The first thing to tell about my friend Carolyn Bardos is, don’t make any assumptions about the photo on your left. Really, don’t make any assumptions at all.
When I met Carolyn Bardos, she had already lived many lives. In many places.
She was a potter and had curated and edited a book (Earthen Wonders: Hungarian Ceramics Today) on the subject except better. This is a book that blurs a line between fine art and the crafts of street artists in Hungary. It’s a big art book. A coffee table book with gorgeous pictures. The pieces tell their own stories and in the hands of Carolyn Bardos each work speaks on its own terms.
Carolyn is an accomplished poet, too. You can find her book: Yesterday’s Daybreak right here. Her words are always touching and I don’t know how to talk about poetry that has much meaning beyond the point of each line itself. Carolyn believes in her readers and extends herself as a howling wolf, a fierce mother, and an outcasted, artistic, searching soul. What can I say about poetry that makes more sense than that?
What I want to say about my friend, however, the experience I want to convey is a dreamy one. When I think of the things I want to tell Carolyn or show her or ask her, it’s all a dream. It’s a holiday postcard except depicting real things. I never need to say much because she already knows. She makes me want to do the best that I can do. That is what I wanted to tell you.
Most recently I have been moved by pictures of Carolyn’s paintings and I wanted to get a talk between us started.
Of course, by now Carolyn has moved into her work as a novelist–her work now to write a dark comedy, an Irish tradition with her specific perspective. Like I say, make no assumptions.
She’s a performer. Did I mention? And a playwright. Did I tell you? She can direct things, too. She is a curator and a promoter of creative genius. She is a true force that changes and changes and changes. She is an imperfect life deepening with every day that passes.
Carolyn Bardos is a teacher in classrooms and in letters to the editor and if you meet her in line at the grocery store. It bursts forward because she is inclined to tell the truth, or at least strenuously and repeatedly elude to it. And she wants you to succeed at meaningful things that reflect the best in yourself.
There is no shortage of either accomplishment or experience. Carolyn Bardos holds a Master of Fine Arts in Writing degree from Goddard College and continues to expand and support the arts in every aspect of her life.
Carolyn Bardos has lived many lives and will live many more. She has lived at points around the globe, experiencing people and art and culture. Look at it all with just the right eye and you’ll see my friend, you’ll see Carolyn Bardos, the artist and the woman. You’ll see a part of my heart and understand much.
ENJOY this talk . . .
MICHELLE: Firstly, what’s on your nightstand? What are you reading? What artists are you crushing on? And/Or are you using a practice of spirit/art to inspire you?
CAROLYN: I’m in a Goddard College advisor/alum mode—reading books by writers I know through Goddard. I’m reading Rebecca Brown‘s The Gifts of the Body. Recently I read Cara Hoffman‘s So Much Pretty and also re-read Jan Clausen‘s Veiled Spills: A Sequence. And I’ve re-read your searing memoir, By the Skin of These Words. Each of these books is the brainchild of a woman, and they address death, the degradation of planet Earth, and the unremitting violence against women in our perverted society. I need these stories. I’m very tuned in right now to the current backlash against women. I am enraged. I need smart women writers to guide me. I need a plan for my own actions or else I risk feeling powerless or, worse, becoming numb.
Next up on my reading list: Encounters with Police: A Black Man’s Guide to Survival by Eric C. Broyles and Adrian O. Jackson; The Grey Alley an anthology edited by Goddard alum Keith Backhaus; and Arcadia by Lauren Groff. Way up on the list is Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada. I will read this in its original German. With luck and a good German dictionary, I should finish by spring.
As for spirit and inspiration, I live in the woods in a tiny cottage like a fairytale character. I need only to open my eyes and ears for artistic motivation.
MICHELLE: Tell me about your work spaces, what do you have around you? And do tell about your fairy cottage.
CAROLYN: When I’m at home base, which is Vermont, I paint in the only room downstairs.
I spread out all over the place, and on the walls around me are a paintings that my children have made; my own paintings; my husband’s geometric paper models (cutoutfoldup.com); and work by the painters George Hofmann (georgehofmann.com) and Richard Garrison (richgarrison.com), two artists whom I have represented in my former galleries and who are now friends. I have a couple of pieces by Hungarian artists. My new puppy is always with me, and music. I always have music.
