Phoenix Artist Carolyn Lavender on Collecting Cat Claws and Her Ever-Evolving Preservation Woods

What happens in the studio shouldn't always stay in the studio. Studio Visit is a monthly series that profiles artists in their studios. We ask them questions, they provide answers, and then we have a nice discussion about their work. This month: Carolyn Lavender, whose work is currently featured in the 2015 Arizona Biennial at the Tucson Museum of Art.

Phoenix artist Carolyn Lavender readily admits she was a bit “odd” growing up, explaining that one of her many collecting phases included hunting and gathering four-leaf clovers. It’s still an apt descriptor, and delightfully so, as New Times learned during a recent studio visit.

Approaching Lavender’s Phoenix home, shared with husband Brian Hughes and several formerly feral cats the artist has captured and tamed, visitors spot all sorts of items they’ve collected or been gifted through the years by family, neighbors, or friends. Their place is located in a quiet neighborhood near East Thomas Road and 24th Street.

They married in 1986 and bought the home in 1987. So they’ve had decades to create what might pass for a woodland fairy’s natural history museum. “That’s a pile, and that’s art,” Lavender says, pointing to side-by-side mounds of natural materials in her yard.

Winds chimes hang just a few yards from animal vertebrae. Near the carport, there’s a tree covered in small items they’ve been gifted but don’t like. Lavender isn’t keen on throwing things away, confessing she has “a hoarding personality.”

Inside Lavender’s living room, a large-scale graphite-and-gouache piece with portraits of 200 animals sits perched atop a chair. Lavender delights in finding a tiny cat claw on the floor, pausing to explain its pearl-like translucent properties. She’s been gathering shed claws for eight years, collecting them in a spice jar so she can use them one day in her art practice.

Before heading to the studio adjoining her home, Lavender lingers to share several of the living spaces that exude her enthusiasm for collections and art. Vintage cameras sit wedged between books that share space with bits of nature gathered here and there, and other miniature treasures. Artworks, mostly gifts from friends or trades with fellow artists, fill many of her walls.

Lavender’s studio is part work space, part curiosity shop. Small animal skeletons and tiny toys share a wall with CDs organized by color — a habit developed while working retail, Lavender explains, and further evidence of her obsessive side. Art supplies abound, and a giant work surface sits in the center of the space.

Several of Lavender’s works line one wall, and blank panels she’s preparing to draw and paint on are tacked onto another. Lavender creates both large- and small-scale pieces using drawing, painting, and collage. She’s been doing collages since she was a child, and continues to fill up books with pictures and her own written text.

Most recently, Lavender’s art practice has focused on animal scenes. In her Fictionscape digital prints, shown earlier this year at MADE Art Boutique in Roosevelt Row, she used Photoshop with images she’d appropriated from various sources to mix and match the bodies and heads of various animals.

For her Animal Pairings series, Lavender draws an animal object and an animal side by side. According to Lavender's blog, these works reference real versus fake, disappearing wild spaces, and Lavender’s own attachment to animal objects. Two of these pairings are part of the 2015 Arizona Biennial, an exhibition that continues through October 11 at the Tucson Museum of Art.

So too is Preservation Woods, an 80-inch by 160-inch acrylic and graphite on archival foam core piece which sets taxidermy animals within a beautiful forest setting. It’s a way of showing that they’re “part formerly living creature, and part object.” Lavender drew the animals based on photos taken in various locations recounted on her blog — including a bar, sporting goods store, hair salon, frame shop, and more. As part of her art practice, Lavender takes a camera everywhere she goes.

Lavender describes Preservation Woods, which was first exhibited as part of a 2013 group show with Mary Shindell and Monica Aissa Martinez at Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum, as an “ongoing painting.” It’s also been exhibited in Tempe and San Diego, with Lavender undertaking various additions and refinements in between shows. “It’s been various states of raw,” explains Lavender. “I don’t want things finished edge to edge because it’s a barrier that keeps viewers out.”

It’s common for Lavender to repeat particular themes in her work. Before Preservation Woods, she did a drawing called The Woods - Preservation, which also features animals in a forest setting. Lavender recalls starting that piece after hearing about a woman who’d gone into the woods to take her own life. “When I drew the woods I had a feeling of homecoming,” Lavender explains. She added the animals later, describing the effect as a combination of “strangeness and silliness.”

Currently Lavender is working on a rhinoceros drawing for the upcoming “Chaos Theory” exhibition at Legend City Studios, and a piece for a “mini-retrospective” of her work Ted Decker plans to present in March of 2016. But she’s also hoping to line up some out-of-state exhibitions with Shindell and Martinez to increase exposure for her work. We can’t wait to see what sort of souvenirs she brings back to the studio.

Tell us about your work in haiku format.
Okay, so I did haiku like every school child and promptly forgot the formula. I just now looked it up, and thought nope not doing this. Sorry I just don’t have the patience for it. I will substitute with a short description: Animal-based drawing and painting that is idea based, intricate, decorative, developed and raw.

What artist(s) are you really into right now?
I enjoy contemporary artist Mark Dion, and any of the Northern Renaissance painters. I tend to love a period of art, digest it so to speak, and then move on. But I have been into artists such as Holbein, Van Eyck, Van der Weyden, and Durer, for quite some time and show no signs of tiring. I also love outsider artists such as Adolph Wolfli, and native folk art in places like Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, New Zealand, etc.

What are you reading?
I went through some old art magazines and tore out the articles that most interested me. Last night was an article about Dana Schutz.

What's the last TV show, film, or video you watched?
I do watch TV on the computer and it is a guilty pleasure for sure. Not sure I want to confess specifics.

If you could collaborate with any artists, alive or dead, who would it be? And why?
Leonardo da Vinci, because he was everything I am, and everything I am not. Mostly things I will never be, but how great it would be to spent time with him? He was a vegetarian, not very religious, and loved animals so we would have things in common besides the love of art.

What was the last exhibition you saw and what did you think of it?
At Eye Lounge I saw Takashi Hara’s sculpture-based installation and loved it. Also saw "Artists Repurpose the Book" at the downtown library and really enjoyed it. Especially loved John Armstrong’s book, though it is displayed so that you cannot see any of the images within the book. I got to see the interior pages on a cell phone.

Jeff Koons or Marina Abramovic? And why?
Marina is the better artist. They both have huge egos that can be out of proportion, but she has the conceptual body of work to more completely defend it.

What's the best advice you've ever received? I have been really lucky to have advice, mentoring and support from a multitude of people. I could pick out lots of things, but I got a little needed push from Phoenix artist, Mary Shindell, when I was graduating from high school. She was the artist-in-residence at my high school and dropped by the house when I wasn’t home. She left a note that said, “I think you should give art a chance”.

What are you currently working on?
I am working on another animal-pairings drawing for Chaos Theory, and just started prepping panels for a 80-by-87-inch painting that will show at LA Artcore and at the Roosevelt Row container gallery, Hot Box, in March. It will involve woods and taxidermy like the 13-foot-wide painting that is currently on display in the Arizona Biennial at Tucson Museum of Art.

What's your most valuable tool as an artist?
It is tempting to answer this question subjectively, but I will go with literal. My graphite drawing materials are primal for me. I use a lead holder and a lead pointer, which sharpen my point perfectly every time. I love using a combination of hard and very soft leads in my drawings.  
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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble