This is the first of what I hope to be an ongoing series of special editions of my newsletter. From time to time I will feature a special person, place or event that I feel is worthy of a more in depth effort than the limited space in my regular monthly publication. This first edition features Memphis artist Deborah Fagan Carpenter. I recently commissioned Deborah to create the dust cover for my book of short stories that was publishelsiehd in April of 2011. Elaine and I have owned one of Deborah’s major paintings for several years and we have always admired her work.
The design of the book jacket gave me an excellent opportunity to visit with Deborah at her studio just east of Memphis in Brunswick, Tennessee. I took this time to interview Deborah about her work and her career. Here is that interview:
TRL: I have known you for most of the time you have been in Brunswick and have followed your career. How did this all come about?
DFC: I received a BA in Fine Art from Mississippi State College for Women and I have to admit that this came about more out of inertia than any intention of ever becoming an artist. I married shortly after graduation from the “W” and moved to Florida. Shortly after my son was born, my marriage failed and I found myself a single mom with a toddler to support. I moved to Memphis to be near my sister and found a job working as an interior designer for a local furniture store. I remarried while my son was still in pre-school and that marriage came to an end in 1997.
I had begun taking pottery lessons from Dale Baucum at the Memphis College of Art and later from Ellen Boehm at her studio in Eads, Tennessee in the early 90’s. I had no idea that I would ever be a successful potter, but I knew that I had to do something to earn a living and I hated design work. I began painting in addition to working in clay and I was amazed when my paintings started to sell. Just when my second marriage ended, I met Rudolph and Susan Jones, my landlords, in a stroke of serendipity. They had just decided to rent this house that is now my studio, when I happened to be riding around looking for space sort of in the country. So I was just in the right place at the right time. That was thirteen years ago and today I count Rudolph and Susan among my best friends and supporters.
TRL: I have seen your career really blossom yet you remain here in Brunswick. Have any of the local galleries approached you about representation, and do you have an interest in gallery representation?
DFC: During my pottery days, several galleries in east and middle Tennessee carried my work, and I had some work in the Mid-Town Gallery in Nashville and the Riverside Gallery here in Memphis at the beginning of my professional painting days. Early in my career, I thought that the only way to be a commercially successful artist was to have the support of a major gallery. (Commercial success being defined as supporting yourself by selling art and not starving to death). After I had hosted about four very successful shows here in my studio, all of which featured an entirely different style and subject matter, I approached a major gallery in another city. The gallery owner was very frank with me and said that until I settled on one style and one technique I would never be represented by a major gallery. Collectors want paintings that are recognizable when someone walks into the room.
My work does not fit those criteria. I prefer to experiment with styles and techniques and I would be bored to death to crank out the same sort of work over and over again. The price I pay for that freedom is that I have to market my paintings here in my own studio. The good news is that I’m selling almost everything I can paint and I don’t have to pay someone to promote me. Galleries take a huge chunk of the sales price of a painting and I would have to sell my paintings for close to twice as much as I currently do to break even. I would rather pass that savings on to my clients. So, the answer to your second question is no, I have no interest in gallery representation at this time. That, of course could change at some point in the future.
TRL: Exactly how do you market your work?
DFC: I have one major show each fall. It’s called Rural Route and there are three galleries involved. In addition to the show here in my gallery, which features my paintings and the mixed media sculpture of Jimmy Crosthwait, there are shows at the pottery galleries of Agnes Stark and Ellen Boehm. All of us are located here in eastern Shelby County and the four of us have done this for the past 11 years. From time to time I might have a spring show if I have enough new work, but that’s been unusual because it’s hard to get that much major work done in a year.
In addition to the shows, I have developed an extensive database of clients and potential clients. When I complete a major painting or a new series of paintings, I send out email announcements along with photos of the new work. I generally sell these paintings as a result. I recently did a group of paintings based on inspiration from several summer trips, and only a couple of those paintings made it into the Rural Route show as the rest were sold ahead of time.
Even though I still don’t have a single discernible style or technique, there is a consistency to my work that has attracted clients who may own as many as four to six of my paintings. They may not be collectors, but they sure have been loyal clients, and I’m certainly grateful for them.
TRL: You mentioned that Jimmy Crosthwait’s sculptures hang in your studio during Rural Route each year. Are you interested in featuring additional artists?
DFC: Definitely not. Jimmy has been a fixture in Rural Route since the beginning. Originally, we also included a delightful lady named Angela Mullikin. Angela did beautiful enamel work and until her retirement and relocation to upstate New York, she joined Jimmy and me each year. When Angela retired, we agreed that we would not allow any additional work in the show. Jimmy’s work and my work compliment each other and so it hangs well together, but we need all the wall space we have available. Plus we want to keep the show simple and we don’t want to add any crafts to the mix.
TRL: Who has had the most influence on your work?
DFC: There are many artists that I admire and whose talent I envy, but I would be embarrassed to say that they have influenced me, or that there are elements of their work in mine.
TRL: Where do you get your inspiration? Who is your Muse?
DFC: I don’t think there is any question that Nature is my Muse, even in the strictly abstract work. I want my paintings to be in harmony with nature and reflect that beauty and tranquility. In order to express the “essence” of nature, which is what I’m always striving for, I have to be spiritually in tune. My friend Mona Sides Smith, more than anyone else, has provided an example of serenity and peace, and that has helped me to be more centered and brought me to a closer relationship with nature. As you can see, I don’t have far to go to find it. A lot of places right in my own backyard feed my inspiration, including the Mississippi Delta. There’s a primal beauty there, and each of the four seasons has its own character and color scheme.
TRL: What’s on tap for your future?
DFC: My last group of work was entirely representational, and even though it sold really well, I’m already anxious to get back to a more abstract theme, maybe a combination of both representation and abstract in the same pieces. I have a trip to Italy planned for the fall, and I expect that will have some influence on the work that follows.
TRL: Thanks for taking your time to visit with me. I know your career will continue to prosper.
DFC: Thanks for your interest, and good luck with your book!