Artist Interview: Carolyn Riddell


Carolyn Riddell in her studio

– by Wendy Morley –

Something that has always interested me as an observer of art is texture. I love art that has actual physical texture and also art that gives the impression of texture. This seems to suggest I would like textiles, which indeed I have come to appreciate more and more. Add in an appreciation of colors and patterns from Southwest Asia and India, and it’s no wonder the art of Carolyn Riddell appeals to me.

For Carolyn, travel and art are intertwined. “I have been traveling since 1986, mostly to Turkey and more recently to India,” she says. “To me there has never been a separation of art and travel. Even as I sit at my studio desk to recall and write, I am traveling.”


Quilt, 18″ x 24″ Watercolour, 2016

Carolyn has exhibited her art quite consistently from about 1990 on, in juried, solo and group exhibits in various galleries, has worked on a number of collaborative projects, and has held shows in her own studio at 100 Crimea St, Ste B3, Guelph, ON, Canada, where she has an exhibition coming up from December 1st through 10th, 2016, called Paper Mountain Silhouette.

All work copyright © Carolyn Riddell

Wendy Morley: You have a BA in Fine Art. How do you think a formal education has been helpful to you and would be helpful to other artists?

Carolyn Riddell: I was fortunate to have had a rigorous art history, fine art and design curriculum during my high school days at Eastwood Collegiate in Kitchener, Ontario.


Churchill Lake, 24″ x 34″ Mixed Media on Surveyors Map, 2013

Once I entered the University of Guelph to pursue my BFA, I had a lot of the foundation requirements covered, so I could focus on increasing my technical skills in printmaking and sculpture, as well as pursuing a more in-depth study of time periods in art history that I wished to draw from. Early Renaissance, American Abstract Expressionism, Symbolism and Post Impressionism of the European traditions were of particular interest to me.

My goal was to develop as a painter, but it wasn’t until my third year that there was faculty available to challenge me.

Each student is different. Formal education offers a broad range of media to engage with and a space to participate in critique. For me, the benefits were unlimited studio time as well as meeting other students who are my colleagues to this day. Our mutual support is invaluable.


Threadbare, 10.5″ x 15.5 ” Acrylic and Ink on Paper, 2016

WM: Have textiles always been of interest to you?

CR: Textiles are of huge interest to me, increasingly so.

When I was in my teens and 20s, I sewed a lot. I would spend hours musing on and buying clothing patterns, some of which I would fabricate into articles of clothing while others would become part of my studio collection. Fabric always felt good in my hands, as good a feeling as making my own ink, making paper, applying watercolor or pulling a print from copper plate. Lately in my practice, I am engaging with the idea of the woven thread on a metaphoric level. It is not only the intersection and crossings of individual threads to make a matrix weave that appeals to me, but the fact that fabric can signify a membrane, a threshold plane acting as a barrier or permeable material defining from one space to another.


Homage to the Block Printers, 36″ x 48″ Acrylic on Canvas, 2015

After interviewing and photographing many weavers and embroiderers, from village home-based production to design houses in wealthy trade centers of large cities in India, my understanding of the process of thread-based craft became enriched. When I do my own threadwork through paper, I recall these memories.

Threading and weaving is a form of suturing. In Hindi, “suture” means to stitch and in yogic practice, the idea of “suture” is to adhere the energy of mind and body. My work is an effort to meditate while stitching to participate with my whole being and remain conscious of my own skin, a membrane between the inner and outer worlds.

WM: How would you say your focus and interest has evolved through the years?

CR: I experiment. I read. I listen to a lot of conversations between artists. I play. I go to my studio every day when I am not traveling. When I travel I observe, collect, write journals, attend exhibitions, meet artists and visit their studios.

I did realistic, object-based work for years. In university, I focused on figurative work because we had life-drawing classes, and my interest in art history pointed to figure-based work.


Temple, 10.5″ x 15.5″ Acrylic and Ink on Paper, 2016

I have always had a fascination for landscape, however. This is linked to my time of travel and to my love of walking and hiking. In Canada, we have so much space. Our rich variety of landscape, its vastness and purity has always formed part of the sensibility of my work.

As I have developed, I have moved into abstraction. Materials interest me, process interests me, referencing and cross-referencing various processes interest me. For example, I made a painting using gravity, dripping the paint and rotating it progressively by 90 degrees to enmesh paint layer over paint layer. I was trying to have paint behave as woven thread.

WM: Travel and art seem to go hand-in-hand with you. How are they intertwined?

CR: My work is deeply connected to how I physically move through and acknowledge spaces.

I have a fascination for archeology, history and architecture, but my pursuit of understanding space comes through to me on an intuitive level. I may go to a place but not know its history. I will research it later if I feel compelled by my experience there. A place stays in my body- and mind-memory this way, and I can source it in my work.


