ARTIST, TEXTILE DESIGNER
Callen Thompson is living like a bachelor.
At least, she is the day we arrive for her Reveiller shoot. These are her words, not mine, as the artist/textile designer scurries around her airy South Austin apartment tucking tchotchkes into place and wiping dust from the tiny, handmade ceramic vases on the dining table. Callen’s partner Eli has been away in Mexico for a week and it’s becoming clear that Eli is usually the one in charge of keeping their home in order. If Callen hadn’t mentioned this I never would have noticed, as I’m too taken with all the little handmade trinkets and shrines neatly arranged on nearly every flat surface in the space. Callen explains that they just recently moved into the lofted, second floor tree-house style apartment and it feels like they’re “camped out here right now.” You could have fooled me.
Callen’s hair is carefully pinned into a bun and she’s barefoot, wearing a long, floral cotton dress that belonged to her Great Aunt Bert. Aunt Roberta Nuchols was the secretary to the owner of American Hardware, who she later married. They bought an 80-acre farm on Harker’s Island, a little island off the coast of North Carolina. Aunt Bert was also a seamstress, and the pouf sitting next to Callen’s sofa is made from fabric left behind in her vast sewing collection that Callen and Eli inherited. I get the feeling walking through the space that everything I lay eyes on has a rich, sentimental story to it, and Callen serves them up warmly and willingly.
A sixth generation Floridian, Callen was raised in the woods, in a house her parents built by hand outside the small, sleepy town of Melrose. After studying art at Dartmouth College and Cranbrook Academy of Art, she made her way to Austin. She currently works as developmental director for the non-profit organization Texas Land Conservancy, runs her own business, BEAM Textiles, and is finishing up the Design + Social Entrepreneurship Program at the Austin Center for Design. Oh, and she also manages to somehow squeeze in producing an endlessly prolific supply of artwork. With that said, it’s understandable that some vases have collected a little dust while Eli is away.
I can’t imagine how an artist who is this busy and this prolific manages to make it all work. It all starts to make sense as Callen sits down to work on a gouache painting in her cramped studio space carved out of one corner of the living area. She picks up a gold paint marker and begins seamlessly mapping out a fractured, geometric pattern over a dark, inky cloud of gouache. Lines merge, break away and overlap without hesitation. I’m floored, because it seems as if work so precise and painstakingly detailed would require a level of premeditation that Callen obviously isn’t pausing to revel in. After a few moments of watching over her shoulder it occurs to me that she’s working almost entirely, if not completely, from intuition.
When I ask her about it, Callen admits that when she finished art school, she was so burnt out on the process of analyzing and critiquing work that she stopped making art altogether.
“I had a weird frozen time period for almost a year in which I couldn’t really paint or make art. Then Austin thawed me. Relaxing judgment on myself and practice, practice, practice re-opened the muscle that knew how to paint.”
I’m still not convinced this is muscle memory alone at work though. As she tells me more about her family history I begin to wonder if Callen’s working intuitively is half muscle memory and half collective memory.
You’ve mentioned that your family has an intense tie to the land in Florida where you’re from. This plays into your work pretty heavily visually and thematically. What aspects of that land particularly inspired you and still resonate with you now?
My parents were back to the landers who hiked into a North Florida forest in the late 70’s, bought a piece of land and built a house by hand (with help from friends who would come out to raise rafters). So I grew up in the woods with a big garden in a very magical, artist-made house. I went to school in town so it wasn’t like I was isolated, but whenever I was home there was a deep sense of peace from being part of the forest. It’s a beautiful forest- live oak hammock, palmettos, palm trees, Spanish moss, lush green moss everywhere, and tall pines down at one edge of the property that lead into a full-on Florida swamp, alligators and all. My sister and I got to run around naked in the outdoor shower like hellions and sleep out on the porch during cool weather, listening to the whippoorwills and owls calling at night. My room was basically an open attic at the top of a purple spiral staircase on the third floor, and it was surrounded by an ancient live oak.
