Aspen Times Weekly: ‘Fearless & Free’ — the life and works of Carol Wyman

by stewart oksenhorn

In His Words

After church, we trekked on home in the blizzard. The house was warm and we had a few presents under the ficus tree that were sent by Bill and his children. Mom took a seat on her couch as I went to the kitchen to prepare dinner. She soon fell fast asleep, leaving me in solitude, which, for me, was always welcome.

As I cooked dinner, my mind wandered back to Mother’s Day and how my father had prevented Mom from being with her children and grandchildren. It just broke my heart when I thought about it and that it didn’t have to be this way. She must feel like a foreigner in a strange land in Colorado. She should be in her own home back in Rockford, doing her thing for Christmas, but that was just not to be.

Instead, she had fallen asleep on the couch in her fancy dress at the house of her estranged son, a man she hardly knew, but felt safe with. This in itself brought tears to my eyes as I woke her for Christmas Eve dinner.

I looked at Mom and said, “I couldn’t have helped you unless you helped yourself, and you did that by escaping on your own.” She just grinned. And I thought, to myself, “So this is Christmas.” Wow!

- From “Against Her Will: A Cautionary Tale,” by John Howard Wyman (published December 2011)

John Wyman considers himself a hairdresser, not a writer. Wyman, who has been styling hair in the Roaring Fork Valley for 32 years and has a long list of notable heads on his résumé, was basically thrown into a second job as a writer. His 2011 book “Against Her Will” documents the disturbing story of his mother, Carol, who was committed to an Illinois nursing home by her husband, and abused and overmedicated there, before escaping to Colorado, to live with her son. Wyman wrote the book — subtitled “A Cautionary Tale” — not because he had a great yearning to become an author, but because he thought people could use a warning about such occurrences.

“It happens to anybody. When the government decides you’re incompetent, they take your rights away,” Wyman said. “That’s why the book’s important.”

Even with the promising reception given “Against Her Will” — most of the reviews on Amazon’s website give it five stars — Wyman wasn’t seeking to make a second career of writing books. But the fact is, he has been given great material for a sequel. Carol Wyman, in her early 80s, is an emerging painter, causing a stir locally with an ambitious exhibition, The Art of Winifred: a retrospective, currently showing at the Wyly Community Art Center in Basalt. The exhibition’s opening earlier this month drew an overflow crowd of 300 (a more typical crowd for an opening numbers around 100) to the Wyly gallery to see the paintings, all made over the past four years. Traffic through the gallery has remained noticeably heavy since.

“I immediately knew this was special, had a raw power that was so unique, a mastery and an originality,” said Dasa Bausova, who handles programs and exhibitions at the Wyly, and who thought the work was strong enough that she found a way to fit 32 paintings in a space that typically holds 20 works. “There’s been a lot of media and a lot of people curious about it.”

John Wyman, a big, colorful, earnest man who walks with a cane, has overseen his mother’s late-in-life blossoming as an artist. Since she left the nursing home in Rockford, Ill. — she informed the staff there that she was going to do her laundry; had her son, Bill, pick her up; then arranged to be driven to Colorado — Carol has been living in John’s home near Basalt. John has furnished her with art supplies, and the two have worked together to come up with names for the pieces.

But Wyman is quick to play down any role he might have played in his mother’s development as a painter. The fact is, Wyman, who had been out of contact with his mother for several decades, at first attempted to steer Carol toward an entirely different kind of art.

“I have a salon in my house. I couldn’t be as attentive as I needed,” Wyman said of his mother’s early days as his housemate, in mid-summer of 2009. His solution was to get a piano, and set up lessons for his mother to keep her occupied. “But she got bored real quick. I had to think of something else for her to do.”

Visual arts might have been a more obvious choice. Carol had made ceramic work, mostly functional pieces, in the mid-‘60s, and a few years later she had some success making works in stained glass, creating pieces for a few wine cellars on Red Mountain. But it was only when Carol proved indifferent to playing music that Wyman bought paint, brushes and canvases.

Painting was a new medium for Carol, but she took to it instantly. Her first round of works were made on an easel, and when she began using a wheelchair, which made the easel too difficult, she started putting her canvases down flat on a table, turning the canvas as needed to reach all ends. Wyman was pleased at how occupied his mother was, but even though he was an art collector, he wasn’t sure how good the paintings were.

