Artists I Grew Up With: Caryl Henry Alexander

Playing with artists is a lot like running with scissors in your hand.

1-let change

Let Change. Acrylic on canvas, 2011

It is to feel like the little girl who is perhaps dropped off at an auntie’s house to spend a month in the summer, where she is allowed to play in the dirt with no concern for getting her clothes dirty; or to leap off the brick wall at the side of the driveway with no concern for breaking her neck; or to ride her bike in the middle of the street – everything she does not, under any circumstances, get to do at home! It is a wonderful thing.

Of course auntie does not let her run with scissors, but you get my point. She revels all month long in the atmosphere of “yes” instead of “no.” “Yes, of course, my love. Go ahead,” her aunt says. “Try it!” The summer lives in her mind as a blissful memory forever.

Caryl Henry has been like that beloved aunt for me for more than half my life. Playing in the studio with Caryl, a lifelong artist, gives me permission to tap into a side of myself that I don’t easily access by any other means. Since I met her at college, my first or second day, I’ve been able to go there with her. “Sure! Try it. See how it turns out.”

Painted Tree

Painted Tree. 2013. Auburn, California. This tree was the central focal point for a labyrinth created from all-natural objects found on Anita Posey’s land. The project was a collaboration with San Francisco artist Happy (L.A.) Hyder.

To this day I watch ordinary adults go into Caryl’s studio, tentatively excited but constrained; afraid they won’t “get it right.” I’ve seen the timid beginnings – the paintbrush a foreign object in their hands – transformed into exuberant expressions of deeply buried desires. I’ve seen “Oh, I’m not creative” stripped away by Caryl’s “Oh, just give it a shot!”

That she is a teacher of youth must be what gives her the access to teaching adults as well. The children have so much less to unlearn, being for the most part naturally free, not yet squashed down into compulsory good behavior, keeping their fingernails clean, and not embarrassing the family.

Fear Not!, acryllic on canvas, July 2005

Fear Not!, acrylic on canvas, July 2005

I’ve had the privilege of watching several artists that I’ve grown up with grow and evolve. It seems to be a drive they are born with (it’s my suspicion that many of us share the same inclinations, but that well-intended families discourage us). I know that Caryl was fully self-expressed when I met her at 18, that she had already been a working artist for many years. Growing up on the Jersey side of New York and cutting classes at every opportunity to slip into The City – hanging out in The Village and Chelsea and SoHo to commune with her kin artists – she got to school confident in her direction; which made her indeed unique among our ragtag band of clueless freshmen who were mostly there because our families expected it of us – and because school was the only thing we then actually knew how to do.

Wind Power Now!

Wind Power Now! Acrylic on canvas, 2013

While we agonized over our potential futures, Caryl painted. She worked with clay, with wood. She looked around at the world and really saw it – shapes and colors and textures and design. And she expressed herself  – in visual media and in every other way – with no constraints.

To this day her work surprises me. At a certain point, she took to making art from “found objects,” bits of trash from the side of the road is how it first occurred to me – “really!” – until I saw them turned into objects of miraculous beauty.

Bird of Paradise

Bird of Paradise. Created from a discarded coffee table stand found in Del Ray Beach, Florida, Feb. 2014

After all these years, Caryl and I will next month collaborate professionally for the first time. The exhibition at Pyramid Atlantic Arts Center in Silver Spring, Maryland, will include her work alongside that of fellow artists and longtime friends Tunde Odunlade and Carlos Uribe. It’s the first time these three will exhibit together, and it is a singular joy for me to represent them. Please join us! The show will run throughout the month of September 2014. See you there!


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