Independent Record: Encountering Lindsey Carroll’s charcoal portraits of Montanans

Encountering Lindsey Carroll’s charcoal portraits of Montanans

By Marga Lincoln

To meet the portraits in Lindsey Meyers Carroll’s new show is for many an unforgettable encounter.

At Friday night’s Spring Art Walk, scheduled for 5 to 9 p.m. in downtown Helena, you can visit Carroll’s four large scale portraits of local Helenans in her exhibit, “A Collaboration Between People and Place: Seasons,” at the Myrna Loy Center.

Carroll’s surrealist charcoal portraits capture the spirit of not only her subjects but the season she’s chosen to set them in.

For jazz musician Wilbur Rehmann it’s spring, alive with his joyous smile, apple blossoms abounding and meadowlarks on the wing.

Ceramic artist Chip Clawson is captured gazing up at a starry summer sky with the reflections of firepit flames dancing across him.

Longtime Archie Bray Foundation community student Mary Blake, in a flannel shirt, vest and jeans, stands highlighted in autumn light, framed by a darkening sky and a swirl of leaves.

While Noreen Lehfeldt, Bray Foundation’s office manager, radiates out of a winter landscape of Ponderosa pines with a backdrop of a sky studded with stars and glittering snowflakes.

“They’re all people I met through the Bray, and they’re all Montanans,” Carroll said, “either born here” or have claimed Montana as their home.

Carroll, who was born in Helena but raised in Billings, is the Bray Foundation’s education coordinator and earned her art degree at the University of Montana.

The portraits are so detailed and lifelike that a local artist mistook them for black-and-white photos when they were at Ghost Art Gallery being framed.

Carroll sees these four works as part of what will become an ever-changing series with portraits rotating in and out.

Launching the series was spurred by a $1,000 grant from the Myrna Loy Center’s Grants to Artists Program.

The series started with the question she posed to herself: “How do you convey who you know a person to be simply by an image?”

“I was trying to answer the question: ‘Are we who we are -- at least to some degree -- based on the influence of where we live?'”

“Overall, the body of work is successful for what I set out to do,” Carroll said. “It was intended to be an experiment. It was intended to allow me to break my own formula and try something new.”

“To say the least, it was very challenging. It pushed me more than any other body of work.”

Looking at these large, bold figures, it’s hard to believe that years ago Carroll’s art was small and intricate and confined largely to pen and ink.

She took a break from drawing and began working in ceramics.

“Ceramics taught me to think three-dimensionally,” she said. “You have to engage with the piece with your body. It’s a kinetic relationship. It’s a dialogue outside of your head.”

“When I got back to drawing, I didn’t want to be hunched over anymore,” she said. “I wanted to walk back and forth. I wanted to have that dialogue.”

She moved from 8 ½ X 11 pen and ink drawings to using charcoal, which is now her favorite medium. She adds hard pastel for dark opaques and fine details, and chalk for highlights.

Her canvas is large pieces of paper hung on her studio wall, so she has to move her full body to create her portraits. “I really enjoy large scale,” she said. “When I have the opportunity to do large work, I do it.”

“A large piece, at minimum is going to take six weeks -- if not several months.”

Once she starts, “it tends to be a marathon,” adding that she might do four hours in the morning before working at the Bray and then do four more hours at night after work. Clay taught her “how to let go," she said. "You have to know when to say a piece is finished. You have to be OK with your imperfections.”

The same holds true with charcoal. “If you overwork it, it becomes a useless pile of dust. ... I can’t spend too much time for fear I would overwork it. Clay taught me that.”

Her portraits are unbelievably detailed and intricate down to the individual cable stitching on Noreen Lehfeldt’s sweater. Not what one expects to see in a charcoal drawing.

With each of her models, she met them in a setting where they felt comfortable and relaxed and then snapped a lot of pictures to work from.

For Lehfeldt, Carroll wanted to convey her strength, which Carroll finds representative of Montana women, calling it “a pretty special thing.”

“In Montana, you have to not just be able to endure winter, you have to have the hope of spring, which … Noreen has. She’s the most loving, kindest, nurturing person I know.”

In the case of Blake, she was thinking about her multifaceted life, as an advocate, a real-estate agent, a community student and a foster parent. Carroll said she thinks of autumn as a time of nurturing and Blake fit. “She has a strength about her that I admire.”

For Rehmann, it’s his joy, which people often hear conveyed in his music. “Wilbur brightens things up.”

And for Clawson, Carroll saw him as “perfect for a starry night.”

“Chip will be living his fullest until the day he dies. He embodies what a Montana summer is. You have to get in every moment.”

Lincoln, Marga. “Encountering Lindsey Carroll’s charcoal portraits of Montanans”. Independent Record. 4 May 2017: Arts Web 30 May 2017.