Tall Tales, Healing Stitches, Carol Larson “TALLGIRL Series” Petaluma Arts Council, August 8, 2009
Last weekend, I met artist Carol Larson whose “Tallgirl Series” of two dozen mixed media fiber collages was exhibited at the Petaluma Art Center in conjunction with the annual Petaluma Quilt Show. The quilt show is an annual one day extravaganza sponsored by the Petaluma Museum Association involving quilt displays at several downtown Petaluma venues and it draws a huge crowd from all over the Bay Area. The Art Council’s sponsorship of Carol Larson, along with its recent shows devoted to Indian textiles, indicate the center’s strong support for fiber artists. A large audience turned up at the Art Center for Larson’s talk, which is no surprise—since the center’s opening last year, every event has been packed to capacity, indicating our community’s hunger for interaction with artists. The Center’s decision to focus on Larson, a fiber artist, during the local quilt show, indicates it is doing its job…prodding us to take note of the possibilities inherent in textile art and to note the divide between fine art and craft.
There is a strong conceptual basis for Larson’s pursuit of this art form, separating her work from popular hobby quilting which often produces an object of beauty that carries no clear message. Larson’s “Tallgirl” collages, 2006 to 2008, are comprised of dozens to hundreds of stamped or pieced vibrantly colored strips of fabric–all referencing her gripping life story as an outsider—an exceptionally tall and unhappy girl who became a guinea pig for medical experimentation. These collages are stitched messages of abuse, chronic pain, isolation, transcendence and self-acceptance.
Larson grew up in the Bay Area and by age 17, she was 78 inches tall or 6’6″. The subject of constant ridicule, Larson was ostracized and deeply depressed. She was surgically shortened six inches with experimental surgery with the intention of giving her a normal life. Standing before a large group at the Petaluma Art Center, Larson explained that, at that time, fitting the norm was equated with having a normal life and normal was thought to lead to happy. She was “cut to fit.” The grueling procedure which cut her bones but not her muscles took away all hope of athleticism as she was left unable to balance properly and with chronic pain which she has endured all of her adult life. Ironically, when she later questioned her parents abut the decision to have the surgery, they told her that she had made the decision to proceed with the surgery. Larson had no recollection of making this decision because she had suppressed the experience.
The topic became taboo in her family and led to estrangement with her parents and her siblings. Her confusion over this and over her parent’s lack of accountability festered for years.
When Larson was in her twenties, she became a case study– the focus of medical research for an orthopedic team at a teaching hospital. She was routinely called in, stripped down and paraded around for humiliating clinical examinations. She finally put her foot down and refused to participate. Until she was 35, she avoided discussing her surgery, despite the fact that she walked with an obvious limp that people frequently commented on. By age 55, Larson understood that repressing her feelings was self-destructive and she went “into rebellion” and began use art as an outlet.
Made from commercially purchased fabrics and some hand-dyed silks to which she applies successive layers of dye, dye removal, over-dyeing and screen-printing of her own imagery, the “Tallgirl” collages combine elements of abstraction with intimate self-portraiture. Within the series itself, there is evidence of tremendous growth in experimentation with form and materials. Among the most powerful works in the series are her self-portraits– caricatures of herself in various states of compromise or transcendence. Her body is large, solid and awkward, a mass to be reckoned with and her face, all facial features, are absent. Despite this, the scenes convey a tremendous amount of emotion. “Why I Dropped Out of College” (2008) depicts her as a college student in Northern Utah experiencing a catastrophic fall on ice. She is flat on her back, alone, sliding on ice, textbooks askew, hands outstretched to grasp her books. Constant throughout these portraits is Larson’s expressive treatment of her hands—always elegant with long fingers. Through her hands, Larson found her voice, healing and identity.
”On A Scale of 1 to 10″ (2008) is a fabric work comprised of a horizontal scale of graduated flames–vibrating chromatically—that are pieced from commercial fabrics and hand-dyed silk and machine stitched to a gray border. The work is as much as scale of the off-the chart pain Larson endured as an index of the psychic energy she expended.
”Anatomy of Rage” (2008) is a fabric landscape executed in fiery red hues that radiates hot energy. What appears to be a large time bomb done in benign patchwork sits off to the left alluding to the explosive power of pent-up emotion.
“So Many Stories” (2007) is a mishmash of Larson’s stories which she typed in tiny fonts that were digitally printed and then silk-screened and gessoed onto fabric.
Overall, there is a fascinating proliferation in this series and its psychic scatter, maybe it’s too orderly–Larson’s got a lot more to say and she is on a roll–getting looser, freer and more expressive with her materials over time. I am curious to see what she would do with the immediacy of paint and canvas. With their saturated colors and hand-crafted applications, these highly personal textile collages evoke enough discomfort and vulnerability to give them a powerful edge.
No comments yet.