So, my cottage. My family and I moved here (Vermont) last October from just across the river in New Hampshire, where we had lived for 18 years. This new home of ours was built from an old rotting-down sugar house, where once upon a time a farmer performed that marvelous alchemy of turning maple sap into maple syrup.
All around us are woods, and a mile and a bit down the road is a good-sized lake. There are a few summer camps for kids on the lake with canoe rides and smores and ghost stories around a fire and all that good shit. Off season, this area is quiet. The town’s population is six hundred.
The energies here are straight-up nature and all the gifts that nature lavishes on us. Also here is the pure, loving, brilliant energy of my lifelong best friend who died last year–that energy really sustains me. My friend–his name is Richard–was a gifted artist. He taught art at an alternative high school in Greenwich Village. He fought with relentless love and courage for his students in the aftermath of an administrative turnover, an invasion of bean counters. Also he was a botanist and horticulturist and an entomologist.
Where I live now is the kind of place that Richard and I sought out as children and, especially, as teenagers. We used to hike and bike everywhere. We were kids trying to grow in a really fucked-up town, and we spent our social time in nature.
We were artists and we made vows to each other that we would live as artists, and that was a scary idea in our town, where art was not on, not at all. We felt out of place, but we took care of each other and shared a deeply intimate platonic relationship. I carry him with me—literally. I wear around my neck a prayer box, which holds a bone fragment from his cremated ashes.
I planted a garden last spring, a garden containing some of his favorite perennials: lobelia, dianthus, and delphinium. I sprinkled some of Richard’s ashes into every hole that I dug.
I have begun making a shrine in the woods behind my house with prisms and pottery and colored glass bottles stuck upside down in the earth. When the moon is bright, the prisms sparkle. In June, when the fire flies were out, the shrine was a haven of glimmering love. For Richard, who charmed me with his love and knowledge of the natural world, who taught me the names of trees and insects and flowers, I make this simple magic.
As for creative work, that feels fantastic when I’m in a groove, as I am now.
I wake up every morning excited to get to work. Work never goes badly for me, because if I feel that I can’t write, I paint, and vice versa. And now there’s extra work, domestic work, because winter approaches, and two cords of firewood on my lawn need stacking. I should plant garlic soon for next summer, and maybe I’ll mow the lawn one last time before the leaves fall from the trees.
MICHELLE: These are the images of life. The pictures you put in my head. This is the magic of telling stories and of being in art. Doing it as a way of life. It’s a real object to share with one another. It has mass between us. I love the experience I have with other creators in this way. This attempt to give and receive, maybe.
I know some of your stories. You are a deeply interesting person and I have serious meaning in saying that. You have real perspective. Your work whether in words or in visual form, or in the creative way you support and facilitate the artists around you– it is all so rich with meaning and the–to me–classic hunger of the artist: to capture the ineffable moment. Your more recent paintings– the ones that made me gasp upon sight–what is happening in these works.
CAROLYN: The boldness and flourish-y moves in my recent paintings are wild and unaccountable. George Hofmann has called this work “baroque.” The flamboyant swirls in these paintings I can attribute in part to the medium itself, acrylic, and to the canvas size, 36 x 36.
This size ground allows for almost full-body gesturing. I don’t use acrylic often, but I will now because my house is tiny and I don’t want to stink up my living space with fumes. Acrylic dries fast, and there’s no opportunity for second thoughts, as there is with oil paint, and painting over an unsuccessful acrylic piece doesn’t cut it.
This kind of painting is spontaneous, the result of years of experience and increasing self-awareness, increasing willingness to let go of expectations about outcomes. I can’t think my way through this process. There’s no rehearsal. I clear the work space, set out my materials, rev up the music, feed my head, and pace the floor or dance until I am pulled to the canvas, almost in a trance.
Then it’s all splish-splash, go for it, and I’m in a state of creative ecstasy, a state of mind that I feel so privileged to visit every time I go to work. People will ask me what my work means. That shit drives me crazy.
