Carolyn Caldwell was raised as an army brat got so she got used to traveling at a very young age. The family lived in England, Japan and Okinawa, Missouri, and California before settling in Montana when she was in her early teens. Road trips in the family station wagon visiting relatives from California to Pennsylvania to Montana proved to have a strong influence on her. She was captivated by regional differences in the houses, trees, and landscapes and developed a passion for exploring.
Caldwell was drawn to art early on. At age 10 she got a Brownie Bullet camera and found a passion for photography. “I spent so much time looking through a camera lens and learned a great deal about composition that way,” she says. It’s no surprise, then, that in college, she majored in art with a concentration in photography. She treated college as a smorgasbord, sampling Gonzaga University, Universite de Strasbourg in France, (where she hitch- hiked around Europe), San Francisco State, ultimately receiving a degree in art from University of Montana. Before graduating she had worked with multi-handicapped children and from that was offered a full scholarship to Boston College to earn a graduate degree in Deaf-blind Education. Upon graduating she taught at Perkins School for the Blind in Boston and programs in Kentucky and Rhode Island.
But art kept calling her. She knew she was an artist at heart and her challenge was how to support herself creating art. She chose Architecture, enrolling in the 6 year program at Boston Architectural Center and worked for Boston firms while she completed her degree. Utterly exhausted from all this schooling she flew to the Caribbean for a vacation and ended up staying 16 years.
She found herself in the right place at the right time. St. John in the US Virgin Islands was just beginning to be developed so there was plenty of work for a young architect. She worked for local firms for a few years then became a licensed AIA architect and hung out her own shingle designing houses in the vernacular style of the islands – Caribbean Cottages. She lived on a sailboat for 7 years, cruising down the island chain and spending months exploring Venezuela, before building a house in Coral Bay, St. John.
But she was still drawn to painting, especially the watercolors of Winslow Homer. “I was seeing his scenes all around me – the tropical water, the white boats, the dark skin of the Caribbean people and I felt such a longing to create art like that. I found a mentor in David Millard, author of The Joy of Watercolor, who just happened to live on St. Thomas and he agreed to teach me.”
After several years of being consumed with painting while working full time — she was often up until midnight painting in a spare room, Caldwell set up at the Coral Bay Art Fair and sold several paintings. “It was a pivotal moment for me,” she says. “I felt as if I’d come home; that I was finally doing what I was meant to be doing.”
She exhibited in local venues, eventually opening her own space, Grasshopper Gallery in Coral Bay - tin roof and blue shutters under palm trees, and her openings were popular events. But learning that she preferred painting to running a gallery she accepted an offer to show her work in an established gallery in Mongoose Junction.
Her yearning to learn and grow, and be in a bigger art world prompted a move back to the states. She chose Deer Isle, Maine for it's gritty authenticity, picturesque harbor and thriving artist community. She purchased and renovated a one room schoolhouse for her home and studio.
After 14 years in New England she again got the itch for a change and moved back to her family's roots in Montana. Even though I loved the tropics and New England, my identity is as a Westerner. Returning to Montana feels very much like coming home.
Her process is to start with a black-and-white value concept. She then blocks in big shapes of color, then models the shapes into three dimensional forms, layering the colors to get a richness. She exaggerates light and dark so that the focus is on the essentials of the scene rather than the details. Even though her work would be categorized as realism, an abstract foundation is a very important aspect her paintings.
Travel still plays an important part in Caldwell’s art stimulating her senses and giving her a bigger understanding of the world. She has been awarded artist residencies in Vermont, Idaho, Canada, Portugal and recently Senegal, which she describes as a setting so potent and powerful, that it inspired a new series of figurative work.
Travel and different experiences keep her from becoming too habituated to what’s around her. Whether exploring muted fog in California, the intense brightness of Senegal or the starkness of Montana's mountains and prairies, Caldwell’s work shows different sides of atmosphere and light, and she picks up on the beauty of change.
A recent road trip brought it all home. For a show in a Dallas gallery she loaded her paintings into her pickup camper and headed off for a three-month road trip, from Maine to Texas, California, Arizona, Florida, Montana,Texas again, and then back to Maine. She negotiated around tornadoes, closed roads due to snow, and a hailstorm that dented her camper all while searching out new landscapes to paint.
To her surprise, when she came back and painted those scenes, she discovered how universal the images were. A scene that looked like Maine was from New Orleans, an Indiana field of mustard could be Oklahoma. Fields met trees; water pushed against land. The exact location became irrelevant.
“People bring their own perceptions, memories, and feelings to a painting. They look at one of my paintings and think they've been there even if they never have been. That's what I want. To create landscapes that resonate with the viewer even if they've never been there - the universality of place in our memory. It goes back to my upbringing. We moved every two to two-and-a-half years, and we lived in lots of different places. When you grow up like that, you can feel as if you don’t belong anywhere but belong everywhere at the same time.
But I feel more at home in Montana than I have anywhere. “I'm inspired by the landscapes and the sense of vitality and freedom. There's space for me here.'