Studio Visit with Carol John in Athens, Georgia

Carol John in her studio in Athens, Georgia.

From the outside, the studio of Athens artist Carol John is a nondescript, monotone brick building whose ordinariness belies what’s behind its metal doors. Her space is flooded with natural light from skylights that highlights small and large canvases filled with swirling forms, bubbles, pop graphics, bursting flowers, and, most of all, saturated color. I sat down with John in her studio to discuss what led her to Athens, the city’s art scene, and her art practice.

So just to start off, where did you grow up how did you get to calling Athens your home base?

I was born in New Jersey but my dad worked overseas, so I grew up mostly outside of the United States. I spent most of elementary school years in the Netherlands and then for high school I was in London. When I finished high school, it made sense for me to go to college in America, so I came back and went to school at Bard College in upstate New York for a little bit. I pretty quickly realized that I was a city girl and needed to be in New York City, so I moved there and attended the School of Visual Arts for painting. From there, I met my husband, Carl Martin, who is a photographer and artist. He and I lived in New York for about 10 years before we decided to come down here to Athens. We wanted to be somewhere where we could have a lot more studio time. New York’s demands and just making a living there were very challenging, and we knew we’d have a lot of space and a lot of time here. It initially wasn’t going to be such a long-term commitment―we thought we might be here for a few years―but we’ve been here since 1990 and it’s been really great for us.

I saw that you’ve been doing some design and commercial work here as well. Can you talk about that?

We’ve been working the last 25 years for Michael Stipe, and we’ve done a lot of really cool design projects and have been able to develop a fun design architectural practice along with our art practices. We’ve been involved in a lot of great projects in Athens, such as an independent movie theater and a lot of bars and restaurants, so just a lot of projects that have been community building, which as artists is always part of our goal. We feel like if we were somewhere else, that might have not been possible.

We’re at the point where we’re having more time to devote to our artwork, which is a really great time in our lives. I have a pretty rigorous studio practice. I’m here every single day. It’s always been a top priority of mine to just be in the studio and work as much as I can.

John’s smaller works on canvas and paper.

You don’t really think of Athens as a typical cultural center, so what was the adjustment like when you moved here from New York?

Since we moved here in ’90, there has been a ton of growth. Even though Athens was a tiny town, there was a lot of culture. There was this group of artists and musicians creating their own vibe and livelihood in art. They weren’t trying to imitate the big cities or didn’t even look up to them. So when we first got here it was super fun because there were just so many cool people and that made it really easy to adjust. We do travel a lot though. We try to travel to major cities and see what people are up to there too. On vacation, we go up to New York a lot because most of our time is just devoted to being better artists.

Do you still see the same vibe among the artists and musicians here today, where they don’t really aspire to be like anywhere else and just do their own thing?

It’s interesting because we’ve gone through a lot of waves over those years with people coming and going. Athens is a very transient town because of the university. People come in to teach and go to graduate school. This newest phase is all of these really cool artists coming from California and Brooklyn, with galleries opening and this is a really cool time. But Athens is also a place where outsiders can come and just be themselves, and I think it’s always been that way.

Carol Johns studio space in Athens, Georgia.

You mentioned some new gallery openings, like Tif Sigfrids and Ridley Howard’s that opened this summer. What do you think that will bring or has already brought to Athens?

It’s already brought so much. When Ridley and Tif had their opening last month, a ton of people came over from Atlanta, and that’s unusual. It was also written up in the national press. I think it’s all going to make us feel really good to have that level of art market, which is unusual for a town this size. It also makes other artists think about coming here. Artists influence each other. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more people moving here from larger cities.

Do you think that these artists are coming for some of the same reasons that you did?

Definitely―for studio space and lifestyle. So many good artists who have left here for major cities spent so much energy just trying to make a living that they ended up sacrificing their studio time. They get this benefit where they get to meet all of these artists and see all of this art, but they lose out on that other personal part, which is the practice. And if we lose out on practicing art, are we really artists?

Details of John’s work with rope forms.

You put a strong emphasis on color in your works. So, what do you try to convey through that, or what do you think color brings to the table for you specifically?

Color is definitely something that enhances my life and working in color is such a great thing for me to look forward to every morning. I never tire of it. I really like to experiment with mixing colors that aren’t typical, because I think people are fearful of color in that they’re afraid that they’re going to paint their house the wrong color or something, and I just feel like there is no wrong color. Also, color does innately spark associations in our minds. Like familiar things. I don’t know exactly what “blue” might mean, but I’m finding out that blue can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people.

I noticed that you also use a lot of basic shapes such as ropes and florals and pop graphics. Why are you drawn to those forms?

I find that I try to keep my vocabulary pretty small. I’m pretty satisfied with just a few tools in my iconography. The circle has always been a part of my work and I’ve tried to find a million ways to use that shape. As for the rope, it started out as stripes, and then stripes turned into checkers and checkers became ropes. Everything is trying to explore a basic shape in any new way that I can think of. If you look back on my work throughout my career, it’s pretty much the same shapes and objects. I just try to keep it really simple. I’m not trying to trick anybody or go over anyone’s head.

You tend to do either small prints or very large works on canvas. Can you talk about the different source materials and thought processes with each?

I really enjoy working on multiple things at once. Everything is always fair game to continue working on. I mean, some things I’ve been working on for 20 years and some things have been a couple weeks. When I’m working on a smaller canvas, I can really get into the colors and shapes I’m painting more intimately. Sometimes my smaller works serve somewhat as a sketch for my larger ones. They really help each other in that way.

Carol John’s studio space in Athens, Georgia.

What would your advice be for emerging artists who are thinking of going into big cities versus a place like Athens?

Everyone has different approaches to art and my approach is practice and putting a lot of time into physically painting. Other people would rather read about painting and follow that as their practice. So if you wanted to be the kind of artist I am, then you just have to have a lot of time and you have to create a way to be in the studio. But for young artists in general, it takes a while to get to a place where you have time and energy, so really my advice is don’t get discouraged. It’s hard to keep your spirit in this field.

Would you say that artists here keep each other’s spirits up and keep each other from getting discouraged?

I think we really enjoy each other’s success. We don’t spend a lot of time in each other’s studios, but I think we’re all very aware and invested in each other’s careers. And it really helps to have that support system.

Do you think that’s because Athens is such a small town, or do you find that to be the case everywhere?

I think that artists always find each other and fall in love with each other, but I think we are particularly accessible to each other in Athens. We can pretty much walk to each other’s houses and everyone lives in the same area, which makes our bond that much stronger.

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