By Craig Stocks / Photography by Craig Stocks
It’s normal for artists to put something of themselves into their work. But when Peoria artist Carrie Pearce began working on her portrait of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, she not only found inspiration, she also found that they had quite a bit in common.
Carrie grew up in the Peoria area, but went to Georgia to attend the Savannah School of Art and Design. She finished her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in just three years and decided to stay in Savannah. During the next nine years she had a successful studio in City Market where she met her husband, wood artist James Pearce. After riding out one too many hurricanes, they decided to move back to Peoria.
Oil paints on board are Carrie’s medium of choice, but that was not always the case. While in Savannah she worked primarily in watercolors to create floral and garden images that were popular with tourists. She occasionally used acrylics and had begun experimenting with oils, but didn’t make the transition until more recently.
“You can do more with oil; you can create more atmosphere,” she explained. “Watercolors go much faster, but you have to lay it all out and reserve your whites ahead of time. It’s been a hard transition in that sense. In watercolors, you always look for the lights but with oils you look for the darks.”
Carrie’s choice to paint on board rather than canvas is both technical and artistic. “I don’t like the texture of canvas – it gets in the way, especially if you’re trying to do fine details. If you have a flexible surface like canvas, the paints can chip or crack.”
When I visited Carrie’s studio, she was working on “Frida,” a portrait of the well known Mexican artist. “I’ve been wanting to do this,” she said. “I started it a year ago when CIAO [the Central Illinois Artist Organization] was doing an art show featuring ‘women who inspired you.’ It’s always been in my head, and I have so much in common with my subject matter.”
(Frida Kahlo originally hoped to be a doctor, but suffered severe injuries from a bus accident when she was 18 years old which left her in a body cast for months, and in pain for the rest of her life. She began painting as a pastime while recovering and eventually became one of the best known female artists and clothing designers in the world. Many of her paintings were self portraits done in rich vibrant colors. She was married to Mexican artist Diego Rivera.)
One of Carrie’s first decisions was to find a source photograph for the portrait. Her choice was to use a photo that was taken just before the bus accident. “I didn’t want a famous photo that you’ve seen before,” Carrie said.
The background of the portrait is a mixture of flowers, fruits, toys and animals. “Frida painted a lot of fruits and flowers, so that became the natural background.” Carrie laughed and said, “And then, I have to have my toys. She should have toys.” The sugar skulls provide a nod to Frida’s Mexican heritage. Frida also loved animals, so it’s fitting that there’s a monkey perched on her shoulder, but Carrie felt the monkey should have a toy rocking horse gripped in the tip of its tail.
When you look at the painting overall, you’ll see numerous implied lines that cross and intersect, both diagonally and orthogonally. The effect is to focus your attention on Frida. “That was the hard part about laying it out,” Carrie explained. “When I’m drawing it out in black and white, I have to imagine how it will look in color. It’s all imaginary realism where I’m just making stuff up as I go. I’m trying to imagine what color is going to be placed where. On this piece, I just started painting in color without drawing it out first. I get impatient – I just want to paint!”
Carrie has been putting a lot of herself into the painting. “It’s a labor of love,” she said. “I’ve been working on this for three weeks, and some of those were 12-hours days. Then I go home and dream about it. I’ll know it’s done when I can look at it and think it can’t get any better. Once it’s done, it’s done and I’ll begin to obsess over the next work, and I won’t think back about it again.”
When “Frida” is finished, Carrie has a clear vision for the frame as well. “The frame will be made from thousands of metal bottle caps – so it’s going to be even more over-the-top. It’s already busy, so why not just go all the way.” The frame, as always, will be custom built by husband James.
You can find more information about Carrie and her other works at carriepearce.com. You can meet Carrie and see her work in person at The Atelier, 1000 S.W. Adams St. in Peoria during CIAO First Friday Studio Tours.