Interview:  Mary Carnahan

Brushed with Silence  by Mary Carnahan

Brushed with Silence by Mary Carnahan

Dear reader,

Over the past few years, good fortune has provided me with a glimpse into the life of Mary through various encounters, conversations and meetings.  These encounters led to a more formal sit-down interview on July 1, 2017 and the resultant article from that interview is below.  I hope that you enjoy reading this portrait as much as I enjoyed creating it.

Much peace, love and happiness to you, Michael Veltman


Discovering Mary Carnahan…………..


……process......looking at that section and it doesn’t have enough color, this needs more texture.  I just know when it is done.  I start with just textures.  I start with painting gesso and take a trowel and start creeping along and will scrape it along and will start moving my hand tiss tiss tiss and go back over it again tiss tiss tiss.  I’ll take a piece of cardboard slap it on there and pull it off and take the knife and go over this section here and I swirl it this way and I’ll swirl and I’ll look at it and is there enough empty space on there?  Is there enough blank where you can just put colors?  Or something else on there because you can always add to it.  When that is dry I look at it say ‘oh, girl, you need to put some rag on there’.  Now I’m dying the muslin cloth a color before I put it on there.  Brush that on there and manipulate it and tearing at it and pulling at it.  In my head I know that beyond that cloth I am going to add something to it.  Pull the little ends down to create gaps and holes in it.  I lay it down because I know that the pieces will have a shadow on it and give it depth.  Every time I do something I do it differently.  So I test things.  Anything can be sanded down and repainted.  Nothing is set in my head for what I want to do.  I don’t sketch anything out.  I just work as a free spirit.  I’m just playing and manipulating and adding and subtracting and waiting......

The words of Mary Carnahan flow easily and effortlessly.  She has settled into the right mood.  …...I get into these moods where I am so mellow, so good.  I have to be in a calm spot..….  Arriving early at the diner off of State Street, I enter and make my way through the bustle to find that Mary has already arrived.  To find the right place, quiet and off in the corner, facing away from the action of the place and towards the empty seat across from her.  She has set everything up and is prepared to speak about her work and about her life.  Her path has been a storied one and is a journey that is nearing completion.  Mary is quietly very aware and reflective about this.   

The diner is a perfect place to meet.  It reminds of a different era – perhaps mid twentieth century when life was simple, direct, honest.  A polite waiter stops by every ten or fifteen minutes to check in.  The background is a continuous rise and fall of clatter and clutter.  The busboy is setting the tables with coffee cups and saucers.  The clanging of dishes buzzes.  The vibrancy of conversation among the tables rolls along, ebbing and flowing with the moment.  Her hand falls to rest on a binder filled with work, articles and interviews from various newspapers from various years each folded carefully and thoughtfully into the enveloped cover.  One of the interviews has a portrait of her.  Her glasses, stylish at the time, now provide a clue that the interview occurred many years ago.  A beautiful mature woman now, she was beautiful in a different way back then and you start to realize that she has always been beautiful in her own way.  This place and this energy create a proper setting in which we can discover who Mary Carnahan actually is. 

The conversation meanders as a river:  stretches of smooth, quiet, peaceful floating interrupted with chaotic rapids that turn this way and that and you can’t get your bearings until you find yourself floating blissfully once again.  New direction and topic – but you enjoyed the ride and are enjoying the next story and so we float along.  Mary Carnahan is a spirited person with a gypsy soul.  That is, a traveler.  A traveler in the world of art touching everything as she goes.  Mary sees it and has to do it, has to create it, has to learn how to do that, figure out how to do this.  She never actually started art – it has just always been there for her.  Crafts or art or something – anything that can keep her busy and keep the mind rolling, the wheels spinning.  Everything has always been a challenge to her – and she always just went for it.   

Along the way we begin to piece together that she has worked in virtually every medium:  paper dolls with paper dresses, painting, drawing with chalk on the sidewalk and flowers on the chalkboard, paintings on the ceilings of old apartments, weird hippie art, realism, photography, ceramics, pencil drawing, ink drawing, printmaking, mono prints, linocuts, block cuts, intaglio, silk screening, lithography, stained glass, country wood, jewelry, glass, metal work, vintage beads, wholesale lines, fused glass, wood,  stained glass and silversmithing – to name a few – and we arrive at the mixed media work she is doing today. 

The thread that ties her career of art together is found in her jewelry.  Her jewelry in some way has encompassed almost every medium she has worked in and has documented her journey.  Mary flips open the binder and starts paging through.  ……I influence myself.  I ride off of my gypsy soul.  I ride on what I did before.  I didn’t realize until I actually sat and looked at this the other day.   I’ve been doing this all my life but in smaller pieces.  I’ve been doing it in wood and I’ve been doing it in glass and always gearing towards the abstract.  When he said that he didn’t want to see it – he never saw it again.  The reason I brought my book is so that you can see how my work traveled.  It amazed me when I looked through it.  It’s all in here.  In these little pieces.  Now when I look at this I can see why my fingers are the way they are…….  The jewelry pieces are thumbnail sketches:  of ideas, of materials, of concepts, of moods.  They are tiny bursts of who she is, her path and what her work is about.  Studies of abstract in which you can see her development and can see where her current work is grounded.  Mary’s work has been abstract since almost the beginning.

