Talking with artist and art historian, Rachel Carren

Talking with artist and art historian, Rachel Carren

Episode #184

Today’s guest is Ms. Rachel Carren, an artist and art historian. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did!

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Interview transcript

Rachel Carren Interview Transcription

Alison Lee: Well, I’m excited today. You know I love my guests. And I’ve talked to my guest today before and I love having a real intelligent, thought out type of conversation. So I know you are going to enjoy this as well. My next guest is not only an artist, but also an art historian. I’m very excited to welcome Ms. Rachel Carren here today, talking with me. Thank you for coming on.

Rachel Carren: Hi Alison

Alison: So explain to everyone first off. Because I hear the word art historian I just go “Oh yeah!” Art history. But really explain to us what that responsibility is or the job that that entails for you.

Rachel: Well for me because I am not a museum curator which would have been my dream job. For me what being an art historian means is being able to look at art in the context of where it was made and use it as a window into studying the maker and culture that it exists in. And so it’s a way of studying history. Many art historians are not in any way makers themselves. They truly are academics. It’s very much a library museum paper writing discipline. But it does give you a perspective on the world coming through the venue or through the objects themselves. It’s in many ways like being a historian, it’s just historians are only dealing with many, many cultural artifacts from many, many cultural events or historic events such as wars, earthquakes and things of that nature. Art historians tend to look at things through the medium of some kind of an artistic creation. And use that as the window and the entry point into looking at a culture, at a history. And of course nothing and this is certainly not unique to anything I’ve thought up but nothing ever is created or exits in a vacuum. And so everything that everybody makes as mundane or as magnificent as it might be is coming out of the world of the artist and the experience of the artist and by extension not only the artist but the environment that the artist exists in. So someone like Joseph Cornell who was famously a recluse, who was the late, I think he’s. I’m in a fog here. I’m pretty sure he is early 20th century.

Alison: I think you’re right.

Rachel: Collage, Bach’s creator. Extraordinary man, extraordinary artist was calling and pick up pieces of his culture and his world and putting them together to make these boxes which ultimately sometimes were quite direct and sometimes mostly were very enigmatic. But they’re part of his world and they’re an extension of his world even though he didn’t travel a whole lot himself. Or if you think about it in terms of literature, someone like Emily Dickinson who existed most of her adult life in the confines of her own community and her own garden and her own home. Or Jane Austin who travelled a little bit but didn’t travel extensively, all of what they created is an example of incorporating and embracing their totality of culture. None of that could have happened without their larger environment. So an art historian looks at the art object and this is my attitude about art history. And then uses it as a window and an entrée, a door to go into explore the artist, what the artist might have been thinking or where the artist might have been coming from and making a bigger window or a bigger door, a bigger room where that artist is existing in the kinds of experiences and culture that that artist is coming out of. So there are lots of disciplines in art history as there are specialties in art history. So art historians tend to be divided by period, by periods of time. So you have people who specialize in ancient and Egyptian and people who specialize in modern. My particular field was 19th century western American and European.

Alison: And who were some of your people, your gurus, your idols that you looked up to in that time period?

Rachel: As an art historian?

Alison: Yes.

Rachel: Or as painters and artists?

Alison: Art historian, I’m thinking.

