipulated maps and the other includes abstract paintings inspired by the places represented by the maps and also by the imagery and symbolism of maps themselves. The subjects range from places I have lived: Georgia, West Virginia, New Hampshire, Michigan, Chicago and places I have visited frequently: Baltimore, Washington DC, and Florida. Through line, color, material, and gesture I attempt to honor the landscapes that I am deeply attached to. These landscape explorations are filtered through both experience and memory. In this body of work, maps themselves become the vehicle to explore the questions: Where am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? These questions are at the heart of the manipulations of the maps. They become transformed by my wanderings, both literally and symbolically.
What makes you laugh?
My husband and the short films starring Henri, le Chat Noir.
Where is the next place you want to go on vacation?
It's been a while since I have been outside of the USA and I would love to see some places I haven’t been. On my list are the Nordic countries, Norway, Sweden, Finland.
Why do you make art?
Because I’m an artist. I think it is really that simple. Whether I was born with those ways of seeing the world and responding to it or whether there was something cultivated in my childhood, I have always wanted to create and to record what I see and feel.