“I liked what she was doing. It was humorous,” he said. “But it was busy work. I had no idea it was so grand.” Carol was prolific and hard-working. Wyman sometimes had to make her stop painting and remind her to eat. In photos of Carol at a canvas, there is that look of being completely lost in the work. Over four years Carol produced some 300 paintings, which Wyman took to stacking on the couch for lack of room elsewhere. “Not the optimal way to do it. But Van Gogh’s brother patched the chicken coop with Vincent’s work,” Wyman said.

Over time, as Carol created a body of work that numbers some 300 pieces, Wyman saw the progress being made. “I started out looking at the work saying, a child could do this,” he said. “But she kept getting wilder and wilder with her colors, and I said, ‘Nope, a child can’t do this. I couldn’t do this.’”

Dasa Bausova was more immediately impressed. An artist herself, as well as a Wyly staff member, she visited the Wyman home and knew something memorable in the making. Bausova was struck most by how personal the work was. Carol seldom speaks, and painting has become her essential means of expression.

“I think she’s communicating through her work about her life, about herself. Who she is and what she’s been through,” she said. “There’s a lot of self-portraiture, a lot of repeated symbolism. There’s not a narrative, but expressed sentiments, an attitude about who she is on a deep level. These aren’t self-aggrandizing portraits. She’s going deep down.”

Wyman has gotten almost no specifics from his mother about what was on her mind as she painted. “I’d just ask her what kind of brushes she wanted, what colors she wanted,” he said. But in the self-portraits, the nudity, the colors, the devilish images, he thinks she was taking in the widest view possible of all she was been through. “Probably every emotion a human can have — from bliss to love to anger, hate. Child-like. The whole emotional gamut,” he said.

Bausova sees some connection to Miró and Basquiat in Carol’s style; others have seen, in the broad strokes, the influence of Van Gogh. “But it’s hard to say,” Bausova said. “I don’t know if she’s ever even seen those artists. The work is definitely her own. It’s very unapologetic about what she has to say. Fearless.”

Wyman would sometimes watch as his mother took what he thought was a gorgeous painting, and turn it uglier. “She’d have something that looked beautiful to me. Then she’d put black paint over it, outlining it,” he said. “I’d say, ‘What are you doing?’ She’d tell me to go away. One of her self-portraits, I wanted to destroy it when I first saw it. It’s disturbing.”

Eventually, Wyman had his eyes widened by his mother’s art. “One of the lessons I learned from Paul Soldner” — the late Aspenite who was a revolutionary figure in contemporary ceramics — “was when his father asked him, ‘Why do you make your pots ugly?’ And Paul said, ‘What’s ugly?’”

Carol’s development has been extraordinary; Bausova says she had the kind of artistic growth you’d see over 20 years, not four, and not from a self-taught octogenarian. Bausova finds the 300 paintings an output that is “totally astounding.” Clearly Carol was having a profound engagement with her vision. The entrance to the Wyly exhibition features two works, one from 2009 and one from 2013, side by side.

“She was searching for a style, seeing what works,” Bausova said. “Then you see she just got it, so confident. In 2009, she wasn’t so comfortable with the paint. There was a feeling: ‘What does this do?’ So much growth happened so quickly.”

For Wyman and Bausova — and who knows, maybe Carol too — there is a fundamental lesson in art-making here. Carol never considered the market for her art, and apparently never looked to the past to see what had been made earlier. She drew on her own world, all of that world, with the only goal being self-expression.

“They’re so unencumbered,” Bausova said. “That’s the ultimate place to be in art — not held back by your training or your culture, but getting to your source. Carol’s definitely doing that.” One of the areas Carol seems to have been exploring was sexuality. In recognition of the children’s art classes held at the Wyly, Bausova excluded from the exhibition some of the more explicit paintings.

“She didn’t do it for fame, didn’t do it for profit,” Wyman said. “She did it for herself. Which is pretty much the best art you can do.”

And though Carol hasn’t said as much, her son believes that opportunity for expression has been invaluable.

“She’s probably had the best years of her adult life,” Wyman said. “It’s kept her up, gave her a purpose.”

Carol has slowed down dramatically in her output; Wyman believes her body is in its last stage. “She’s failing. She’s on the way out,” he said. But her art might give her a lasting name.

“Time will tell,” Bausova said about the chance that Carol’s art will get a wider audience. “There’s been a lot of attention. People are coming to the Wyly to debate about the work. This is just a beginning. It’s too bad she’s so far along in her illness. But there might be some surprising things still to come. I keep having to come up with new adjectives to describe the work. It’s mind-bendingly good.”

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