Rachel: As an art historian my advisor was really somebody who was phenomenal. It’s a woman named, she’s still alive and she’s still working, a woman named Beth Jones, Elizabeth Jones who was just an extraordinary researcher and had a philosophy about art history and about looking at art that I really related to which was again this concept of the art is telling you a story about the culture or the maker. But there are other ways. I had a professor who was a curator at the National Gallery of Art who was. We have majors and minors. So my minor field was 17th century Dutch. And Arthur Wheelock who was at the National Gallery of Art and still is there was somebody who was interested in the content of the painting which is a lot of what I was interested in, but also very, very interested of the chemistry of the painting. So one of the big controversies when I was in graduate school was the cleaning of Rembrandt’s famous painting “The Mill”. And everybody had thought about it as being this dark, gloomy, moody painting with just clouds. And then they cleaned it and they found that it was a beautiful blue day. You know a blue sky day. And so Arthur had been part of that whole conservation issue and he taught me a lot about looking at paintings and looking at art and what we see now versus what the artist might have done but he was really interested in the chemistry and the physical properties of the paint and way things put together. And then there were other people who specialize in whole other attitudes and approaches. There were lots of methodologies and art history that you can take within individual time frames. So it’s a very specialized and it can be an extremely esoteric field. But I find it fascinating, you know. Always interesting. I do think as a maker, as an artist myself it has really enchanted my understanding. It’s given me an eye that I really, I trust quite implicitly, my eye. It’s very well trained. I’m able to and it’s something that I talk about a lot when I talk about critique but its, I’m able to separate what I like personally as taste from what my eye can see and valuate and analyze just tricky in terms of design and composition or what I’m looking at. And so that gives you a sense of being able a bit dispassionate about looking at work, looking at your own work and evaluating what you are doing. Sometimes I think it makes me too hard on my work.

Alison: I was going to say that’s a lot.

Rachel: It’s a very high standard to try and think about all of the really phenomenal artist that have been over the course of human history and to keep up with that standard. But it informs you. It informs you as a maker about what else is out there and what people have done. And I think as an art historian having been a maker it also informs you about the creative process and so when I talk about this I often will nip my fingers together or mesh my fingers together or intertwine them, whatever the right phrase would be. To me it’s very much they’re connected. They’re very symbiotic and I think each side helps the other side.

Alison: Now you mentioned before that curating was your dream job. What does that mean exactly and why?

Rachel: Oh well, when I got out of graduate school, which I was probably the longest enrolled graduate student ever, the university was very kind.

Alison: Congratulations!

Rachel: [Inaudible] was Beth Jons about following me. I thought I was going to be finished and be all done in record time and then it turned out that it didn’t work out quite that way. But when I finished after 14 years, I think its 14 years of graduate school and 2 children and various other life events, I was pretty burned out. It was just pretty exhausted. I really would have loved to have a curatorial job. That would have been my preference rather than teaching in an academic institution, which was fine but it wouldn’t have been. I really loved the research. I love being in a museum, being in any kind of a museum context is so comfortable for me. It’s like coming home even if I’ve never been there before. I just love that sensation of being amongst all those things and those objects really speak to me in a way that I love and so that would have been a fabulous to be able to research and be amongst those kind of things and create exhibitions and have that kind of situation. And it wasn’t there. it just didn’t exist. So a part of was some inherent sexism that did exist and probably still does exist. Men in art history are far rarer than women in art history. And so they frequently leapfrogged over people, it’s a tiny little bit of feminism coming out there. And I had commitments and obligations here so I didn’t really feel that I could take a job anywhere. I had 2 little kids so I was here. It didn’t happen and in a lot of ways it turned out for the best. Because I am using it and I have used it for the last 8 to 10 years in a very active way.

Alison: Now you just mentioned something just then about which I love hearing. The way you described being in a museum setting and what that does for you. So many artists they would describe that setting wherever that is. And so you’ve now described in a museum. How early on in your life did have that sensation, that passion, whenever it came up in that museum setting?

Rachel: Oh really young.

Alison: Do you remember the first time? Because usually.

Rachel: Five or Six. My mother is a devote of the arts. I grew up in the Washington DC area and still end up living there much to my surprise but she would take us to the museum. And I remember being a little girl and having prints the National Gallery for 25 cents. You could get, I think there were 11 by 14, yeah I think probably 11 by 14. You could get an 11 by 14 reproduction that as a little girl I had a whole bunch of those in my room. That was something that I truly cared about and wanted. I didn’t want Disney and I didn’t want any of the other stuff that the little girls that I knew or the kids that I knew had in their rooms if they had anything. I wanted these art reproductions. They really mattered to me. And I had a beloved, beloved grandmother who was an artist. I don’t Alison it just sang for me from a very, very early age.

Alison: Oh grandmother’s do. Grandmothers do that in us.

