“The Erosion Series is a testament not only to the beauty of abstract forms, but also to the healing properties of artistic practice.”
The Highland Park neighborhood of Chattanooga, Tennessee, boasts a magnolia tree unlike any other.
Rooted in the yard of artist Anna Carll, it is responsible for igniting a creative spark within its caregiver. “I call the tree Bella, and I am guessing she is between 60 and 70 years old,” Carll said of the magnolia. “This tree is very messy, always dropping stuff on your head. Its big leaves are thick, almost leathery, and when the petals of the flowers start to fall off, it drops the center of the flower pod, which is even more vicious than a pine cone!” Vicious as these pods may be, their oblong shapes have found themselves echoed in contours that saturate the panels of Carll’s most recent paintings. Identified by Carll as contributions to the Modern Botanical movement—art that explores abstraction in relation to nature’s organic forms—her artwork is the outcome of considerable reflection.
But Bella has not been Carll’s only muse. Over the past few years, much of Carll’s art has also been created in response to grief caused by the deteriorating health and eventual loss of her mother, Maggie, who had battled dementia for years. Maggie’s death in 2012 marked a turning point for Carll, who was then living in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Carll approached bereavement as a catalyst for change in her own life and decided to relocate to Chattanooga where she delved into the creation of paintings titled the Erosion Series. Initially named after the hardship of witnessing the diminishing of Maggie’s memory, the Erosion Series found additional momentum in an unexpected parallel. “My observation of having to tend to the 70- foot magnolia tree, and the cycle of life that it goes through every year, led me to start equating that to the cycle of life with humanity and with what happened to my mom,” said Carll. “My thesis of the work is the process of the life cycle through botanical shapes.” The visual translation of Carll’s artistic concept is not literal; the imagery she creates is neither purposely figurative nor does it readily lend itself to evident illustrations of life, death, or nature. Instead, the Erosion Series is a collection of expressive work whose abstraction is embedded with a range of emotions, directed by the influence of natural forms.
The route that brought Carll to this practice is one informed by a variety of artistic methods. Having spent the majority of her childhood in Sarasota, Florida, in a large German Catholic family (as the youngest of six children), Carll attended the University of Florida where she pursued a degree in Graphic Design. After graduating, Carll established her career in design and illustration in Atlanta, but found that the increasing accessibility of desktop publishing was generating a negative impact on the field. Looking to painting initially as a form of stress relief, Carll began to study at Artist Atelier in Atlanta under the guidance of Ouida Canaday. By 1999, Carll’s hobby had developed into a full-time career, leading her to leave behind Atlanta’s urban atmosphere in favor of the Blue Ridge environment. Her painting outset was steadfast in figurative work, a practice that she continued until her mother fell ill. “I reached a point where I could paint figuratively in my sleep . . . and I was ready to move on,” Carll explained. “I learned a lot from that period, though, such as a deeper saturation of color like you’d find in stained glass. The church my family attended in Sarasota had beautiful stained glass windows, which informed my figurative work.”
Like the forms that populate the surfaces of her paintings, so too was Carll’s journey to her abstraction process organic. And while her hobby evolved to become her livelihood, the initial motivation of painting as a stress-relief practice persisted. The Erosion Series is a project wholly actualized by the therapeutic properties of artmaking, a collection that dared to confront the painful emotion of anguish and, in so doing, evolved to achieve a state of resolve. “The original Erosion Series was me taking out my grief and anger with dark color, gouging, scraping, putting on the paint and taking it off,” Carll revealed. “It was total color field abstraction, and there was no form. The form was grief through color and action.”
Carll’s process is one that is very physical, very active, one that both lends and surrenders itself to abstraction. Through the primary employment of acrylic and house paints, Carll’s medium selection enables her to work at a more rapid pace. “I start most of my pieces as [lying] flat. I usually spill and puddle colors, textures, drips across the surface,” she explained. “My work starts out as total chaos.” Once this chaos reaches a calm, though, Carll revisits the panel by lifting, tilting, and moving it around her studio to achieve a desired translucency with her palette. From this point, Carll does what she calls “painting out the background,” a process that further enables her to achieve the pod-like forms that mimic botanical shapes, congregations of pigments whose interaction bears resemblance to the resistant mix of oil and water. And for a while, all this activity would result in a completed work. That is, until recently.
This past winter, Carll experienced an “Ah ha!” moment—the incorporation of graphic design into imagery that results in “character botanicals.” Although the use of typography within her compositions also undergoes an abstraction process, one may still be able to decipher the word “erosion” clustered across the surface of these paintings. The treatment of the imagery’s text experiences an active manipulation process much like the other forms that grace her painting’s surfaces. “I create these letter characters, and I flip them around, or I put them on their side, or I put them upside down, and combine them in ways that are not really readable,” Carll stated. “What is left of the background is the botanical forms that you see through the character shapes.”
The Erosion Series is a testament not only to the beauty of abstract forms, but also to the healing properties of artistic practice. Carll notes that while she began the series during a dark period, her creative process enabled her to discover the beautiful cycle of life. “In a way, I think this is one of the reasons why many artists live so long. We get to work through all of the stuff in our lives using a creative outlet.”