Drawn to the stories and histories that tie one individual to another, artist Carolyn Mount reveals the interconnectedness that shapes our world. Utilizing a variety of tools and mediums including drawing, printmaking, ceramics, textiles or relational means of expression, she gives honor to the quiet and unassuming aspects of our daily lives. Carolyn, who was artist-in-residence at the Collegeville Institute in Fall 2016, recently sat down with Betsy Johnson-Miller for this interview. Learn more about our residency programs here.
The sacred has always informed my work as it shapes who I am and how I see the world. However, after being the Artist-in-Residence at my church last year (st benedict’s table in Winnipeg, MB) and concurrently participating in a mentorship program with other female contemporary artists, I decided to intentionally “come out” as an artist of faith. I’ve also “come out” as gay in the church, but in many ways, it’s as scary, if not more scary, to come out as a Christian in the art world. Making that choice has meant that I have become more transparent about how I see and experience the world through a sacred lens.
I believe every moment can be a holy one, so I make every effort to honor, recognize and draw attention to that. Mary Oliver’s “instructions for living a life” have become something of a mantra for me. She reminds me to pay attention so that I can be astonished and tell about it.
For A Week of Sundays, I collected and scanned the stained linen cloths that are used to wipe the shared communion cup each week. These stained cloths were “found” abstract paintings to me and I wanted to document these signs or markers of a shared path to the table. I made a series of seven silkscreen prints (each print is of a different cloth used within a three months period) and I printed the wine stains with an ink that I made from red wine. A lot of experimentation was required to come up with an ink that worked, but it felt very important to me to honor the presence of the wine that is, and can be, so life changing.
Similarly, Work as Prayer, Prayer as Work is shaped by the sacred as I am in the process of embroidering and reclaiming rags. After my mother passed away last year, it felt very important for me to honor her so I committed to working with textiles: my mother was a textile artist (a quilter) in her own right. After seeing her aged, bruised body in the hospital, I thought a lot about how our bodies and scars tell of a life lived. I find the same to be true for rags. Cloths that once covered our tender bodies at night or were used in the daily maintenance or cleaning of our bodies eventually become so worn out that they are relegated to dark and hidden places (like under the sink or in the basement among the paint cans) to be used only for the most menial of tasks. The stains and worn out places tell of its history or the work to which it has faithfully attended. As I embroider, I specifically pay attention to the stains and worn out places. Sometimes repairing, more often drawing attention to or embellishing these areas, I often think about how prayer or mindfulness is another type of work that is woven throughout our days and lives.
What led you to using your grandmother’s diaries for source material and inspiration for your project, In Her Words (The Grandmother Project)? Were there any surprises in doing that work?
My paternal grandmother kept a daily diary for over 23 years (not consecutively). Though extremely mundane (most entries were only a few lines and focused largely on daily matters related to living and working on a farm in a small community – weather, gardening, cost of things, farm duties, family, etc.) these daily entries gave me insight into a woman I never knew as an adult. She passed away when I was thirteen and at that time I didn’t appreciate the strength, history, and wisdom she offered. So to have the opportunity to read her words and learn some of what her life was like was a great opportunity for me.
Over a period of four months, I created five separate but related bodies of work all made in response to her diaries. One included taking entries from her diaries, typing the text on a typewriter of her era, and hiding or placing them in public places (the grocery store, the bank, at the mall, etc.) for strangers to discover. As her entries were of daily tasks and rituals (canning, shopping, daily duties), I wanted to interrupt someone’s daily routine in the here and now and cause them to reflect on how we are all tied together. What that individual was doing today had been done by countless others for centuries before them.
Another project included a blog I titled A Conversation through Time. As I had never been able to share my adult life with her, I chose to post a daily entry from her diary for the corresponding date and then post my digital entry in response.
In another body of work, I made paper which I tore into strips the size of her entries (her diaries were Five Year Diaries where each page [February 7] had five entries. This allowed you to see what you were doing the same year everywhere from 1 to 5 years ago). These pieces of paper were then installed in a vertical line corresponding to each month of the year for a period of four years (time and space only allowed me to install four of the 23 years she kept). For those days she missed, a gap was left with no paper installed. Titled 7793 (the number of entries she made in total), a visual representation of her faithfulness to this practice was made. As the paper was left blank, the viewer was left to imagine all that was contained in this private practice.
I think the biggest surprise came through the body of work – Finding My Voice. For this work I silkscreened text from her diary on handmade paper and responded to it with my own hand. By intuitively drawing over her words, blocking out text, and accentuating her script, I had a deep personal, emotional and visceral response. I discovered a grief I had not previously been in touch with and I felt the weight of her voicelessness – as a woman of a certain era, of her own ability (or lack thereof) to express her feelings and her hidden, deep, largely unseen practice. The other surprise came through reading her last diary (written in her last years) where she finally started expressing her feelings. For the first time, she wrote, “I feel…”. I created a book project entitled I Feel (A Shared Vocabulary) for it was the first time I felt I could connect with her on a more personal or emotional level.
In some of your installations, you create a relationship between your art and the natural world. So, for instance, you have a piece called Untitled (Tree Intervention). Why bring art into the natural world?
As much as I love art galleries and museums, I know that they can be daunting and intimidating to many or can be seen as exclusive and only for certain members of society. I have a problem with this. So, when I can, I try to think and work outside the white cube. I also feel that nature has so much to teach us and in our ever-growing urban areas where our lives become so busy and focused on doing, with this project I wanted to interrupt that focus and celebrate the work nature does around us.
This intervention in particular took place outside of my apartment in Vancouver. As spring is such a nice, slow process there, I wanted to draw attention to this tree’s being. The fabric, a sculptural intervention, stayed up for a period of a few months and I considered it a collaboration with the tree. I simply set the stage for those passing by to notice and celebrate with me that which happens around us all the time.
What is your process like?
My process has changed a lot over the last few years. Prior to doing my MFA, my practice was very much pre-determined. When I was doing my largest body of printmaking, I knew from the moment I took the photograph what the final piece would look like. During my MFA, though, I started to take risks and work without knowing what my final result would be. But in that environment, with strict deadlines and the need to justify and defend all aspects of the work from beginning to end, a lot of the joy was stripped from the process, even though there was still some mystery. Academia didn’t feel like it was a particularly safe environment in which to be vulnerable.
So, for the last year and a half since finishing school, I have intentionally been trying to take more risks in technique and process (not always knowing how something is going to turn out, or learning a new technique specifically for a certain project), as well as to be much more vulnerable with my work and subject matter (the “coming out” aspect has been a large part of that).
I feel it is important for me to focus on something for a period of time (often I will focus on a particular subject matter for anywhere from 1 to 3 years). Not only does a body of work come out of this that works well to show cohesively as an exhibition, it also allows me time to sink into the subject matter and become intimate with it, and learn from it. Initially, my process involves doing research, perhaps on a subject, but as I work more intimately and personally or reflectively, research involves discovering what other artists that are addressing similar issues are doing. I may also have to research a new technique if the subject matter calls for a process that is new to me. Research also involves a lot of writing for me as I try to figure out my thoughts and vision for the project. As I learn to trust my gut more, I need to clarify my thoughts as they relate to the subject matter.
Once I have a better idea of what I want to do, I start working. Having a working career outside of the studio, it is a constant challenge to find/make dedicated time every week to be in the studio. At some point, you just have to do it; you have to make the time happen. And as the body of work starts unfolding and building, I will periodically pause and reflect on how things are going. Is what I want to express coming out clearly? How do the individual pieces relate together? Do I need to try something else? Am I becoming too rigid in my process? Where can I take more risks?
Then, when I have a semblance of a body of work, I will start looking for opportunities and putting together proposals for exhibitions, researching the venues that would make the best fit for the work. Since many galleries plan shows up to two years in advance and there is so much competition for solo shows, it is good to start putting out proposals early. And while you wait for responses to your proposals, you keep on working. Always, I must keep on working as it is easy to lose momentum. I will also seek feedback from my peers. Often they see something that I have been completely oblivious to. Though being an artist is such a solitary calling, we do need community to show us what they see.