There are moments that just turn your life around, and you don’t even know what hit you,” artist Carolyn Coalson observed about the fall from the steps of her Avenues home that left her painting arm permanently damaged.
She somehow completed the work for a 1996 show at Phillips Gallery by painting with her left arm. Coalson finished just in time, hanging a few sketches from her journal to complete the exhibition.
“I got bogged down with it,” she recalled. “The hand still just doesn’t work right, and it is painful. As long as I try to focus outside of it and not check in with it, I am fine. I just compensate.”
Her artist friends were not particularly comforting. “They would say artists can paint with their toes if they really want to paint, which was no solace to me at all.” She admits to being angry about the still limited use of her wrist. “I know there are so many people who overcome obstacles of horrendous proportion to their physical beings,” she said, “but I am pissed about it. I need the wrist. I need it to do things. I’ve lots to do.”
On Friday, it’s another opening, another show for Coalson at the same downtown gallery. This work is decidedly different from the romantic, pastel abstracts people recognize as hers. There is nothing pretty, pink or reassuring about these new pictures. Instead, there is a depth, a raw command of paint and canvas that sucks the viewer right into an emotion—sometimes anger (as with “Blue Rush”), sometimes something else less easily defined. With this show, Coalson commands complete attention.
After her fall, Coalson took her aging cat, Eleanor Roosevelt, and impulsively moved to warmer climes—to a place she had never even seen. She found herself living mile-high on a mountaintop in Prescott, Ariz., where it still freezes, still snows. But it was a change, one that clearly has had an impact on the artist and her work.
Coalson works with oil on paper in a “funky” 30-by-44 format, which she said makes everything a little more difficult. Glazes take time to dry, and she uses many of them to modify the tone of her underlying color.
A big change in her work, Coalson said, came when she stopped thinking she could hurry the painting process along. “It evolves on its own terms, in its own time, over many months. I spend time looking rather than painting when something begins to emerge.
“There’s lots of stuff under that first thing you see, OK? That doesn’t happen hurriedly. I have to let them cure and dry and I have to look at them. I have to spend a lot of time just letting things become what they are going to become,” Coalson said.
She mixes content, ideas and intent within the pigment, she explained. “A lot of painters do this; I’m certainly not original. There’s just a history that I want to get keep going back into. I go into it, paint over it, come back out of it, go into it and go back out again.” Coalson said the crew packing the new paintings for shipping asked why they were so heavy, “because a piece of paper shouldn’t be that heavy,” she said with a laugh. And it is just the paper and ideas—the works aren’t framed until they reach the gallery.
She said an artist friend best explained what has happened to her work thematically. “She said, ‘I have not seen more intense paint ever, and I’m interested.’ That’s all she said. I can’t say more than that. How can you put red over red over red over red as I did? How can you continue to put red over red? I mean, you can’t do that formally, but I did and it got very deep and very dense.”
Born in Ohil and reared in Orange County, Coalson moved with her husband and young son to Salt Lake City in 1972. The 1970s she recalls as “domesticity” involving husband, son, a house, two cars, a cat and a boat. The ’80s were “a leap into the unknown” following a divorce and the death of her mother.
She returned to college and eventually entered the art program at the University of Utah. Painting, she said, became the connection “between me and the future life and the questions of the past life. It was a metaphorical bridge between the two.”
Her undergraduate work was traditional formal training. When she started work on her master’s degree, her emphasis was abstract expressionism, largely due to the influence of Tony Smith. “Besides starting each class with a 20-minute meditation session, he just asked us to pick an object and draw it for an entire quarter. To bring in materials that were not artist materials and use those instead. He gave no directions and I took this same class for three quarters. His class knocked me upside-down.”
Painting gradually became a career. “It is not financially feasible to be an artist, but I have been resolute to stay with it.” Of her newest work, Coalson said, “This much I know: It is about loss. And it is about living.”