Complex Soil: A Studio Visit with Caroline Wright 

by Barbara Purcell May 12, 2024

There is a stormy femininity to Caroline Wright’s paintings, a soft signaling of chaos through swirls of darkness and light. Call it a kind of birth — Wright says becoming a mother naturally upped the ante of work. “Postpartum was such a shock for me, and it’s something that isn’t talked enough about in our culture — women are just dropped into it,” she tells me. “So it felt important to talk about it, make art about it, and therapeutically move with it.”

A large scale, unstretched, abstract painting hangs on the wall with the bottom portion laying on the ground.

Caroline Wright’s studio in Austin, December 2023. Photo: Barbara Purcell.

We are in her backyard studio in Austin, next to an elementary school, where the sounds of squealing children at recess interrupt us on cue. “When I was a single individual making my artwork, everything was a little more optional — I could come and go. Now I’m more like a tree, now I’m rooted. I’m providing an ecosystem for other people and I’m reliant on what’s outside of me to keep everything around me healthy.” Seeking balance is as apparent in her paintings as it is in her studio space. A small handwritten note stuck to one wall reads simply: I Can Take My Time.

Rolls of paper, fabric, and other art materials lean against the wall of a studio. Taped to the wall is a message reading "I can take my time."

Caroline Wright’s studio in Austin. Photo: Barbara Purcell.

I first encountered Wright’s work at Prizer Arts & Letters in Austin last May, at an event she hosted with three local writers, all mothers, who took turns reading their work on the topic. Wright’s paintings occupied the gallery at the time, in a solo show called The Garden, The Body, offering a visual voice on the subject of motherhood. Yet despite the built-in element of nurturance, her paintings conveyed something slightly jarring. Floral motifs gave way to a conscious messiness; streaks of color perspired from petals while fingermarks pressed and pulled at the abstract overgrowth, appearing, at times, ruinous. There was beauty, but the beauty was angry.  

Back in Wright’s studio, a large-scale work measuring 9 by 11 feet hangs from the wall with this same hurricane energy. She lifts a corner and reveals a dense layer of blue and gray pigments on the back that have bled into the other side, the side she is currently working on. Wright first began this painting in 2018, but gave up after deciding she’d overdone it with her oil sticks. (“You can’t go back after oil stick.”) She resumed working on the piece this past fall, after a painting of the same scale — too large for the show at Prizer, but perfectly suited for the 12-foot ceilings at McLennon Pen Co. Gallery a few blocks north — inspired her to keep taking up space. 

An unstretched canvas is spread out on the ground two hands enter the frame from the bottom right corner manipulating the paint on the surface.

A work in progress. Photo: Lauren Slusher.

“Sometimes starting on the back allows me to start with very little preciousness — it’s not a blank canvas,” she says while further peeling back the painting. “There’s already some information to play with, and I can go from there.” Wright’s interest in floral imagery and oceanic flux have converged in this particular piece, resulting in an apocalyptic-type theme. “It’s not really intentional, just something that comes up from the subconscious — the climate crisis and things really not being in our control.”

I ask Wright, who now has two young children, each born during the pandemic, if motherhood has heightened her existential dread about a changing planet. Yes and no, she shrugs. The sad spiral of anger and helplessness, she assures me, was already spinning before she and her husband decided to have kids.

A person in coveralls sits before a large-scale abstract painting staring directly in to the camera.

Wright in her studio. Photo: Lauren Slusher.

Wright wasn’t always sure she wanted to be a mother — she wasn’t sure she even wanted to be in America. After attending Brown University, she moved to Paris and lived in an art squat for several years. But when she returned to her native Austin for a three-month stretch while waiting on a work visa, the familiar ease of the city set back in. She spent her time painting in her parents’ garage (Wright’s mother is a retired kindergarten teacher and her father is the author Lawrence Wright), an experience she freely admits wasn’t as romantic or exciting as a ramshackle artist collective in Europe. Still, something shifted in her. After she returned to Paris, a series of small dramas ensued at le squat, including infighting amongst the artists and someone erroneously (though not altogether accidentally) setting fire to her room. When a close friend suggested Wright throw the I Ching — that old ancient Chinese divination standby — the answer, unequivocally, was “Return.” She was back in Austin within a month. 

Wright describes the city’s art scene as “Austin Art 1.0” when she first returned home in 2007. Galleries were beginning to pop on the East Side, with two in particular — Art Palace and Okay Mountain — getting a mention in the New York Times. “It just felt like there was an energy here,” she recalls. “And it wasn’t overwhelming or threatening because it was brand new.” Wright became certified in yoga and began teaching workshops that encouraged creativity through yogic and somatic practices. She eventually began taking part in dance and movement workshops run by Deborah Hay, the internationally renowned modern dance choreographer and longtime Austin resident. That’s when Wright’s painting practice took a significant turn; Hay suggested that her work wanted to go bigger. It was 2016 — Wright had just finished grad school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and she was eager to begin paying off her student debt by steadily producing smaller (i.e. more manageable) pieces. “Deborah gave me permission — that’s when I ordered this huge roll of canvas.”

An unstretched canvas is spread out on the ground outside while the artist stands atop it.

Wright working outdoors. Photo: Lauren Slusher.

We are standing in front of her 9-by-11-foot painting, where this grand sense of movement, both motion and emotion, comes together through opposing energies of grounded-ness and restlessness. Imprinted on the canvas is a life that desires space to stretch and breathe and grow. “There’s something really special about women working on a monumental scale, putting our mark and our more complex soil in it,” says Wright as we take a step back. “It’s not just I’m gonna make a big thing — no — it’s I have to take this stuff with me in order to make a big thing.”


For more information on Caroline Wright’s work, visit her website.  

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