Carolee Clark and I met online and later in person, for coffee, which has turned into a semi-regular respite from the day to day drudgery. Get the two of us together, and it's likely hours will pass in moments. She's smart, funny, insightful, and fearless. Beloved in the folk art community for her Halloween and fantasy themed art, she's a prolific painter and maker of hand painted delights through her company King of Mice Studios. Making is her full time job, and one she takes very seriously. Yet, her art, is full of whimsy.
Since the 2016 election, Carolee has created a series of provocative paintings, asking other women to contribute to these statement pieces through their words. Each piece is infused with the collective energy of these women, making them powerful works of art. This new feminist art, and her "wicked and whimsical" folk art pieces, have created a body of work that is impressive and inspiring. Most of her pieces are sold before the paint has dried to a dedicated fan base of collectors, and it's no surprise. Just like Carolee, they're overflowing with enthusiasm, beauty, and joie de vivre.
People think being an artist is a fun filled adventure. It’s easy to dismiss artists as flaky, but this is a mistake. Being a working artist is an incredible amount of work. Making things is just the first part of the equation, you need to make them, promote them, sell them, pack them, and ship them. You wear all the hats in your business and I know that can be exhausting. Yet, you do it so well! Can you talk about how you turned what you love into what you do for a living? What’s a day in the life of Carolee Clark like?
Well, thank you for the kind words; you make me sound much more pulled together than I feel some days. I've worked as an artist in some capacity for the last twenty years or so, but it began as a part time thing; something I enjoyed immensely, and could do to supplement my late husband's income. When he became ill several years ago, and eventually fully disabled, I found myself in a position many women do later in life, of having to work full time and then some. He passed away two years ago, and my art is now my sole income, so I guess you could say a lot of what I do was borne as much out of necessity, as it was a love for creating.
A day in the life? There really is no typical day, except that I try to spend at least some time in the studio. I usually wake without an alarm clock, get myself up and ready, put the kettle on, feed the furkids and myself, and from there it might be sketching, painting, shipping, computer work, errands, or a break for lunch with friends. One of the things I enjoy most about making art for a living is that despite the best laid plans, every day is a bit of an unknown.
We’re both unafraid to be politically vocal. I know a lot of people poo-poo that online. I could not stay silent after this last election and neither could you. You’ve made some powerful, beautiful art inspired by the Women’s March, Nevertheless She Persisted, and #MeToo. What inspired you to combine activism with art? How has that been received?
The election was devastating for me. It rocked my world at a time when it had already been turned upside down by my husband's death. I felt as though the rug had been pulled out from under all of us, and I no longer knew this country in which I was living. I remember friends cautioning me against speaking out because they thought it would alienate some of my collectors and hurt my business. But history teaches us that there are times we must speak up, and I felt strongly (and still do) that this was one of those times. As an artist, I communicate visually, so the feminist pieces I've done in response to recent events have been as much a personal statement as a public one. And I must add - giving credit where credit is due - when I created "Nevertheless She Persisted", I first put out a call on social media to women everywhere to share every "warning" and every "explanation" they'd heard from childhood on up, to be included in the piece. The response was overwhelming, and I'm very proud of the fact that those contributions helped make this piece a universal statement, as well as a personal one.
Making feminist art was a leap for me, a step outside the comfort zone of contemporary folk art, Halloween art, and mythic art. But it's been very well received, and has been confirmation - and in some ways validation - that creating from the heart is OK. When I painted the words "Nevertheless She Persisted", it was just months after losing my husband, and months after the election loss, and it felt like a personal affirmation too; like "I can do this. I can move forward. It will be OK".
You’re a widow. Many women over 50 find themselves in a similar boat. It’s a shitty boat, but you’re doing a damn good job as ship’s captain. I don’t think I could rise to the occasion as well as you have. Do you have some thoughts on how to navigate losing a life partner? Are you getting your sea legs?
I am getting my sea legs. It's not an easy ride by any means, and I still have my moments. I miss him terribly and always will. But I'm navigating life without him now, and for me, the only way to do that is to focus not on the loss, but on the thirty six years we had together; on the good memories we made, on treasuring the relationship I have with our daughter, and on gratitude; on knowing that this life I have now is in large part because of his encouragement and support. None of us move through life in a vacuum. We're all the product of our experiences and relationships, and I try to recognize that a large part of him lives on in our daughter, and in my heart and my work.
You have a moving #metoo story that you shared on your blog. I was so impressed with your willingness to put yourself out there like that. You’re a strong woman, Carolee, and I admire you greatly. Did sharing you story have a positive impact on you, personally? Do you think that this movement is going to shift the Zeitgeist?
Well, again, thank you, but any courage it took to go public with a very personal narrative came from other women who stepped up first. As for positive impact, it was a bit of a catharsis, but more importantly I think - or at least I hope - it may have an impact on other women, and in particular on young women who may find themselves in a similar situation. On a personal level, there was some criticism as to why I would dredge all that up, and there were people in my life who I think found it unnecessary and self indulgent. A few friends who were actually there at the time were silent, which surprised me, but the general public was incredibly supportive. I received so many messages of encouragement and support from women I'd never met. "Me Too" is an important movement, and I think we're seeing a shift. Hopefully the momentum will continue.
One of the most impressive things about you to me is how you forge and nurture connections with other women. I have a tendency to curl inward, which can be isolating. You make a concerted effort to cultivate friendships and get out and do things. I think a lot of midlife women could benefit from some of your wisdom on this front. Can you talk about how you motivate yourself to stay engaged, involved, and connected?
The older I get, the more I realize how precious my friendships with other women are. If I could tell young women one thing, it would be to treasure and cultivate these relationships, because if you make an effort to stay connected, they will be with you for a lifetime. They'll give you camaraderie and support in a way that a relationship with a man will not. That's not to discount men at all, and I think they're wonderful! But just to say that we need those female friendships too. We need to spend time with people who "get us".
What’s next for King of Mice Studios? Where can people find you and your art?
The best part about this "job" (I really dislike that word, because it's so much more) is that I never know what's next, or what's around the corner. Art is only limited by the scope of imagination, so the possibilities are endless. I look forward to seeing where it leads as much as my collectors do! If anyone would like to see my creations, I have an Etsy shop , blog, and can be found on Facebook , or by searching King of Mice Studios. Or join me and an array of incredible artists at the annual Bewitching Peddlers of Halloween show in Marshall, MI on September 29th!