For artist Richard Carter, a studio is a sanctuary through coronavirus crisis
For reasons that need little explanation during the coronavirus lockdown period, the artist Richard Carter has been drawing and painting bunkers.
Working in graphite, watercolor and some acrylic paint, he’s been making small-scale and slightly surreal pieces that depict the safety structures along with imagery of rubble, often rendered in a blood red with cobalt blue night skies above — the colors deepened by black under-painting.
“These are all actually about what we’re going through now,” Carter said recently via Facetime, walking around the Basalt studio and sharing the many works he’s finished during the COVID-19 public health crisis. “Everybody’s in the bunker.”
He’s found himself responding directly to the crisis in his new works on paper. A piece titled “Social Distancing” depicts a dramatic gothic tower rising against a night sky, an imaginary space to ride out a pandemic.
“I’m an artist and I get to be dramatic whenever needed,” Carter said. “It might even be my job.”
The body of work emerging from Carter’s quarantine period was inspired in part by 2018 travels to Egypt, Cambodia and France, where he was fascinated by ancient dwelling, quarries and stone structures. In spirit and aesthetics, these new works are a natural progression from Carter’s “Erratic” series, which also drew inspiration from geology. Those works — the subject of a well-received show at Carter’s pop-up gallery in downtown Aspen last summer — depicted unstable monuments and towers, suited to the instability of organized society in the Donald Trump era.
For Carter, a founder of the Aspen Art Museum and fixture on the Aspen art scene since the early 1970s, his studio has been a sanctuary during the crisis. A hale 73, Carter’s daily routine has consisted of reading for a few hours at home in the morning — John McPhee’s work on geology has been a highlight, he said — and then heading to his studio, which sits in an office building along the Roaring Fork River near the commercial core of Basalt.
“Having a studio and having something to do and being engaged is tremendous,” he said. “I’m just digging in here.”
He empathizes with artists who’ve had exhibitions canceled and sales fall off during the shutdown of public life during the pandemic, he said. But the timing has coincided with an expected downtime for him, when he hadn’t planned any shows. He hasn’t sought relief grants available to artists from state and national organizations during the economic crisis caused by COVID-19.
“I don’t want to take money when there are people who really need it,” he said.
Carter had a momentous 2019, which included several exhibitions and major public events for the Roaring Fork Valley’s yearlong celebration of the Bauhaus centennial (Carter worked for the Bauhaus master and Aspen icon Herbert Bayer in the ’70s) along with Carter opening the Aspen pop-up and showcasing work there.
“It was great, but when you’re going through that, you know that when it’s over you’ve got to start over,” he said.
So he knew the winter and all of 2020 would be a sort of wood-shedding period in his studio, generating new ideas and new work. After months of experiments and ideas he abandoned, the new work started flowing during the forced isolation of the stay-at-home period.
“It’s starting to coalesce into something meaningful now,” Carter said.
And though his Jack Russell Terrier is good company, Carter has missed social life. His longtime girlfriend died in December and he lives alone. His daughter, who works in the film industry, moved back to the valley as Hollywood productions shut down. So he sees her regularly, while following social distancing advisories.
The building where he keeps his studio is normally a relatively bustling hub of office workers, but has been ghost-town quiet since mid-March, and he hasn’t had the usual drop-in visits from friends and collectors that had been customary before.
“It’s really bizarre here,” he said.
Carter recalled seeing a friend on the street, and by reflex inviting them to come over for a visit at the studio.
“They looked at me like I was crazy,” he said with a laugh. “They just made a face and shook their head.”
His social life, instead, has moved to Facetime and Zoom, where he also meets regularly with staff and fellow boardmembers for the Arts Campus at Willits, which is sill heading toward construction.
So Carter logs his studio time drawing and painting his small-scale new piece and conceptualizes the larger ones to come. He shares them on Instagram as he finishes.
“I like this work,” he said. “I’m starting to get it. It’s my philosophy that after a big show or a big event like (the Bauhaus celebration and exhibitions), you’ve got to get right back in there and start doing stuff.”
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