I grew up going to a radical summer camp in Vermont called Farm & Wilderness (F&W). At F&W we lived in three-sided cabins with no electricity and read in bed every night by the light of kerosene lanterns and candles. The shower houses were open-roofed and all of the outhouses were composting toilets. The environmental impact of those camps is amazingly minimal. F&W was founded by Quakers and the camps embody the values of “living simply.” We learned how to make our own jam, carve our own spoons, can vegetables from the garden, milk cows, hike, rock climb, dye fabric (and our hair!) with plants, work and live in community, and so much more. It was a place that shaped me so deeply I can barely express it. Every nostalgic dream I have about bright green lush Vermont summers and working hard in the garden, then feasting at night with friends in the farmhouse comes from the many summers I spent in the Plymouth Valley at F&W. My parents actually fell in love at the F&W camps in the early 70’s. They sent both my sister and I there for many summers. Then I worked there and that’s where I met Eli.
My other connection to the Florida land comes through my grandmother. She was a 4th generation Floridian and her mother was a wild Florida Cracker who married a Lithuanian Jew, Abraham Tarapani, who later became the mayor of Tarpon Springs, a coastal Florida town. My great-grandmother grew up in a Cracker cabin, going to town by buckboard through the big Florida pineywoods. My grandmother felt it was important that my cousins and I understand the history of Florida before tourism and development ruined so much of it. She told us a lot of stories about old Florida, ones passed on from her mother and from her own childhood. She used to go to school by boat, growing up in Tarpon Springs, and her mother grew up walking to a one-room schoolhouse in the woods each day. On her way, she would have to herd the other children into a tight group to keep them safe from the Florida panthers lurking in the live oak branches above them. The Florida land isn’t friendly; it’s full of lightning, rattlesnakes, alligators, and sand spurs – but it is aggressively beautiful when you start to pay attention to it. It holds you.
A Georgia O’Keefe quote comes to mind in regards to your work reflecting your love for land. “I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way- things I had no words for.” It feels like some of your work represents these somewhat abstract moments in nature that you’ve brought back with you in memory to show us. They remind me when I look at them to be present, to appreciate the little things, to look deeper and longer, and to slow down. Do you put any intention into your work to inspire that kind of experience?
The two places I am most at peace are when I’m outside, immersed in the outdoors for as long as possible, and when I’m painting. The energy I channel into my paintings comes from the deep sense of calm I get from being outside. It’s always my hope to allow others to feel that when they get up close and study my work.
What motivates you to be productive?
The thing that motivates me to be productive is an internal drive that is persistent, persistent, persistent– a knocking on the inside of my ribs to constantly be making things. It’s the way I think, so if I’m not doing it I can’t sort things out properly. I’m tactile, sensory and love manipulating objects, shapes and colors to create things. Colors have emotive qualities and placing color on a page, working and re-working it, is a form of shaping feeling and human experience. It’s so fun to get to immerse myself in that world. And then stepping back from a product I have been immersed in and seeing the larger patterns I was creating is a wonderful experience that gives me perspective.
Do you feel like your productiveness requires any sacrifices or compromises in your personal life?
Yeah. It’s a battle because I could easily fill a couple of months with the paintings I want to do, but at the same time I need external inspiration from being outside, from other art, from music, from thoughtful performances, and other people/ideas to jumpstart my inspiration process. So I spend a lot of time soaking up stuff out in the world, processing it silently in the background while I do the other things I do (like work or school), and then (and this often takes months) I’ll notice inspirations come out in paintings. I can feel the thread they came from- like the other thing I did or saw that is working itself out of me into this painting.
You have a job, you’re running a business and in school at the same time. How does working around those things to make time for working in the studio affect your process? Is it stressful? How does it affect your creative energy and what do you do to stay balanced/healthy?
You can only do so many different projects at once. Until last week I hadn’t painted anything since August, which has made for a confusing feeling year. I just didn’t have enough bandwidth to work, do a grad program, have a family (of dogs and a girlfriend) and make art. I still maintained my art business, but I didn’t promote it at all this year. Getting back to my studio and making a painting last week felt like the most delicate slice of heaven, like an envelope of time I stole from the future when I’ll be done with school.
I stay balanced and healthy by eating whole foods (and drinking lots of kombucha!) because food affects my mood a lot. I also have an important meditative spiritual practice. One of my spiritual role models once said that if you feel like you don’t have enough time for a spiritual practice, it’s because you’re forgetting that every moment of life is spiritual practice. So it’s not that I meditate every morning, but I spend a lot of time stepping back and looking at what I’m doing and lovingly changing it up! Lots of opportunities to stretch and be more compassionate each day. So I work towards that- towards being present and loving and connected to others.
To see more of Callen Thompson’s work, visit her website at callenthompson.com