Shift, 10.5 ” x 15.5 ” Acrylic and Block Ink on Paper, 2016

In 2011, I visited Fatehpur Sikri, near Jaipur in India. It is an enormous ruin set on a series of small hills surrounded by a vast plain. While walking under archways, across courtyards, through corridors and gazing out portals, I listened to questions that surfaced for me about the birth and usage of this structure. Research enlightened me to the fact that Fatehpur Sikri was the political capital of the Mughal Empire built by Emperor Akbar during the period of 1571 to 1585. Accessing this beautiful blend of Mughal and Persian architecture during this visit became a turning point to furthering my work towards eastern influences, practices and symbolism.

WM: I think of you as a printmaker but I’m not sure if this is actually what you do the most. Which medium do you work in the most often, and why?

CR: I am a printmaker, painter and mixed media artist. Printmaking is a process-oriented craft, which I love. Things shift and evolve as one develops a plate, incorporates ink to the print matrix and pulls the image via pressure of a press. I enjoy engaging with each step. I don’t run editions but will produce series of copperplate monotypes, chine collé, etchings and drypoints, which are often fused with chalk pastel, thread, dry pigment and/or gold leaf.


Are We No Longer There Yet, 22″ x 24″ Mixed Media on Surveyors Map, 2013

My imagery often references tapestry and weaving practices. One methodology is paying homage to another.

WM: Can you tell me about any experimental art project (in my mind I’m saying crazy experimental art project) that you really weren’t sure about but ended up being spectacular?

CR: Many artists collaborated with the architectural backdrop/corridors/gallery spaces during a project entitled “Love Lift” at the MacDonald-Stewart Art Centre (now the Art Gallery of Guelph). My work was installed in a large elevator. A white mosaic “rose window” tapestry was sewn into and suspended from the illuminated ceiling, producing hundreds of dropped threads into the elevator space. People were encouraged to tie these threads as they pleased and/or write a ‘love note’ on ‘post it’ notes to leave on the elevator walls for others to read. Hundreds of love-inspired poetical lines were posted over the course of the month-long installation. The thread ties became ever increasingly entangled and fantastical in sculptural form. The feedback for the project was wonderful!


Wave Garden, 9″ x 9″ Block Printing and Ink, 2016

WM: You also teach art. What is your goal when working with other artists, and what does this bring to you?

CR: I have taught since 1988, mostly children’s programs at various museums and art centers. I have also conducted many workshops in the school system as artist in residence.

I like to offer a studio-like environment where students can engage with materials and make their own explorations and transformations. Each group, each classroom is unique. I often begin with a short demonstration, depending on the technique being taught, then let the students have the freedom to try their hand. Being available for questions, comments and participating in discussions makes the ultimate teaching experience for me.

WM: To the best of my knowledge, you have made your living through art through most if not all of your adult life. What is your advice to artists who wish to do the same?


Sighting, 10″ x 10″ Multiple Layer Monoprint and Chalk Pastel on Somerset Satin Paper, 2000

CR: Be disciplined. Be open. Just about every job, commission, exhibition, trial and error has taught me something. Listening to yourself and trustworthy colleagues as your guides.

I used to be a very competitive athlete, mostly downhill skiing, which I also taught for years. Our director produced more successful level 4 instructors and coaches on a 198-foot “molehill,” as we called it, than other schools set in the mountains. Use what is available, coupled with energy and the desire to transform. This is a good mantra.

WM: You have a show coming up next week. Can you tell me a little about it?

CR: The show, entitled “PAPER MOUNTAIN SILHOUETTE” will be on view on the gallery wall in my studio from December 1 ~10, 2016 from 12:00 pm to 6:00 pm daily. [NOTE: the address is 100 Crimea St, Suite 3B, Guelph, Ontario, Canada.]


Cepheus, 22″ x 28″ Drypoint, Chalk Pastel, Thread on Somerset Satin Paper, 2010

The show is a suite of framed mixed media works: watercolors, block prints, acrylic on paper. The images are abstracted suggestions of space. Membranes, portals, walls, fabric in suspension are referred to in layers of various media on paper.

We are hosting a special event on Sunday, December 4 from 2 to 4 pm, with Turkish food and fabrics for sampling and for sale!

WM: What do you have coming up over the coming months/year? Any travel?

CR: “Paper Mountain Silhouette” exhibition will hopefully be a touring show. I am searching for exhibition possibilities. Also, I am hoping to return to India in January and February.

WM: What goals do you still have as an artist?

CR: To remain healthy and active, in order to keep making my work as well as enjoy the works of others.


Turquoise, 10“ x 10” Multiple-layer Monoprint and Chalk Pastel on Somerset Satin Paper, 2010

Carolyn adds: “I would like to acknowledge a few artists whose explorations and practices have offered me a space to muse and question my own direction. Shahziah Sikander, William Kentridge, Sheba Chhachhi, Anslem Keifer, Ann Hamilton, Sean Scully, Matthew Ritchie, Bharti Kher and Laurie Anderson are among a few whose work and approach to art making have weaved through my own trajectory.

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