Ohio Interviews: Caroline Wells Chandler

Interview by Amy Fusselman

I was drawn to interview Caroline Wells Chandler after seeing an image of his work, “Orgin,” online. A quick perusal of his website showed me that his work has made a very interesting and rapid progression from seemingly simple embroidered works to fantastic embellished stretched blankets to colorful and sculptural resin circles, to his more recent, epic, crocheted works, of which “Orgin,” below, is one.

Please read to the end of this interview to enjoy a fantastic reframing of Santa Claus as a troll!

Orgin, hand crocheted wool, 6’x6’, 2015
Orgin, hand crocheted wool, 6’x6’, 2015

First off, where are you from? Has this place had an impact on your work?

I am originally from Virginia Beach, VA and I lived there for 18 years. My mother is from Tyler, TX. She raised us with the idea that we were Texans. We would stay with my grandparents Patsy and Calvin every Christmas. I’m from a big family on both sides. My sisters and I all went to the same summer camp for girls in the Hill Country. Both my mother and grandmother also summered at Camp Waldemar. My father’s side of the family is originally from Brooklyn but they moved down to Virginia after the war. I’ve always experienced simultaneously an insider and outsider relationship to Texas.

I completed my foundation studies at RISD and quit to finish up at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX, where many family members had previously attended. This was an instinctual decision. I knew that I needed to be in Texas in order for my work to grow properly, and because I almost died from kidney failure at RISD, I thought if I were going to die at least I would like to die in Texas. In a way I did (metaphorically), but I’m a starfish and can regenerate fivefold.

Caroline Wells Chandler
Caroline Wells Chandler

How did you become devoted to art making? Was there a particular moment that helped you know that this was for you?

I’ve identified as an artist since I was a child. My mom placed us in this really crunchy granola Friends School from nursery school through kindergarten. All of the teachers were former hippies or earth mothers and we referred to them as “teacher” and then their name such as “Teacher Pat.” They had a wood shop, ceramics, and endless art opportunities. It was very egalitarian. We sat in circles. We did interpretive dance and learned how to melt into the carpet like an ice-cube. We were told to ask the trees before we climbed them. They gave us choices such as you can learn to read or play in this bathtub full of blue jello.

In first grade, I was enrolled at The Norfolk Academy. They separated the boys and girls. It was really strict and a good fit if you wanted to be a doctor or lawyer. I still have nightmares. I was a strong athlete and played three sports a season, but I broke my back playing soccer at 15 so that ended all that. My friend Claire Hansen asked me to take a figure drawing class with her at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Virginia Beach. After that I decided that art was the only thing worth doing with my time.
I transferred to public school so that I could make art a priority.

Yale is reputed to have its pluses and minuses, as far as MFAs go. What was the best and worst part of your experience there?

Life is too short to focus on bad experiences unless they have a hand in forming you for the better.

Yale was really wonderful because for the first time in my life I didn’t feel alone and I was able to really know what community felt like. I was finally with a group of people who were just as obsessed with making things as much as I was.

"Trip Tip Cookie," foam, paint, liquid plastic; 18" x 18," 2014
“Trip Tip Cookie,” foam, paint, liquid plastic; 18″ x 18,” 2014

I am curious about your transition from the resin/moons to the recent hand-crocheted work–which looks to be fiber translations of pixellated images? Can you tell me about this most recent work and how it evolved from the moons?

I’ve been crocheting for ten years. The imagery for the crocheted pieces come from my imagination, looking, and drawings. I make lots of stuff simultaneously in different materials to explore color, texture, and form. I’m interested in a kind of making that only I can teach myself. The crocheted pieces do not stem out of the moons. I think of them more as siblings. Both of those works come out of the framed blanket pieces. The moons are fractal explorations of the casted cereal components. I align the crocheted pieces with the blankets. I’m interested in everyday objects such as blankets and food and their associations to comfort as an entry point for having a conversation about painting.

I have to ask you about your kidney failure and your broken back. What happened and how do you think these experiences of illness/injury and recovery have influenced your work?

Despite my rough and tumble exterior I have a Victorian constitution. I think there are strong correlations between being an athlete and art making. You have to have goals, endurance, and know your limits. I think a lot about death. I don’t fear death but I want to make the most of the time I’m allotted and utilize what I’ve been given to accomplish the things I want to do and show love to the people in my life who are meaningful.

I am intrigued by your comment about everyday objects being an entry point for having a conversation about painting. What is your work’s relation to painting? Do you consider yourself a painter? Fiber artist? Sculptor? Something else?

I am an artist who loves painting. My own intuition and story coupled with the history of painting greatly informs what I make. I make objects in the materials that are necessary for the work to exist and I hope by doing so that I am able to communicate clearly to as many people as possible. I like to think of art as an open conversation with multiple entry points. Through material specificity and synthesized looking, I hope to ignite distinctive histories and weave alternative subjectivities into a more inclusive and expanded conversation.

