Studio Tour highlights enduring power of connection

Scott Powell

Sometimes it’s hard to visualize how one might find beauty in the dry, flat landscapes of Colorado’s Front Range.

However, the Carnegie Center’s Artist Studio Tour and Sale held this past weekend reimagines this unassuming land as a vibrant, emotional expanse of limitless potential and serves a reminder of just how much beauty the human mind is capable of finding if it just makes the effort.

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woman painting in studio
Artist Mary Caraway paints in her studio during the Artist Studio Tour and Sale in Fort Collins on Sept. 29. (Megan McGregor | The Collegian)

Take for example Mary Caraway’s “Wood Pile Art,” a series of works painted on oriented strand board. The subject is simple: a barn sitting alone atop a hill while clouds drift across the grey sky overhead, casting shadows on the crops below.

With its dark tones and defined outlines, the painting possesses a Van Gogh-esque quality that transfers the viewer to a different world: a bittersweet, sublime land of isolation and self-reflection. It’s a world that is recognizable yet seems out of reach to our infinitely connected selves today.

The oriented strand board as her canvas makes the work seem as if it has just been plucked from the very barn it depicts, giving the viewer hope that perhaps this world is not as out of reach as we have come to believe.

“I started on plywood,” Caraway said as she sat in her studio painting a pale full moon over a pastoral setting. “Then one day, I tried the OSB and (found) it … almost gives it an old, oil painting look to it. … It’s not smooth and glossy.”

True, these paintings are not smooth and glossy, and neither is the story of the landscapes they depict. The history of the West is a rugged, messy story of struggle against adversity, a story that is still unfolding and being told today. And Caraway’s work doesn’t shy away from that.

“Growing up in (the) New Orleans area and always wanting to live in Colorado made it so that, when I got here, I love it and I never get tired of it. … It’s what brings me peace.” -Mary Caraway, artist behind “Wood Pile Art.”

As far as what it is that attracts Caraway to rural settings, she said it brings her tranquility. 

“Growing up in (the) New Orleans area and always wanting to live in Colorado made it so that, when I got here, I love it and I never get tired of it,” Caraway said. “It’s what brings me peace.”

This peacefulness shows through in the quiet reserve of her scenes, which, when contrasted with her rugged, tumultuous aesthetics, creates an enticing paradox, a puzzle for the viewer to solve: How can these two worlds, that of the quiet, solitary barn and the rough and rugged world from which it comes, coexist with one another?

It’s a tasty meal for the mind and a feast for the eyes.

art studio in backyard
Artist Amelia Caruso opens her home and outdoor studio to the public during the Artist Studio Tour and Sale in Fort Collins on Sept. 29. (Megan McGregor | The Collegian)

Amelia Caruso, as energetic and bubbly as the paintings she creates, was another featured artist at the Studio Tour. Her looping, swirling, tentacle-like design was composed of different sized circles creeping up a canvas splattered with dripping beige colors. 

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“The circular form is the smallest thing there is, and it’s the biggest thing there is,” Caruso said. 

Her house, which doubles as her studio, looks like Andy Warhol’s re-imagining of the Sistine Chapel, with colorful, psychedelic renderings of the Virgin Mary lining the walls. Bubble patterns, like the one hanging at the Carnegie Center, adorn everything from scarves to t-shirts to a reupholstered pair of fold-out theater seats.

“Because of gravity, everything seems to form in a round form,” Caruso said. “Even we become a short round form as we get older. It’s just a comforting, maternal shape.”

The gravitational weight of circles also informs Caruso’s process and the structure of her designs, with the bigger circles being what dictate the layout of the piece, while the smaller circles fall into place around them, like planets in their orbits. 

But what inspires these circular designs? Ironically enough, Caruso says it’s the state’s lack of humidity.

“I’m way more comfortable in a dryer climate,” Caruso said. “The landscape that we have is semi-arid.”

It may sound like a paradoxical muse, considering the Kraken-esque deep sea feel one gets from looking at Caruso’s work, but that’s what makes it so spectacular. The wetness of the paintings balances out the dryness of the area they’re painted in.

artist talking to person
Artist Nha Vuu explains a painting technique in her studio to a visitor during the Artist Studio Tour and Sale in Fort Collins on Sept. 29. (Megan McGregor | The Collegian)

Somewhere between the wild abstraction of Caruso’s work and the grounded homeyness of Caraway’s OSB paintings, there is Nha Vuu, whose minimalist cityscapes provide a bridge between the eastern and western artistic traditions that she was raised on.

“(Growing up in a Chinese household in America), I always questioned ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What does it mean to be Chinese?’ and ‘What is this country that I came from that I don’t know anything about?’” Vuu said.

It was through painting that she was able to reconcile these competing identities, creating pieces that depict urban and suburban landscapes like those she experienced in America in a Chinese ink and brush style.

“I think that that’s a lesson for our society today, … to learn to live with people and to not hide behind your giant backyards and your fences, (to) get to know other people.” -Nha Vuu, featured artist at Carnegie Center’s Artist Studio Tour.

The result is a whimsical, puzzle-like re-imagining of a cityscape that trots up, down and across the canvas in a form that is as orderly and structured as a circuit board, while also maintaining Kandinsky-like freedom. But it’s what the painting leaves out that really gives it its power.

“The negative space is just as important, if not more important, in the weight of the piece,” Vuu said. “It allows the piece to breathe, and it allows the viewer to lend their own interpretation to it.”

Vuu’s work certainly exhibits an excellent command of negative space, reminding the viewer that there is still room in this world for human connection. Our society is more than just big businesses and tall buildings and crowds of people huddling about with their eyeballs glued to their cell phone screens.

The world is complicated, but not so much so that we are incapable of understanding each other. There’s still room for growth and for genuine relationships, according to Vuu.

“I think that that’s a lesson for our society today,” Vuu said. “To learn to live with people and to not hide behind your giant backyards and your fences, (to) get to know other people.”

Scotty Powell can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @scottysseus.