Illustrator and Artist Living in her Studio - Carolyn Gowdy

Date of photography: 19th May 2017

For well-known artist and illustrator, Carolyn Gowdy, life and creativity are inextricable;  it is therefore not surprising that her home is her studio and her studio is her home - the two are but one, a home for her imagination.   Anyone entering this astonishing studio/home really does cross the threshold into Carolyn’s world of dreams.   Everything that is seen in her work is here somewhere, and everything that she brings into her studio will at some point be woven into another narrative, another magical realm that is yet awaiting its birth.   On coming to see Carolyn’s studio, a visitor once described it as being like the sanctuary of an alchemist, and it certainly is a place where worlds of enchantment are created and life’s base metal is turned into imagination's golden fabric.   Closer observation will also reveal incisive observations about the current state of the ‘real world’, and of humanity too - the hopes of happiness we all nurture are shown at risk of being overwhelmed by disillusionment and falsehood.   Some people might think Carolyn’s head is too often in the clouds, but no-one should doubt that her feet are always firmly on the ground.

The full story:

Carolyn Gowdy describes herself as an illustrator and an artist.  She is known for her narrative paintings, for her drawings, for collages that are populated by a wonderful cast of idiosyncratic characters, placed amongst imagery that is playful, reflective and philosophical.  Illustrator and artist, yes, but poet and philosopher too.

“I was the elder of two daughters, born to loving parents in Seattle, which was then seen as very much a liberal and progressive city in a largely conservative USA.   My father worked in a bank - he was the first of his family to go to university - and he was quite open-minded.   My mother was a homemaker during my growing-up years.  She might well have wanted to achieve more but most women of her generation still stayed at home.   I really had a happy childhood and though we were most definitely not wealthy, I never felt short of  anything.”   It is rare for my sitters to reminisce about their childhoods with much enthusiasm but Carolyn is a complete exception;  she says, quite radiantly:  “My childhood felt completely remarkable to me.   I felt loved, I was allowed the space to grow and to play, and I was encouraged to be myself.  I followed my imagination, spent lots of time in the great outdoors, close to nature, where I used to talk to the flowers, something lots of children do.”   Perhaps she might have said, ‘used to do’, for we both reflect sadly on the fact that children nowadays are more likely to talk to Siri on their iPads than to converse with nature.  “I was considered a ‘creative child’ and although there was always music in our house, I am not quite sure where this creativity sprang from.”

Carolyn attended a local primary school, taking a fairly conventional path through her early education.   Then, at age 10, she was awarded a scholarship to ‘The Creative Arts School’ in Seattle.   Here, on Saturday mornings, budding talent and imagination were encouraged to flow freely outside of conventional teaching methods.  Carolyn then progressed to an inner-city high school.  In her final year, having read a book about Michelangelo, Carolyn felt inspired almost overnight and somehow determined to be an artist.   “Of course, my parents were not discouraging but I was warned that most artists never quite make it;  they struggle in poverty, and often disappear into obscurity.”

Carolyn’s aspiration to become a designer and illustrator led her to the University of Washington, in Seattle.   Having prospered there, she turned her eyes to the East Coast, certain that that was where the best talent might find a niche, a place to blossom.   “Milan, I had big ideas,” she tells me, and indeed, her confidence and aspiration paid off;  she succeeded in getting a scholarship to the famous Rhode Island School of Design, founded in 1877 and ranked among the best art and design universities in the United States.   “I felt totally privileged;  I was there for two years and was free to do more or less whatever I wanted to do, in the company of the best, most innovative, creative people.”  

For Carolyn, an outsider to this world, the reality felt somewhat different.   It gradually became clear that her fellows came mostly from privileged East Coast backgrounds;  they already had the necessary support systems and connections in place, such that the right doors might simply open before them.  Those without similar advantages might easily struggle on the poverty line, just like artists the world over.   Although Carolyn was talented, able, well-educated and smart, she learned that all this wasn’t necessarily enough for her to succeed in the highly competitive, commercial world where introductions to the ‘right people’ can often make the difference.   She worked in a bookstore, did waitressing, and worked in a printmaking studio.

As if by instinct, Carolyn kept looking eastwards for a way forward and having secured a scholarship to study for an MA at the Royal College of Art in London, she took it without hesitation.   “I was 23 by then and I arrived to London in the midst of the Royal Jubilee Celebrations (1977) and what struck me most was that while the evidence of tradition and pageantry was all around me, so was a lively spirit of rebellion - these were the days when punk was in the air.”

“Three years at the RCA was an incredible opportunity to grow, both as an artist and a person.   I was cocooned in an environment of excellence!   England seemed a place where traditions were seen as the foundation for everything yet, at one and the same time, artistic boundaries were being crossed and conventions challenged in a stimulating way;  I created images there that I felt were properly understood.”   In 1978, Carolyn won the Royal College’s Drawing Prize.   “At that time, I was greatly moved by Simone de Beauvoir’s iconic book, The Second Sex, and I produced a portfolio inspired by her work - I must say, my personal and political feelings really chimed with her view of women in society.   Later, when I went out into the marketplace, I found that this portfolio failed to impress many of the mostly male, art director fraternity - my work was about the ‘second sex’, it was pretty edgy, and most art directors just didn’t seem to know what to do with it.   I was seen as ‘not commercial enough’.   And, if the rent was to be paid, not being commercial enough meant finding alternatives.   Fortunately, I enjoyed teaching illustration at Middlesex Polytechnic and at various other art colleges.   I also worked as a painter and tracer in the animation industry.”

