Caryn King is a narrative painter who began her artistic career with clay. After 14 years of making her living as a sculptor, intermingled with a few years earning her BFA in Illustration and work as a toy designer and an art teacher, King came home to painting. “My love and appreciation for animals came full circle when I started painting animals.”
As you would expect from a former clay artist, texture is very important to King’s paintings. This feature is one of the things that allows her animal paintings to become intensely expressive without becoming sentimental. “I love the process of painting, the textures and effects the paint creates,” says King. “Sometimes the drag of the brush and the layers of paint that show through are my primary goals.” Her paintings also emphasize a tactile appreciation of the animals themselves. She believes the animals she paints reflect a peace that sometimes seems so elusive to humans. “The feathers of a chicken, the wool of a sheep, the snout of a pig, are some examples of the remarkable visual elements that I strive to enhance in order to capture a viewer’s attention and ultimately an emotional response founded in reality, not sentimentality.”
King raised her children in the Boston area, moved to Martha’s Vineyard, and now lives on a mountain in Vermont. “I love being part of such a strong and welcoming community. I find it amazing that the essence of original country life remains in Vermont, given the amount of building and expansion that has taken place. Many of my paintings celebrate the beauty of country life and it’s (animal) occupants.”
“A love of nature and a respect for life in all its forms have provided me the basis of my artistic vision. Currently my subject matter focuses on animals. I find my subjects close at hand…with my four amazing “pet” chickens! One of my main concerns is conveying emotion. When painting animals I paint to convey the individuality and inner spirit of each of my subjects,” she says.
Working in both acrylics and oils, her paintings are created over long periods of time. “I start the individual paintings, move to others, and come back eventually to each. Many paintings begin on a textured surface I create on canvas, paper, or board, a process to give depth and variety to the paint and ultimately to the mood of each painting.” Caryn King is a full time artist, painting in her hillside studio in South Newfane, Vermont.
Below is an article about my work from one of my first shows…way back in 2007, that I always enjoy reading. An interesting look at the subject of animal paintings.
No Animals Were Harmed in the Making of Caryn King’s Paintings
by Paula Melton
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are
so placid and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long. – from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman
Animals are a trap. A huge network of booby hatches, really, and in these cynical times, you can hardly make art about them without losing your footing. Even supposing you manage to avoid preciousness, you might still be swallowed up by the nearby cutesy factor. Most people are smart enough to steer clear of the cheap laughs trap (where many a photographer of top-hat-wearing chimps languishes to this day), only to go keister over teakettle into the pathetic fallacy. As with all art involving sentient beings, romanticizations abound, in which animals are shown to be more noble, more free or more intelligent than humans and generally lionized (not even appropriate for lions, though you can understand how it happens). And don’t even get me started on grim depictions of animals who appear to understand that their lives will end in a slaughterhouse. I am a vegetarian, but we are talking about art, not lunch.
This web of critical pitfalls is enough to make any sensitive artist spend her days attempting to paint powerfully moving abstractions of sticks and recycled tires. But not Caryn King. King paints animals most of the time, and she avoids every single one of the traps — which are really glimpses of our culture’s deeply troubled relationship to the other species we share the planet with. Since King has consciously eschewed participation in this troubled relationship, she is able to see animals for themselves. And when she paints her narrative portraits, expressing her personal emotional experience of the creatures she spends so much time with, we are free to recognize ourselves in the animal and the animal in ourselves without falling back on pre-existing sentiments.
“I have to really like the animal and get to know it before I paint it,” said King, who spends hours quietly hanging out with the pigs, chickens, horses, cows, goats and sheep at her favorite farms, observing their behavior and forming attachments and opinions. She is rather like a Jane Goodall of the barnyard, except that King’s observations are intentionally personal and emotional, not scientific.”I’m not trying to duplicate nature,” said King. “I go for the soul of the animal. I try hard to personalize it. I’m emotionally attached to everybody.”
King began her artistic career with clay. After 14 years of making her living as a sculptor, intermingled with a few years earning her BFA in illustration and stints as a toy designer and an art teacher, King came home to painting. “I always said I would paint someday if I could figure out what to put on the blank canvas,” she explained. “Then I hit on it, and I’ve been non-stop. I do this full time, seven days a week, and I love it.” It helps that she doesn’t always begin with a blank canvas: she sometimes paints on weathered barn wood, and uses multimedia collaging.
Texture is just as important to King’s paintings as you would expect from a former clay artist, and that feature is one of the things that allows the paintings to be expressive without becoming sentimental. An initial glance at “Tofu and Tuna,” which shows two pigs snuggled together with their chins resting on a fence, probably results in a smile of recognition, maybe even an “aww.” But linger with these two guys a bit, and you start to notice that the painting engages the mind as well as the heart. It features the luminous green background that has become part of King’s signature style, cross-hatched with brushstrokes that continue into the pigs’ faces. The pigs themselves are overlaid with several long, continuous streaks that reassure the jaded 21st-century viewer, perpetually beset by cynicism and irony: yes, this is emotional; yes, Tofu and Tuna are cute; but this is a painted surface. The viewer will also note that the apparently smiling pigs, upon further study, are actually placid and self-contained.
“I love the process of painting, the textures and effects the paint creates,” said King. “Sometimes the drag of the brush and the layers of paint that show through are my goals.” The paintings also emphasize a tactile appreciation of the animals themselves. “I love the beauty of the animals — their texture and their fur,” King said. In “Zoe,” King foregrounds the softness of a favorite goose’s head and neck, continuing the same feathery strokes in the background. The contrast of the feathery texture with Zoe’s smooth bill and shining blue eye increases the goose’s expressiveness — but note that her expression is again best described as placid. She has her own goosey thoughts and motivations, not readily definable in human terms. King captures a distinctive personality to create a portrait, recognizing that this bird has sentiments just like humans do, but respecting that they are not necessarily the same sentiments humans have. Zoe is represented as a goose, not as a person.
“I have spent long periods of time standing very still in the chicken coop,” King said. “The movement and interaction of the inhabitants here can be humorous or surprisingly serious at any given moment. These personal reactions that I feel towards farm animals are what I want to capture and share through my art.” King achieves a playful balance of emotion and distance through her masterful balance of illustrator’s skills with clay worker’s skills. “All the animals have stories,” she says, but the absorption and re-telling of their stories is an artistic act, explicitly filtered through King’s personal lens. Her description of this process reminds me of Wordsworth’s description of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” King’s project is unmistakably Romantic, but with a capital R. These paintings do not romanticize.
Still, with titles like “Grass Roots Politics” (is the crow perhaps filling the hen’s ear with notions the rooster wouldn’t like?) and “Hmm” (a hen poised over an egg), King presents her paintings to viewers as fun, amusing narratives, to be enjoyed with smiles and laughter rather than “appreciated” from an intellectual distance. They engage the emotions fully, directly, and foremost. “I always enjoy hearing what viewers’ reactions to my animal paintings are,” she said. “Many times, they evoke memories or conversations about the animal world. Antics of chickens and goats are plentiful!”
Obviously, farmyard hijinx are not the sort of thing we normally discuss while politely nibbling crackers and grapes at gallery openings. We can use this work as a way to address important issues — not least of all what it really means to be a civilized human being — but our emotional engagement is what gets us there. Our emotional engagement is, arguably, the very subject of these paintings. And King’s de facto rejection of Hushed-Tones Art only adds to the fun.
Paula Melton is Gallery Walk’s Assistant Editor and a free-lance publicity writer for the arts.