The ’he’ that she mentions refers to Professor Edward Colker with whom she worked with while studying at the University of Illinois.  Over the years Mary has had a number of people impact and influence her as a person and an artist – her brother, her daughter, her friends and family and people that she has worked with.  Two particular exchanges with Professor Colker became moments that impacted her path more than others.  ……Started drawing and painting realistically and was doing really well.  Professor Colker is the one who took me under his wings and said ‘what you are doing is fine, you are a great artist but there is something that I want you to try.  Just go out there and find things and see what you can create with it.’......  That proved to be a foundational idea and became a part of almost every piece of art she has created since.  It also helps to explain some of her behavior like when she is found to be wandering the streets and picking things up off the ground like a wayward vagabond.  The second exchange solidified the abstract element of her work and is where her journey became abstract:  ……He said this is really great work, but this is just a bunch of trees.  I want you to look deeper.  Take this one class where you start with one realistic sketch.  Then you go twenty steps beyond that until you can’t recognize it at all.  He had me lay them all down on the floor.  Keep changing until abstract…… 


Professor:           How do you feel about that journey? 

Mary:                   It was tough. 

Professor:           Where would you rather be?  I know where you should be, but where do you want to be? 

Mary:                   I think I am comfortable down here at the abstract. 

Professor:            From now on – if I see anything that looks like anything it will be an automatic fail.  I want               you to pull as hard as you can.


She’s been pulling ever since.  Mary has been traveling for a while and her story is long and fascinating with many chapters.  Along the way she has always been thoughtful and reflective.  Time and again she has confronted herself with questions of what she really valued and found important in life and then made decisions based on her responses.  Before entering college:  ……Do you want to be happy?......  When she was in college she asked herself:  ……Do I really want to sit in an office?  Is this where you want to go?  What is going to make you happy?......  When she found herself working at a job that was causing long hours:  ……What do you really want to do?  Do you want to make money or do you want to be happy?  All of these things are around you in the world of art.  Wow.  What do you want to do? I don’t care if I made a lot of money.  I just want to make enough money to get by.  Be comfortable, not rich…….  When her life situation changed dramatically:  ……Too much work.  16 hours a day.  This is not what I want.  I want simple.  I want to be able to see my friends and family.  What am I working for?  Working to pay off those credit cards.  Working to buy stuff.  To go out to eat.  To buy new clothes.  No, Mary.  Your time is running out.  You need to play again.  You need to go back to where your gypsy soul is.  So I quit……. 

Mary is a woman that is walking on a sacred path with strength of character and a free independent spirit.  A back road traveler that has discovered that true prosperity is found in being grateful for what she has, who she spends time with and what she creates.  Like many artists and some people, sometimes she doesn’t like herself.  I think we can all relate to that in some way.  Sometimes her work becomes earrings and t-shirts that read ‘bite me’.  When provoked she can be unpredictable and dangerous.  Yet Mary is a woman who is teeming with love, generosity, courage, resourcefulness, abundance and passion.  She tends to appreciate solitude and staying by herself and not bothering anybody.  She is grounded to this earth and connected spiritually to her path.  …… Here’s the thing.  When I get ready to pass.  I’m going to miss myself.  So that’s the hard part.  Of course I will miss my daughter and my brother and my grandchildren and the rest of my relatives and my friends, but I am going to miss myself…… 

A lot of people are going to miss her, including myself.  The abstract mixed media art pieces that she is currently creating is the culmination of a career, a life, an exploration.  The work is complicated and intricate, intriguing and beautiful, moving and meaningful.  This may very well be the final chapter of her art.  It has been an honor and a privilege to discover that and I have a newfound appreciation for her work when I see it hanging in a gallery.

……You have to explain your process.  Buy 5 canvases.  Not too big, not too small.  Even though they are pre-coated in gesso – I want you to gesso them with gesso.  Not flour and water or anything like that.  Let that dry for a few days.  Add your papers and textures and let dry for a few days.  Start adding paint.  No, no, not add paint over paint over paint.  Let dry between layers.  Otherwise you will seal it off and it will mold.  Then you put a varnish on it and sandwich all that mold in.  People are going to want to look close and they will see what you have done and you have done nothing.  You took a bunch of paper and sloughed it on there and coated it in paint.  Do it the right way.  Save your money.  Buy good materials and apply them slowly.  Start 3-4 canvases – when you get stuck on one move onto the next one.  Hang them on the wall.  Walk by and look at them.  See what you can do.  Leave them alone and hang them back on the wall.  Until you feel like it is done and you can frame it and sell it.  It is a slow process.  Look at the work.  You can get into the crevices.  You can find things.  There are hidden treasures everywhere.  Look into the crooks.  There are pencils everywhere.  Colored pencils, regular pencils.  There is dna all over.  Paint with spit, paint, pencil, spit.  Never do it when I am sick, ha ha.  Never have time to pick up the brush – have to do stuff.  I’m spastic when I work sometimes.  Hang it back on the wall.  Come back to it later.  Looking at that section and it doesn’t have enough color, this needs more texture.  People are going to want to look close and they find hidden treasures, words, elements to be discovered and uncovered……



Much like the Artist.