Ladies of the Desert: Artwork of Carolyn King
La Charra de la Cholla
by Carolyn King
The history of Arizona is a story of multiple cultures: their arrival, their impact, their displacement. Historically, people native to any land are displaced by waves of people who arrive and lay claim. This cycle could be viewed as one of the most common threads throughout all human history—across time and space. In this way, Arizona history is a microcosm of the history of cultures worldwide.
In her current body of mixed-media paintings, Tucson artist Carolyn King directs the viewer’s attention to the six major cultures that have been displaced and have “laid claim” throughout Arizona’s evolution. On exhibit at The Joel Valdez Public Library downtown, each painting honors a woman representing one of six cultures that have formed the Tucson of today. The exhibit is on display from October 2 to 30, with receptions on October 7 and 28, from 2 to 4:30 p.m.
What brought you to the path of becoming a visual artist?
It’s either a fairly long and complicated story or explained most succinctly with these two words: my mother. She was an unrequited painter who filled our home with objects and images from around the world.
So, you were encouraged and supported to become an artist as a child?
Quite the contrary, actually. I think I became an artist and a teaching-artist from an unconscious desire to heal my mother. In reality, she seemed to view my interest in the arts as competitive. She wasn’t able to be either encouraging or supportive. I was in her “personal territory”!
And yet, you have persevered. Tell us about the current body of work on exhibit at the downtown library on Stone Avenue.
The title of the show, “Las Damas del Desierto”, refers to the role women played in settling and forming the society we have here in Tucson today. In this work, I wanted to reflect metaphorically on the relationship between the roots that we, as people, put down, to the roots desert plants use to sustain themselves. While working on these images, I thought a lot about hair follicles as a root system for the body, and how our veins and capillaries are seen as inner highways. I thought about how the women who came as settlers from each culture brought roots, both physical and emotional, from her background with her as she created families, households and meaning. The intersection of the beauty and challenges of desert living with the choices each person makes has written the story of the Southwest.
How does Arizona’s history of displacement and “claiming” intersect with your own life?
You know, I wasn’t consciously asking myself that question when I proposed to create this body of work for the library show. What happened is that once I started doing some research, I realized two very personal connections to the theme for me. First, I am myself, a Dama del Desierto. I left my home and family of origin at age 17. In an indirect way, I ended up in the High Desert of Central Mexico where I lived, studied and worked for over 20 years. I relocated to Tucson from Mexico in 1999. In essence, I have been a Lady of the Desert now for 40-plus years. I have profound roots in Mexico and have been dramatically influenced as a woman, an artist and a mother by my experiences with native cultures on both sides of the border.
The second thing I realized, once into creating the images, is that my affinity and respect for these particular cultures comes directly from my mother. She collected fabric, arts and crafts and photographs from each of the cultures represented in my paintings. In this way, the show is also an homage to her. She passed away in April of 2016, when I was just starting the group of paintings for this exhibit.
Would you say the paintings are portraits of women from the six cultures?
No, not portraits of actual women who lived here. These paintings are in a Symbolic Realism or Magic Realism style. They represent, as opposed to portray.
Can you say a bit about the six cultures and how they relate to Tucson?
First, there is a woman representing Native American culture as the original inhabitants of these lands. Mexico is represented, because this part of the Southwest “belonged” to Mexico at one time. Spain sent missionaries and gave land grants, so there is a Spanish representative in the group. The Chinese are included because people from China first came to build the railroads and then, later, were the proprietors of corner stores that for decades afterward supplied neighborhoods with essential goods. African-Americans lived and worked as ranch hands, cowboys and military servicemen. Last, but certainly not with the least impact, are the Caucasian settlers.
In the series of interviews you have conducted for Natural Awakenings, the last question you have asked each of the artists has been about how each artist views his or her art form as healing. Can you speak to that question about your own work?
Creating this body of work has been an amazing and deeply healing experience for me on several levels. Briefly, I’ll say that the process, from idea through execution, took me on a path right into the heart. It was so moving to reflect on how history is always about movement, and my own personal story parallels the unfolding of Arizona as a territory. In addition, I was able, while working on this group of images, to dedicate much more consecutive time to working in my studio than I have for the past several years. That in itself has been the most healing part of all. To connect with consistent studio practice is such a gift.
Do you see your work as providing healing for community members?
We are at a precarious time as a world community. I feel deeply and passionately about our global need to redress the profound imbalances that form the infrastructure of current world politics and economics. At a core level, my art work celebrates and asserts imagery of women from a range of cultures as visual symbols of the strength, resilience, power, beauty, intelligence and life-giving wisdom of the Feminine Spirit. Healing “the community” is the responsibility of each and every person who is awake to the reality of how unbalanced our world has become.
Mariann Moery is a recent retiree from New York City who came west with her camera in hand to live a sunnier life and take advantage of the unique and very special beauty of the Southwest. Connect at BedouinPhotography.com.