Caroline Coolidge Brown: A modern itinerant artist

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By Jerry Hames

An accomplished multi-media artist and watercolorist who loves to experiment, Caroline Coolidge Brown has many tools in her arsenal. Acrylics and chalk, pens and glaze, paper and tissue, maps and book pages, rubber stamps and cardboard stencils, and much more can be discovered in her Charlotte, N.C., studio.

“It’s the curse of a mixed-media artist. You can never pass an antique shop without going in and looking around,” she joked in explaining how she purchased a 1926 yearbook and made use of some of its illustrations for a King Lear work.

A prolific artist, Brown also creates linoleum prints, monoprints, collographs, silk-screen prints, and etchings when she is not leading retreats, teaching, visual journaling, exhibiting her latest work, traveling or undertaking a commission.

Like the itinerant artists of old, she has taken these skills from place to place. The Browns moved to New York in 2005 when their two daughters were 6 and 8 years old, leaving friends at Grace St. Luke’s in Memphis to meet new ones at General Theology Seminary, where her husband, Kevin, began studies for ordination. Upon his graduation, they settled into life at Grace Church in Paris, Tenn. After three years, they moved to Charlotte to make the Church of the Holy Comforter their home.

Now, after seven years in North Carolina, Brown soon will pack up her studio and printing press in preparation for a move to Delaware in October as Kevin prepares to be consecrated the Diocese of Delaware’s next bishop.

During her time in Charlotte, she was very involved in the local art scene. Besides exhibiting in numerous juried art exhibitions, Brown co-founded the Ciel Gallery with seven local artists, was a member and instructor at the Wingmaker Arts Collaborative, taught at a community college and at the John C. Campbell Folk School, led classes in urban sketching with pen and ink and watercolors, conducted monthly “mixed-media clambakes” (also known as visual journaling) and responded to requests for private commissions.

A recent work, commissioned last year by Calvary Episcopal Church in Richmond, Texas, is a 19-square-foot mixed-media painting in three panels based on the Creation story. “The creation theme has always been a favorite of mine,” said Brown, a sustaining member of Episcopal Church & Visual Arts.

“Three major texts were my inspiration for this piece, each telling the story of God’s creation and love,” she said. “The foundational story of the first chapter of Genesis provides the brilliant imagery and the power of the creative process … darkness into light, sky and waters and creatures of all kinds, people of every color. That is a vision of God’s love bringing us into being.

“Second, the first chapter of John empowers us to live into the story. We read, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God’… God breathed, spoke and brought the light of Jesus — the Word made flesh — into our creation.”

Third, Brown used “the poetry” of Eucharistic Prayer C with its imagery of “the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns … and this fragile earth, our island home” and embedded this language into the background. “It represents the sacrament that brings us together with God, into the light of Christ, each Sunday morning,” she said.

In the triptych, Brown included illustrations that Texans would recognize — the wide Brazos River, strong oak trees, patches of bluebonnets, blue herons in flight and a curious jackrabbit. To portray the diversity of creation, she added an elephant, a butterfly and a dog.

“My Adam and Eve steer away from traditional figures … symbolizing the rainbow of our identity and diversity, along with the rainbow of God’s promise to Moses — a covenant and commitment to God’s people.”

Brown spent last March as an artist-in-residence in Listowel in southwest Ireland. It was “an amazing month … green hills, spring daffodils and sheep and wonderful people,” she said. “I had to work with limited materials, so [I used] hand-carved linoleum, printed by hand … and colored with watercolors.”

Experimentation and improvisation also have been themes of her monthly “clambakes,” Brown’s version of mixed-media visual journaling. Working from a new theme each time, participants created four-fold books in a process that she called a “real exploration of ideas and techniques in a format that’s not meant to be a finished product or hung on the wall. It’s really more like art therapy!”

As the time draws near for the Browns to leave Charlotte, she reflected on her mixed emotions in a website post. “Surely the hardest part, for the priest and his family, are the moves. You live with a parish and become a vital part of that community, sharing joys and sorrows with these new friends, and watch your children grow up with theirs. Then the ‘call’ comes again, and we move back into transition, knowing that we could easily have lived happily ever after right there.

… The tears will begin when we pack up the house, and start heading down the road.”

But her message also contained optimism and anticipation, for Brown looks forward to becoming part of the Episcopal and artistic communities in her new home. “We are excited to know Delaware as our new family,” she wrote. “We are eager to know what the Holy Spirit has in mind for this chapter of our lives and to discover how we will work together to make the world a better place.”

For more on Caroline Coolidge Brown’s art, visit www.carolinecbrown.com.

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