Carolyn Gavin is a painter, illustrator, and designer based in Toronto, Canada. A flower child of the 1960’s, Carolyn grew up in South Africa, left to travel, and relocated to Canada where she currently lives with her family.
Earlier this year, Clarisse (aka CStar9) connected with Carolyn via webcast to discuss her creative origins, the unexpected path from a pile of wood to an abstract painting, and why most Canadians don’t paint their houses pink.
- The 10 cards that represent you in The Flower Box: how were they chosen?
I paint a lot of flowers and florals, so they took what was existing, which is lovely. If my work is picked up and used as-is, that’s a dream. I don’t have to sit down and create something for a job or art director.
- You create such an incredible range of work – paintings, textiles, books. What was your journey to get there?
It’s taken a long time. My family is pretty creative. My mom did mono-prints, painting—everything under the sun. As a very young child, I was guided into the direction of painting and creating, including papier-mâché, pen and ink, watercolors, and more. I went on to do graphic design for three years, which launched me into a design career.
Then I traveled, immigrated to Canada, and my brother and I started a family business, Ecojot. First I designed, then illustrated the covers of our new eco-stationery line. Working with recycled materials and bright and fun colors, and making the notebooks locally right in Canada, was innovative at the time.
One thing led to another and I was picked up by an agent, and my work took a turn for the commercial: apparel, bedding, editorial, book covers, book illustrations, and fabrics, etc. Recently I started teaching and doing workshops and retreats. But I’m also trying to focus on my painting! I’ve come full circle. I really just love to paint – that’s what I’d love to do all day.
- How do your new ideas for your designs begin?
One thing can lead to another, creatively. A wood pile is my latest obsession. I’ve painted on wood panels for a long time. While I was in Belize, I came across a building site and found this pile of discarded wood. I picked up a bunch of pieces to use and loved the unevenness and roughness of the material. That seemed to dictate the direction of the painting—such a beautiful organic flow and I was so inspired. However, it was at the end of my time in Belize, just the last few days, so I was painting like a fiend all night long, trying to get it all out. And then I had to come home.
- Tell us about your studio space.
Right now I’m in my small studio. It’s very bright, but it’s a small space, which kind of translates into small work. Sometimes I work upstairs in a bigger space that has an easel. That’s where I do my larger pieces. In winter I go to my studio in Belize. It’s a lovely get-away, a place for playing and experimenting. It took me about two months there this year to finally get into this new spate of work, which I feel is a nice new direction for me. So, I think each space where I’m at, dictates what I’m doing.
- You’ve said your work is strongly influenced by your growing up in South Africa. Can you tell us more?
South Africa is hot, colourful and noisy. I don’t know exactly how that translates into my work, but, I guess… people there aren’t afraid of color and vibrancy in their lives. I now live in Canada and when I first came here, I couldn’t believe how gray and dull the weather is. I think people maybe, as a result, are sort of scared of color and of standing out in that way. That translates into architecture too—they’re scared to paint the house blue or pink. In hot countries, however, it’s different. And so that’s how I grew up – with lots of color and pattern everywhere and a lot of nature around me. I was outside most of the time, immersed in it. It became a part of me. Now, when I go to a new country, it always inspires something new. When I’m here in my studio in Canada, I’m creative, I work, but it’s a bit more forced. When I am away, I might be more inspired. But of course that changes all the time. Tomorrow, I might feel very inspired.
- Your work can be very intricate, especially with botanical forms. What does research look like for you?
I don’t really call it research. But if I am looking at something that needs more information, I probably go find it. You know, just on the Internet.
With the wood in Belize, I asked them, what kind of wood is it? (It’s Emery wood.) Where does it come from? What do they use it for? So I’m not just painting on a simple piece of wood. I like to know the background of something, especially if it’s found or discarded by someone.
- How do you know when a piece is finished?
That is a difficult question, especially when you’re doing abstract. You can go on forever. That is something I’m learning along the way. I can’t stop learning about how to paint. It never ends!
When it’s finished is when I guess I just feel that sense of, Stop! You’re going to overdo it! And then you step back. When you come back the next day, you may add a little line here, a little bit of color there, but that’s basically when it’s done for me.
- Since we’re talking to an audience who loves paper mail and especially postcards, can you tell us about your relationship to paper? And to snail-mail?
I love paper. I mean, every kind of paper. I love thick, textured paper, and Japanese paper, and handmade paper. I go to a mill in Montreal sometimes in the summer, and I pick up the most amazing handmade papers, all from 100% rag recycled from t-shirts. It’s the only mill I know of that still does this kind of stuff on a very artisanal basis.
I don’t ever write a letter anymore to anybody. But I used to, and I used to love getting mail in return, so I do love the whole notion. It’s a beautiful thing.
- What’s a type of media that you’d love to learn?
I’ve been trying to work bigger, but that of course depends on the space that I have at the moment. I want to do monoprints, and cyanotypes. And work with big oil pastels.
- You teach a lot of workshops and retreats. What’s your teaching philosophy?
I love to impart my energy and some of my experience to other people and give them joy, and to teach them how to make their own joy. I think art is so meditative and therapeutic. When I’m painting, I kind of lose myself in the painting and go somewhere else. And that is very joyful.
Art is a very creative process that gives people a way to cope with stress in their life. Musicians do it – everybody in the arts world does it. It’s not a new thing. But if I can help others do it in my own small way, I think that’s important.
- What are you working on now?
A Joni Mitchell quote: “Love must be the birds in spring. Only lovers hear them sing.” It’s from one of her songs; she is a poet!
I love type and words, and I love to illustrate around them. This is where my graphic design background comes into play. I can put elements together on a page and they work. Well, not always! But, anyway, here’s another one. This is from a book: “The birds are singing.” I painted the type first and then the birds and flowers around it. It all works together in terms of shapes and balance.
And now, for the traditional giveaway: Clarisse is planning to send 4 postcards from the Flower Box set to 4 randomly picked postcrossers! 🎉 To participate, leave a comment below sharing a flower that is special to you, and come back this time next week to check out the winners!