In 1981, Carolyn Gowdy’s name appeared in ‘Radical Illustrators’, the special issue of a quarterly magazine published by the AOI, London.  

I asked her how she feels about herself now, as an internationally established artist;  hesitating for a moment, she replies:  “These past 16 years have been liberating;  I have been able to expand the range of my work into printmaking, painting on a large scale, and also sculpture.  I also produce and sell wearable art-pieces."

Carolyn lives and works at home, a home that is also her studio;  indeed, it might be more accurate to say that she lives in her studio.   Every room, every bit of space, every shelf is lined with systematically organised boxes containing three-dimensional objects, scrap books, photographs, miniatures, booklets, dried flowers, shells, clock-faces, silver snowflakes, children’s toys and hundreds of other visual references which may become, at some stage, part of her three dimensional work or be drawn into or attached to a canvas, as a layer. On entering this astonishing studio, you really do cross a threshold into Carolyn’s magical world of dreams.   Everything that is seen in her work is here somewhere, and everything that she brings into her studio will at some point be woven into another narrative, another magical world that is yet waiting to be born.   Once, a visitor who came to see Carolyn’s studio, described it as being like the sanctuary of an alchemist, and it certainly is a place where enchanting worlds are created and base metal is turned into gold.   Closer observation will also reveal incisive comments about the current state of the world, and of humanity too - the hopes we all nurture are seen to be at risk of being drowned by illusion and falsehood.   Some might perceive Carolyn’s head to be in the clouds but it would be a mistake not to see that her feet are also firmly on the ground.

I move through Carolyn’s studio with great difficulty;  the spaces are tight, every inch is utilised, and objects protrude.   My frame is much too big and I keep bumping into shelves, fearing that I will knock something down.   Even the chair I sit on is a chair in miniature and it makes me look ridiculously huge.   Carolyn, however, almost glides through this very personal space of hers, looking comfortable in her very own magical cocoon, where everything might look chaotic superficially but absolutely nothing is disordered.   If one looks more closely, it is all about layers, where nothing is actually out of place and everything is interconnected.   To see Carolyn in her studio helps me towards a better understanding of the world she inhabits and the worlds she creates.   I suggest to her that her studio should be preserved for posterity, exactly as it is;  it is an artwork in itself.  Perhaps one day it will be?

I took courage and asked her where she saw herself in five years’ time, fearing a little that my question would be taken the wrong way.   If you were to meet Carolyn for the first time, her manners and her demeanour would encourage you to think that you’d met a dreamer, someone who deliberately aims to dissociate herself from the culture that requires every minute to be planned for and every target to be pursued.   But anyone who has eyes to see will soon be aware that Carolyn is no artistic meanderer;  she discerns her way with care, intuitively, just as she always did, from Seattle to the eastern seaboard, then further east still, to Europe and to London, never losing her focus for a moment.  

Carolyn responds to my question:  “Milan, after living in this home and studio for so many years, I do feel a little constrained within it;  I need more space, so I could do my larger work here, and sculpture as well, but at the same time, I suspect I would soon fill up the extra space.   This year has been difficult for me too:  my mother’s recent death has affected me deeply.   It has also put me in touch with the prospect of my own mortality.   This year, I have been taking some time out to reflect and recalibrate.   I have paused to consider where I’m going in the next 30 years.   How can I best fulfil my potential, produce meaningful and authentic work?   A symphony is not complete until it is shared with an audience;  lots of my work has not been shared, it is sitting in boxes.   Perhaps it is time to revisit some of it, expose it to the light, allow it to be seen on gallery walls, part with it, and allow it to be sold to those who will perhaps understand it, appreciate it, and welcome it into their own worlds.   On a personal level, I feel I have to get in touch with my gratitude, that is what is energising;  gratitude for my good health, friends, family, and for being able to be an artist.”

I asked Carolyn if it had been harder or easier to break through as an artist in London than it would had been in the States;  she answered in a slightly oblique way:  “Studio space in London is a challenge now because of such high rents.  It wasn’t like that when I started out.   Easier?   Harder?   For an illustrator, it is simply different now as most of illustration has gone digital.   I was an early adopter of digital myself;  then I quickly realised that my strength was in producing artwork that was almost or actually tactile, so I stuck to that.”   Indeed the dreamlike quality and the tactile nature of Carolyn Gowdy’s work has become her signature, instantly recognised, but never repetitive.

As I walk out into the street from this studio of dreams, the world outside seems bold, crude, noisy and aggressive - it is a harsh landing back into the quotidian.   Dreams always have to end, unfortunately, but the best magic always remains; it lives on in the imagination.

Text edited:  29th July 2017

Page modified: 22nd April 2019