Rachel: The whole art experience. My grandmother lived in Chicago and she would come and we would paint together. She was an amateur painter but she was quite accomplished and mature artist and so she would come and we would paint. And we would paint my teddy bear and we would paint, you know the stuffed bunny or whatever was around or something, you know the pencil cup or whatever it was. It wasn’t anything important. And she would send the art supplies and in fact some of this new work that I’m doing right now, she sent me a loom when I was 12, a weaving loom and I actually am using that now. I held on to it all these years.

Alison: What kind of loom is it?

Rachel: It’s a table loom.

Alison: A little table loom. Do you remember? I’m just seeing recently that you said looms. They seem to be popping back up. Remember making pot holders off of those looms?

Rachel: Oh yeah.

Alison: Ok. Love those. And I don’t know if you see now but it’s worth going to a toy store to take a look at. They now have a loom called a rainbow loom and its taking the place of those. And it’s done with colored rubber bands but intricacies that are just fascinating.

Rachel: I haven’t seen that. I haven’t seen that.

Alison: It’s worth looking at. You would love that loom. now talk to us about how you got into your choice of. I’m guessing you started first in painting before you went into polymer clay.

Rachel: I was in high school. I was really, I survived high school because of the art room. I’m not most gregarious person out there. Social skills are not always my strength and beside from this beloved grandmother who was a huge influence on me. I had a wonderful art teacher in high school who did not look like somebody who was a revolutionary but in fact was a revolutionary. She had blond, probably bleach blond hair from what I remember. Probably artificial. And she would wear, I’m dating myself but Ladybug® and type clothes. And she looks like this, she was tiny. She looked like demure thing and yet I took life drawings with a nude model in high school. We couldn’t do it on campus but she arranged to do it off campus. I did a serious course of print making in high school and we had a serious ceramics program in high school. So most of what my art experience was in high school was print making and some painting, some basic painting like you would get in a high school curriculum. And then quite a bit of ceramics. A wheel throne and Raku kilns out in the quad. And then this life drawing class off campus.

Alison: That was great.

Rachel: And had I more faith in a talent, I probably would have seriously thought about going to art school but I didn’t. And I didn’t get a lot of encouragement at home for that route despite by grandmother. I didn’t get any encouragement. So I ended up going to a very traditional academic program and then discovered art history and fell in love with it. Because even though I had been in the museums and I had known all about these paintings and my grandmother, the same beloved grandmother sent me all of these books, reading about painting. Many of which I read over and over and over. And I still have now in my library, I didn’t understand and I didn’t know that there was a discipline of art history. And so I was a freshman in college in an honors program and got into it like the basic survey class about ancient renaissance art history and just flipped. It was like just flipped out. I mean this is fabulous. I love this and I had gone to college thinking I was going to be a pre-med and that just like went out the window. Because I love science and I did love science.

Alison: Well that’s one of the great things about college, that happens. And all of a sudden something goes off, that you just never knew. I mean it’s one of the special things. But now how did you discover? I know we are going to talk about whether we call it polymer or polymer clay. How did you find that medium?