Non-objective painting, when it’s done truthfully, without calculation, is what it is: mystery, music made with color, movement suspended, a lionization of the spirit, a declaration against death.
Michelle Embree: There. Those are the words. That is this making of things in motion. A declaration against death. Right. Thank you for those words.
The working title of your novel. A Pendulum Swinging Through Time. It has such a suspenseful vibe. A suspended quality much in the vein of some of the details in your painting work. I’m curious about it right away. I got to hear you read from this a handful of weeks back and I am so taken with the humor. Of course, when you read from it, when you are inflecting, I can hear the comedy. On the page, the humor is so embedded, I can’t pull one thing out from the rest. Is there a writer who makes you laugh out loud or someone in particular that you feel influences your comedic timing?
CAROLYN: I think I get my humor from having grown up with an alcoholic parent. My humor developed as a defense mechanism to cope with life in a pretty small house with six other hurt, angry, confused human beings. When my family wasn’t in emotional crisis, we were laughing and joking in a way that I think Irish people do really well—or, in my case, Irish Americans, many of whom like to identify as Irish, regardless of how many generations back they trace their Irishness.
MICHELLE: Right. I get it. That’s how it is very often. That shit makes for terribly interesting people, though. When we get ourselves functional we are still pretty weird and that’s the funny part, really. Irony? I don’t know, but, Irish humor has done this to me in the past. Like people who are at their best at a funeral. In this novel you have a dead clock maker who had hypnotized himself over his life with the swinging pendulum. It was his whisky, you tell us, to hypnotize himself. Every line of it is a classic Irish comedy a roast that would not consider sparing the dead. Maybe THAT is what leaves me speechless with Irish humor. The butt of the joke is already dead? I dunno. What I love however about this first chapter the novel you are writing is actually told by the child that got away, right? I have not yet heard from the real protagonist?
CAROLYN: You have not yet met the protagonist of the overall tale, but she is telling the story of her Irish ancestors, and the child is one of those. I don’t understand this novel yet. Everything is on the table. What I have at this point are patches of a quilt not yet sewn into place. Things are shifting all the time, changing and forming and disappearing and reforming. When I’m working on creative writing, I write like I paint. I just try to shush the noise in my head and sit still long enough to allow the characters to curl a finger at me and say, “Follow.” As the late, great Harold Pinter has said, being a writer is like being a bloodhound. You gotta pick up a scent and run like hell after it. For me, at least, I can’t know what’s going to happen, or else I’d become bored. I want to be surprised so that maybe I can surprise the reader. I think that’s what good writers do. They surprise us.
MICHELLE: I’ve had the experience of being frustrated with my own characters for not doing what I want them to do. Fiction can surprise.
What are your characters tapping you on the shoulder about? What are their obsessions and desires? I’m curious about the things on your mind as you try to meet these characters and put them in your stories.
CAROLYN: Ha, ha! I know, we think as writers that we control the worlds we create, but nooooo.
One character was easy. I drew him from an interaction that I had with a palm-reading oil-delivery dude in a diner—an interaction that has hung around me for fifteen years.
So here we have a character who was looking for a place in a story, and it just worked out. That kind of character-borrowing does not work if I try to force the character or the story. Patience is key here.
The protagonist is my real problem child—as it should be . . . maybe . . . harrumph! She frustrates the hell outta me! The other characters, sometimes with and other times without enthusiasm, show their feelings and their stories to me, and it’s easy. With the protagonist—well, she’s a “hider.” She would rather open a vein than show her true feelings or intentions to the world—even to the people who love her—except for one character.
One character carries her secrets, and I guess I need to take him out for a beer and see if he’ll talk. He won’t, though—I know it. He’s completely faithful.
Of course, the protagonist will reveal herself—she must. If she didn’t, I’d have no story to tell. Her obsession is to investigate her past and her present—and to keep that shit underground. She thinks that she can outsmart her authentic self, but she can’t.
MICHELLE: No. She can’t. Hahahahaahaha! I LOVE you my friend. And I am so looking forward to this book and the more, more, more of everything you are doing these days.
Your work on all fronts has grown enormously, just like you, just like us. xxo