Carol Es is known for her mixed-media paintings and works on paper that combine and metamorphose images and materials from her childhood around the garment industry, musical youth as a drummer in a touring punk rock band, and established voice engaging with the California landscape, color-forward abstraction, Jewish mysticism and the narrative stream of her own consciousness. Es is having a big April, with a solo gallery show, a fiery new memoir and the awarding of the Bruce Geller Memorial Prize, the WORD Grant from American Jewish University’s Institute for Jewish Creativity. We asked her a few questions about what inspires her and how she’s doing.
L.A. WEEKLY: When did you first know you were an artist?
CAROL ES: I think I always knew, even before I could make the conscious decision. I still have some of the artwork I made prior to preschool. It’s a bit of a mystery, because I don’t remember making these things and I can’t think of anyone around the family who would’ve encouraged it. But my dad nudged me to play a musical instrument. I wound up mainly playing drums. At 16, I sold a painting, which gave me the idea I could live like an artist. I knew I’d never have a lot of money but I thought I could get by and keep making art. That sounded good to me.
What is your short answer to people who ask what your work is about?
Once you tell Joe Schmo you’re an artist, they’ll usually ask, “What kind of art do you do?” I think only an art person asks what it’s about. In either case, I do my best to stay out of it. Without any visuals handy, I dissuade people from picturing any realist-type imagery or pretty pictures of the California landscape. I’ll warn them that it’s weird. If they’re still interested, I’ll give them my website address. Because what my work is about is truly up to the viewer.
Did you go to art school? Why/why not?
I hardly went to junior high, let alone art school. I lied about not having my high school diploma in order to work jobs. Then one day, the job I had at a bank found out about my lie and fired me. I later took the GED, mostly to please my mom. I wanted to go to art school but I simply couldn’t afford it. I’d even been taking orientation tours of the CalArts campus and Otis. I had a RISD application, but all of it only made my head spin. Being on my own, I had to work to support myself.
Eventually I saved enough to pay tuition for Musicians Institute in Hollywood. In 1985, it was only $4,000 a year, no transcripts required. Just an audition. It was more realistic, and I made more money at music than art. I was among the first women to attend the school, and definitely the youngest.
Why do you live and work in L.A., and not elsewhere?
Los Angeles is the most diverse art capital I can think of. There’s no place I’d rather be. Not to sound corny but it has its own heartbeat. It’s been given life by so many artists and visionaries, past and present, its history and heritage, tragedies, protests, publications, politics, etc. The rich culture here is undeniably like no other. All the hidden gems in the pockets of neighborhoods upon neighborhoods are discoveries that never end. I am a native here but I still find new ones.
I’ve been all over the world, but every time I come back, I kiss the frickin' ground. It’s a beautiful place with every landscape anyone could ever want, all within an hour drive or less (depending on traffic). Despite what anyone says, you’ll find the most authentic, down-to-earth and interesting people here. No matter where they originally came from, luckily, they wind up here. Everyone I know and everything I experience in L.A. inspires me and my work. Sorry if that was too much gushing. I swear I am not employed by the City of Los Angeles, or its tourist division.
When was your first show?
My first real legitimate solo show came together at Highways Performance Space and Gallery in Santa Monica when artist-curator Mary Milelzick was curating there in 2003. I ran a little gallery with two other women artists in San Pedro and she came to one of our shows. Eventually, she invited me to show at Highways and I was ecstatic, nervous, but knew I was ready. It was called “Cutting Patterns,” and the work incorporated garment patterns. It also addressed child abuse, but the work was pretty abstract and the messages somewhat cryptic.
When is/was your current/most recent/next show?
I’m having a big shebang (art show and book launch) at Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station that opens on April 13, at 4 p.m. The event features the launch of Shrapnel in the San Fernando Valley, a book I wrote about my tumultuous childhood, becoming a professional artist and musician, and the 20 years I was involved in Scientology. Lots of true-to-life and controversial content.
The exhibit is fittingly titled “Memoir” and runs until May 25. I’ll be showing oil and mixed-media paintings and works on paper. The book reading and signing begins at 4 p.m. on the evening of the opening reception. A short Q&A will follow.
Both trade paperback and hardcovers will be available for purchase and to sign, but I’ve also created a deluxe, limited-edition version of the book with original art, a linen binding, and foil stamping with some extra goodies. Details can be found on the Desert Dog Books website at desertdogbooks.com.
Website and social media handles, please!