How are the drawings for the crocheted pieces made? Are they crayon, paint, cray-pas? What do you consider your primary medium, if any?

The drawings are made with pencil, pen, and magic marker in a spiral lined notebook. I don’t have a primary medium. Sometimes I just go for it.

'I Made It Through the Wilderness," stretched blanket, foam, paint, pom-poms, gold and bronze leaf, liquid plastic, stickers, model magic heart peeps, sculpey casted sweet-tart hearts, resin casted cherry candies, plastic eyeballs, pornography, carpet liner  72" x 63," 2011
‘I Made It Through the Wilderness,” stretched blanket, foam, paint, pom-poms, gold and bronze leaf, liquid plastic, stickers, model magic heart peeps, sculpey casted sweet-tart hearts, resin casted cherry candies, plastic eyeballs, pornography, carpet liner
72″ x 63,” 2011

“I Made It Through the Wilderness” (2011) has a particularly great
materials list. I read in an earlier interview that you consider your materials lists as important as your titles. What kind of writing are you doing here and how does it relate to the object you have made?

I think the interview you are referencing was with Stacia Yeapanis for OPP and I think I said something along the lines that the materials are an ingredient based poem. The form that I write in is a listory. A listory is a list, a history, and a story. Listories are poem-like and sing-songy because of cadence. Lately I’ve been interested in the space where a trolli logic meets Santa as an archetype. I wrote the following on trolls and Santa this week. I think it best gets at a type of language, the motifs, and ideas I’m currently interested in exploring.

Notes on Trolls:

Perhaps it is the troll who is the most misinterpreted character in the fairy kingdom. Perceived as ugly, slow witted, and an enemy to Christians, the troll is depicted as generally unhelpful to most human beings. The lonesome troll is a misunderstood intellectual. Squirrelly from a life of solitude and craving community, the troll may interact unsuspectingly with individuals in an awkward fashion in the form of riddles. Do not be alarmed. The troll wants to play. Word play is highly erotic for trolls. This is evident because their eyes tend to roll back in their head when you blow their mind–hence proving the safe passage statement, “you may pass if you can answer these questions three.” I once knew a troll who shape shifted into a polar bear to befriend and capture the heart of a princess. Actually, that troll was me. If you play football, you would want a troll for a blocker because they are tremendous protectors. Some trolls are mountains.

The Sequel of Trolli:

Anthropologically and mythologically Santa is a harlequin(ian) patch-work of rich and disparate narratives. Santa has worn many a Mithras stylized cap as Thor, Odin, a problematic Dutch slave master (which causes me to cringle), and Apollo to name a few. Archetypally the magician and the clown are the same figure on opposite sides of the wheel- one perhaps esteemed as more nobler than the latter- and best of all Santa indiscriminately inhabits both! ‘He’ and in the Siberian shamanic variation ‘she’ in drag as ‘he,’ Santa occupies a special place in the hearts of all good boys and girls as the most well known Shamanic figure globally. The Germanic Santa works closely with the devilish figure Krampus, which I’m convinced is just Santa on a bad day. Once upon a time, Santa forgot to shape-shift into Krampus and was caught eating children by Goya in “Sa(n)turn Devouring His Son.” Santa likes to make things by hand and is the ultimate crunchy-granola. He lives at the North Pole (the axis mundi), communes with flying reindeer (mushroom junkies), and works with magical elves (creators of language) to bestow gifts of liberation to those who are pure in heart. Santa sees the world through honey comb specs which are a secret tool for weighing the heart(s) of humanity. Chimneys are his preferred portal to distribute the sacrament for trans-dimensional travel. Cookies are strange attractors at the end of time. In the off season, Santa hangs up his red suit to don an electric blue fur and moonlights as Cookie Monster in a state of eye rolling ecstasy.

"Icaro," hand crocheted wool, 12.5’ x12,’ 2015
“Icaro,” hand crocheted wool, 12.5’ x12,’ 2015

What about the associations of crocheting as a womanly art? I am thinking particularly of “Orgin.” Do you consider this a feminist piece?

I am a feminist and I’m interested in “feminism realness.” For me, “feminism realness” means that I try to treat everyone the same regardless of their body and that I look at art that way. The feminist art movement in the seventies really opened things up materially which is a fact that tends to get swept under the rug. It also laid down the foundation for identity politics based works in the nineties. I’m interested in body liberation, body language, word play, the way text informs and writes the way we navigate in our bodies, and how we use language to empower ourselves. I hope this is suggested through ‘text’iles as a material. Visually I want to expand language and twist the terms that currently exist. Crocheting as a
process involves twisting lines which for me relates to language. I hope that “Orgin”- which is playfully misspelled, could read as a radical queer feminist icon.