Looking at the works of American paper artist Carolyn Beehler, one would assume they are impressionist oil paintings. But up close, they reveal textures, words, and symbols, all hinting at an alternative medium. Her latest series gives an insight into how small-town America has changed since the pandemic.
Carolyn Beehler takes hundreds of pieces from magazines and newspapers, cuts them by hand and then brings them together in collaged artworks on canvas that to the untrained eye would still pass as brushstrokes. In her latest series, Unprecedented, we see her impression of how her hometown responded to the pandemic. "It's my first journalistic collection," she tells us. "Scenes include favourite gathering spaces, shops and a farmer's market."
Based in Franklin, Tennessee, around 20 miles south of Nashville, her hometown has a population of 83,000 people and is like something you might see in a romantic American movie. Quaint and charming, its historic downtown district features Victorian architecture and is enjoyed immensely by those who are lucky enough to live there. Much like many of us who grew up in small towns, she was happy to move away and spent much of her twenties moving around the world, living in Shanghai, Italy and Los Angeles along the way. "I was worried I'd settle down and never get to see the world," she explains. Today, she's back in Franklin where she grew up and her latest works show a reclaimed love for the place.
"My latest series began as a celebration of my hometown," she tells us. "Franklin regularly ranks as one of the best small towns in America, and I wanted to show off its charm. As I was photographing the area during the spring and summer of 2020, I realised another theme was emerging, something undeniable and inescapable. The world I was photographing was impolitely intruding upon my theme of simply Franklin itself. I was, in fact, as a journalist, capturing an unprecedented time, as much as I was capturing Franklin's architecture and people."
The artworks you see here include glimpses of The Factory, the Farmer's Market and downtown Franklin. "There are some quieter spots, too," Beehler adds. "I invite you to examine each piece as a reflection of our local history. Notice your first impressions - I'm curious to hear your thoughts."
For us, we see a resilient spirit during what has been an intense period of history. A determination to continue life as normal. A community coming together like never before. Beehler's collages perhaps make those of us living in cities long for our hometowns and a return to the safe and familiar. Because if there was anything to learn from the pandemic, it was how important family and community is. Beehler's latest series certainly reminds us of our humanity.
Were the pieces comforting for her, too? "Truthfully, it wasn't! Not comforting, but instructive to help understand what was happening," she says. "Illustrating a topic or situation will give you insights you can't unearth in other mediums or dark corners of the internet. By cutting off the noise of the media, I allowed myself to investigate and observe first-hand. It's priceless. It showed me quiet and crucial things that were getting lost with the volume up, things like body language and atmosphere."
Like many of us, Beehler is trying to figure out what the "new normal" means and how she feels about life returning to how it once was, if at all. "The world is not the way I thought it was, and that's probably why my work is changing," she explains.
"My style remains the same, but I'm more interested in art that reaches beyond lending beauty and tranquillity to a space. In the past, I made collections based on my travels. They're airy and romantic, and there's nothing wrong with that. But in the last few years, I've come to feel urgent about the growing and inescapable abyss that is human suffering, and because my life is short, and because I can help others, and because others matter, I feel I must do more with the gifts entrusted to me." It's for this reason that Beehler's next series is a celebration of childhood and why she wants to give a portion of profits from the sale of her artworks to fight human trafficking.
After finding peace back at her roots, does she feel other people appreciate smaller towns now? "Absolutely. Anyone living in the south can attest that the trend in escaping the big cities is only increasing," she says.