Above: The Library of Lost Things, by Barbara Carlson, a digital image composed of found objects.
Imagine that you’ve been invited to an artist’s home-studio. You’re greeted warmly at the door, invited in, seated at a small table, offered tea and a biscuit and then asked to dig around in your pocket and produce a pinch of pocket lint! Welcome, you’ve found yourself in the 2000 sq foot, 22nd floor, Parisian working-atlier of Ottawa artist Barbara Carlson.
In a career that spans 40 years of art-making Barbara has worked with most mediums, mining them for all they have to reveal. She doesn’t strive to make pretty things, she finds beauty in weathered-down things – the stuff that others might overlook. “I stop and look at things… that’s my job, that’s what I’ve done over the years. I bear witness,” said Carlson.
For all those years at art-making, she eschews being described as old, saying “I don’t consider myself old, but mature; one can be old at any age.” Reflecting on those years she says she is grateful to have had a supportive partner that enabled her to do as much as she has, and who could look after things while she took time to write a book about pocket lint or to master a new medium.
Fueled by an insatiable curiosity, Barbara follows her muse and explores a line of work circling around an idea, exploring tools and techniques until she has exhausted all that a particular project has to yield. In this way she often produces hundreds or thousands of art objects in the process; each unique. When someone chooses a work that she has made, she concludes then and there that she has found the person it was made for.
Art-making has narrow profit margins, yet Barbara and artist husband John Benn have managed to make their living primarily from their art work. But with most pieces ranging in price from $30 to $60, one could well wonder what her secret is!
She’ll tell you; Barbara doesn’t set out to make art for other people, she initially makes it for herself; and if it sells fine. To ensure her work is accessible to all, she prices it to sell.
She feels that everyone should have access to art. Barbara says that artists can’t expect the price of their work to reflect the process it took to arrive at that level; you have to enjoy the process of developing your skill and making art. The end product, she says, is probably a mistake anyway – in that it likely was not exactly what you were aiming for in your head.
Barbara was an early adopter of digital image making. In her most recent projects, she has taken 3000+ found objects, bits of flotsam and jetsam that she, friends, family, or clients have found on the streets locally or in distant countries. She scans the objects into her computer and manipulates them and reassembles them into realistic objects from her fertile imagination. Below, “The Church of Perpetual Accumulation” is a digital image composed of the found objects to the left of the screen.
Whether it is one-man bands, buildings, fashion models, amusement parks, or her most recent foray into zodiac signs, it is Barbara’s endless pursuit of where an object can take her that drives her efforts. The results are high quality art that is a treat for both the eye and the mind as Barbara’s wry sense of humour finds its way into the images, their accompanying text, or a story connected to the piece that she will eagerly share.
People who meet Barbara keep coming back to get a glimpse of that story. Articulate and quick witted, she makes you feel at home. Barbara soon has visitors picking lint from their pocket, drawing airplanes or toilets, and sharing opinions and stories as they move through her studios spaces looking at her work. You soon feel like old friends. Her work is instantly relatable and you find yourself knowing someone that would love this or deserves that; you find that perfect gift for that teacher, boss, or colleague, or you realize that this piece just makes you smile – and that you are the person for whom it was made.
You can visit Barbara for tea and a ginger cookie, a quick guided tour, and then roam on your own around the 4 different interconnected eclectic gallery spaces in their two-unit condo near St. Laurent Blvd and Montreal Rd by calling her at 613-749-6515 or emailing her at email@example.com to a make an appointment. It’s a visit from which you will come away the richer.
Correction: A previous version of this piece was published featuring photos of art by a Florida-based artist of the same name. We apologize for the error.