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Taking Flight

Artist Carlene Roters takes what she finds in nature and then, well, wings it.

Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder

 

Artist Carlene Roters lives close to animal spirits — in fact, as close as she can. "We lost our owl's nest," she says with a frown. "But then a deer died on our land, which is unhappy in one sense, but happy in another. Sure enough, that brought back the ravens, who ate off the carcass. And they build the nests." Owls as a group rarely build nests of their own, she explains, but rather take over those built by other birds. "So that'll make space for the owls again," she adds brightly.

Carlene Roters with one of her larger paintings, this one with layers of personal and mythological symbols. "I was trying to put everything I loved into this painting," she says.

The eight-acre property around Roters' Grant County home — she and her husband Frank bought up adjacent lots as they could — is something of a sanctuary, both for wildlife and herself. She begins most days reading, then soaking in her hot tub, spending meditative time watching the birds flitting in the trees around her. Then it's time to go to work — to take inspiration from the morning and the spirit of what's around her and blend it with the symbols in her mind, in her dreams, to create her art.

An oil painter, print-maker, clay sculptor and assemblage artist, whatever the medium, Roters often takes as her theme the natural world — bugling elk, a fox here and there. And, of course, birds, birds, birds, like those on this issue's cover.

She opens a huge portfolio and pulls out a number of monotype prints, image after image, all of ravens. Singular ravens, ravens in groups. The prints are black litho ink, and the graceful, simple black lines catch and convey the energy of the birds in flight, squabbling in groups, nesting as a family, stealing an egg.

"When I observe something there in nature, it's not just there. It's given to me and then I do what I do with the image," Roters explains. "One thing I do is to simplify it. The way I treat it shows what I have to say about it, how I feel about it."

She's inspired by the Inuit Indians' treatment of animal forms in their art. "It's so simple, so honest," she says. "I'm not trying to be literal here, but capture something of their (the birds') spirit."

Roters tucks the raven prints back into their portfolio, then walks about her airy, high-ceilinged studio, pointing out some of her other work, some hanging, some sitting on the floor, propped up against the walls.

"Oh, I'm still unpacking, trying to make space for new work," she says. She's just returned from Wyoming, where she assisted in getting the work of her late father, the famed muralist Carl Roters, into the Whitney Museum of Contemporary Western Art. Her mother was a portrait artist, so Carlene Roters comes from strong artist stock.

 

She continues around the studio and points out a sizeable painting resting next to a worktable. In it, an elegant sandhill crane picks its way through a shallow pool of water, the flair of its tail feathers echoed in the lush foliage around it. The background is dappled with images not unlike the pattern on an ancient rug.

"This is one of my new crane series," Roter says. This month's cover art, "Tapestry of Ancient Wings II," also is one of this series.

"I like to put patterns from my rug into my paintings," she adds. "It's a carpet I brought back from India. I do my yoga on it, so it's very special to me."

She goes over to the rug and runs a hand over it. "You see how it's not symmetrical, and how many different things it has in it?" she asks. She then walks around the room, pointing out how different parts of the rug's design are incorporated into a number of her other paintings.

Roters' extensive travels around the world have greatly influenced her work, she says, by exposing her to different styles, colors and artistic purpose. "The carpets in Turkey tell stories, and I love that. So I try to put so much in my paintings."

She leads the way to her bedroom and begins pointing out and explaining the myriad details in a huge painting hanging there. "These are my goldfinches. They were popping all over our lawn that season." Roters points out the tiny yellow birds. "This is my garden. Here are my zinnias!" she says brightly, as if surprised or happy to see them again.

Noting some human figures, rendered in a simple style, she says, "These are actually some figures from Kandinsky. Oh, and there's my philodendron again! I was trying to put everything I loved into this painting."

 

Her beloved owls have been the subject of another series of paintings, and also of some assemblage art, a medium she's picked up only in the past few years. Back in the studio, she indicates one of her assemblage pieces.

"Sometimes I go into sculpture, making things out of wood and found objects," she says. "This owl, for example, came out of my paintings." The sculpture — a couple of feet tall and with odd objects like a fork and pieces of metal nailed into the round wooden-frame body — is a rough and whimsical representation of an owl.

Roters goes over to a painting on the floor, this one oil paint on wood. The image looks ancient, tribal, sort of petroglyphic in nature. This work is a triptych, she explains, a piece made of three hinged panels. She swings out the two halves of the front image to reveal another painting inside — a great horned owl amid swirls of color and primitive handprints echoing, perhaps, its spray of tail feathers. Other simple animal images appear between the colored lines, almost as if in some psychedelic spiral.

"These are made so that you can have them completely closed and see only the outside image," she says, closing the doors to return the front image to wholeness, "or you can have them open a little or a lot. Look what happens when I do this!" Roters swings the doors to the point of being open about four inches, leaving just the owl's brilliant eyes barely visible. She laughs and says, "See? He peeks out!"

She points out other triptychs in the studio. One, incorporating images of meadowlarks among balsa trees, Roters painted after being inspired by an elk refuge in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Another triptych is covered with bright poppies.

"This is my response to that amazing poppy season we had a couple of years ago. Do you remember that? It was just wild," she says. "I'm somewhat of a storyteller, so this painting tells the story of that season for me."

She walks down the stairs into her open living and dining room area, pointing out symbols in some of her other work. In one, a primitive goddess-looking woman swallows the sun each night to give birth to it every morning, as in the myth of Nut (pronounced "Newt"). "I was very inspired by Joseph Campbell's Power of Myth," she explains.

Walking on past her art library, she pulls out some books on ancient women's art. "I'm very interested in women artists and in women's history. I took a goddess tour in Turkey. That was fascinating!"

 

Roters set down a pot of herbal tea on the dining table. In the center of the table is a clay candlestick holder she made. The base is in the shape of a large carp. She runs to the living room and gathers up a thick stack of magazines, which she then splays out on the table.

"This is something that really excites me," she says, flipping open copy after copy of a magazine called Raw Vision. "This is what they call 'outsider art.' It's work by non-typical artists." The work — in a wide variety of media, often using bizarre materials — is done by children or the mentally ill. The artists are untrained, simply giving rise to their passion or following an obsession, like the woman who makes huge sculptures out of string, or the postal worker in France who started making buildings out of things he found along his route.

"This fascinates me," Roters says. "It's so wild, so raw. I'd like to be an outsider. Of course, I can't because I am educated and I'm not crazy," she says with a laugh. "But this give me permission to be crazy. To just let my dreams and my wildest ideas take flight!"

 

Carlene Roters' work is represented by the Blue Dome Gallery, 307 N. Texas St., Silver City, 534-8671, www.bluedomegallery.com.

 

Donna Clayton Lawder is senior editor of Desert Exposure.

 

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