Rachel: I found polymer because my daughter who is now grown up and actually a school teacher herself, was in fifth grade and the state of Maryland which was where we live requires the students to study the state of Maryland for social studies for the whole of the fifth grade year. And there isn’t enough about Maryland to fill about a whole year’s curriculum. So they ended up doing a whole section or however it is, unit I guess they called it on colonial America and apprenticeship. And she was required to do some kind of an apprenticeship and it was very, very loosely structured. And my sister who was a great dabbler in the arts and is in the arts herself now in very different ways than I am but involved had discovered this stuff, polymer and she said, oh I’ll bring it over and we’ll just play with it for a couple of days and I’ll teach Emily what I know. My daughter’s name is Emily. And that will be her apprenticeship. And it suited her and so I sort of followed along and the stuff was pretty cool. And so this was in, probably 91 or 92 and we played with it and it lived in a show box on my shelf for a while. And then I had just graduated, I got my degree, my doctorate in 1990. So I was kind of feeling my way, figuring out what did I want to do with these now fifth grader and third grader, second grade. And it just sort of sat there for a while and I’d take it out and I’d mess with it and I’d put it away and I knew, I think I was a pretty early member of the National polymer clay guild or whatever it was called. The polyatomic polymer clay guild that became the National Guild. Never went to a meeting. Never did anything. Ended up taking a class from Nan Roche at some point. G street fabrics which was a major center at that point for doing things. Kind thought this is interesting but she was talking about canning and that didn’t do it for me. And took a class from Lindley and sort of the same way and didn’t really, you know it was cool but you know, OK. And then somewhere for some reason I decided I was going to do something and I saw that the art league which is in Alexandria, Virginia which is a continuing education for adults and a serious art program and also does children’s programming that runs out of the Torpedo Factory which is an art center in Alexandria. Was teaching a class and Elise Winters happened to be teaching it and it was about paint on polymer. And I went and the lightbulb went off. And not only did Elise make an instant bond and an instant connection I mean it really was, you know zing! But the paint on polymer opened up all sorts of new possibilities because I had this print making background and the caning was not something that spoke to me particularly. It was fun. it was interesting but it wasn’t something I was passionate about. And somewhere subsequent and around. Maybe I don’t know if it was after or before but somewhere right in that same timeframe of taking this class with Elise and she was teaching crazing and tabbing people set little bits of polymer into brass frames and making brooches. I mean it was probably 98, I think it was 98 when we met. Nan brought, I went to like one of my first meetings, guild meeting and Nan showed up with silk screens and how to use silk screens on polymer and so it was this lucky convergence of silk screening and paint and polymer and surface which to me was so exciting and so wonderful. Because that was what clicked. Exactly.

Alison: I’m looking at your work as you are talking, going through your website and its beautiful. As you are talking I am seeing that showing up in your work. It is really gorgeous. Everyone needs to take a look at that. Well now, tell everyone. So people understand more about the polymer vs polymer clay usage of the name of the material.

Rachel: Well then we are going put my art historian hat back on. So a lot of us particularly in extended conversations with Bruce Pepich at the Racine Art Museum and Melina Wigan who is the curator, we spend a lot of time discussing the nomenclature of Polymer Vs Polymer clay. And it turns out that Polymer clay was a very artificial name to begin with. it was something that Nan and I believe his name is Seymour who is the publisher from Flower Valley Press. I think that’s the name of the press, I’m not good at these details without checking. But when Nan published “The New Clay” in 1990, 1991 they needed a title. And up until then nobody had called it clay. it was called a modeling compound. If you still look at the packages for Femo where the packages Scupy or the old whatever, none of them say clay. They still to this day don’t say clay, they say modeling compound, something else. And they needed to come up with the term. They sort of just decided that clay was a way sort of shorthand describe it. The only thing it has in common with clay is it’s malleable and it uses heat to create the transition from a malleable form to a permanent form. But after that, Bruce and Lena and those of us who were involved in this conversation, Elise myself and some others. We all felt that clay was really a confusing term. If you take a ceramic object and you pick it up, first of all it weighs a lot more than anything in polymer will way. It’s breakable. Polymer is almost indestructible. It’s heavy. Polymer has very little weight. It has vast amounts of shrinkage. Polymer doesn’t have much shrinkage in it. It ended up being a real difficulty for museums to categorized something. if they were absorbing when [inaudible] was absorbing this large polymer art collection, body of work for the polymer collection project that became the foundation of their polymer collection. As they said, if everything is called polymer clay are they supposed to put it in ceramics? Are they supposed to put it in jewelry? It ended up being that it became a difficulty more than a help. And so it was much better to just drop it. At some point it maybe that it will evolve and there will be a whole new category of alternative art material called plastics. But we’re not there yet. And so there’s been some pushback and I don’t think that’s anybody will drop clay anymore at this point because people use it. And I occasionally use the term. There’s no polymer. It’s an awkward term where you think you know; I need to go buy 4 pounds of polymer. I need to go by an ounce of red or something. You know people tend to say, “Oh I need to go buy, you know clay.” Or have you got some clay on your table? Or however people reference it. But ultimately to me it’s not a satisfactory description.

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