“Never Say No”—A Silk Painter’s Journey from Studio to Stage

3 November 2021
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It’s amazing where a “yes” can lead you. No one knows this better than Canadian silk painter Holly Carr, whose philosophy of “never say no” has led to her being a sought-after live performance artist and has taken her all over the globe. I sat down with Holly recently over Zoom to discuss why she loves silk painting and how she became a live performer.

Enjoy a photo gallery of Holly Carr’s work at the end of the interview.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Victoria Bingham: Tell me a little bit about your background as an artist. How did you become a silk painter? Do you work in other mediums as well?

Holly Carr: I got my start studying design at NSCAD [Nova Scotia School of Art and Design—now NSCAD University] before transitioning to oil painting and art education. After graduation, my future mother-in-law gifted me a one-day silk painting workshop as a birthday present and suddenly, I was hooked. I fell in love with the medium. I quit painting with oil on canvas and just started exploring silk painting in my mother-in-law’s basement. I couldn’t stop. I just saw so many possibilities with what you could do with it, the three-dimensional potential, and the light. I became obsessed with it. I paint very non-traditionally. I took the way that I would paint with oils and applied it to silk, so I use very little water and I like to layer colour on colour. I also use whatever size and kind of brush I want. I don’t have specific silk painting brushes, for example.

Holly Carr, at home in her studio in Canning, Nova Scotia.

Holly in her home studio.

VB: Could you walk us through the technical side of creating a piece from start to finish?

HC: First I build a frame and attach the silk to it; they have to be stretched so they are nice and tight. Most silk panels come in a maximum of five feet wide, so I usually need to sew the panels together by hand to get the size I want. I use all water-based products, so I draw with a resist and then let it dry before painting with the silk dyes. After that, the painting needs to dry completely, then I take it off the frame and remove the stitching. Then, I lay it on layers of newsprint before rolling it up in a metal grate and putting it in my steamer. I have a giant steamer that my dad built for me that will fit five-foot-wide panels. The pieces steam for three to four hours, and then I have to let them cool completely before I take them out and rinse them in cold water to remove any excess dye and the resist. After that I iron them dry and then either sew the pieces back together or frame them to finish them. The steaming is always a bit scary because if you mess up during the steaming and the painting gets wet, it’s ruined.

VB: What inspired you to start painting live?

HC: I pitched an idea to some of my theatre friends about going to a gallery opening and making a painting about whoever shows up to the opening, and then leaving that painting which would then become the exhibit. They really liked the idea and turned it into a show called Private Views. I would interact with the show’s audience before the play started, talking with them and performing a monologue while painting a piece based on the audience members in attendance. Then, the actual play would start, and my piece became a part of the show—the art piece that was stolen from the art gallery. After one of those shows, I was approached by an artist who asked me to fill in for them at an event where they would draw live to accompany the performance of some musicians. I agreed, but I said they had to let me paint on silk.

My piece was on a 16-foot ⨉ 8-foot screen which was lit from behind. I had only eight minutes to paint the whole thing. When I put some red paint on the silk, the reaction was visceral, with audience members oohing and ahhing my work. I knew then that I had stumbled upon something really special. It went really well and I thought, “Oh, I want to do that again. That was really fun.”

VB: Do you come from a theatre or acting background? HC: No, no theatre background! I did grow up in a household where my parents took us to concerts, took us to theatre, and I always loved it. I always had a fantasy of either acting or performing somehow, but I was way too scared. The thought of acting made me weak in the knees, so it’s so interesting now that I can just be myself. I’m just me, so it’s easy. I’m not pretending to be somebody else.

VB: What are some of the venues or events where you have done live painting?

HC: I’ve performed with jazz musicians, poets, storytellers, and dancers. I’ve painted during fundraisers. One of my favourite memories is of painting for the “Bust-a-Move” fundraiser, where I created a huge 30-foot ⨉ 20-foot painting over the span of six hours while people exercised below me. The silk canvas was so large that I had to use a scissor jack to reach the various parts of it to paint!

I also toured for over a month with Stuart McLean and The Vinyl Cafe Christmas Tour. We did twenty-six performances from Ontario to BC. I would paint the 16-foot set live every night over the course of each show. During one of our tour performances, I was approached by someone from the National Arts Centre in Ottawa who invited me to perform with a symphony orchestra for the first time. This was my dream, so of course I said yes.

Since then, I’ve performed with symphonies in Ontario, Nova Scotia, Winnipeg, Toledo, and Laval. I toured Singapore with a young violinist, Min Lee, and spent three weeks at the Canadian International School in Hong Kong working with the kids there.

VB: When you do a performance, are your paintings pre-planned, or do you make up the imagery as you go?

HC: What I am creating has to relate to what the audience is hearing. I never go in without at least a vague idea. Sometimes, like with jazz musicians, I mostly improvise. I work fast and I have a good imagination, so I can do that. With other types of performances, there might be a theme or parameters that I need to work within. I look for something that inspires me about the music or the piece and go from there. A lot of times things happen that I don’t plan and that’s a lot of fun. Every piece I make has a story behind it. You might think something is decorative, but I can tell you exactly why I did that.

VB: What is the best thing about your performances and your work?

HC: I love feeling like I’m a part of something when I am performing. I’ve had a joyful life and that’s what I like to express with my paintings. I think the live painting is an expression of that, same with building installations that people can get inside and be in wonder, or even creating paintings that are whimsical and fun and make people laugh. We need good things in our lives, things that make us smile and make us happy. I feel so grateful to create something that brings people joy.

VB: What is the most challenging aspect of performing live?

HC: The technical side of it for sure. Silk always wants to flow, so you have to keep it contained. I had to learn how much dye and resist I needed to use to keep the images in place while still making it look beautiful and rich for the audience. I’m usually working within inches of it but it has to look good from far away. It’s also very physically demanding. Not only do I have to stitch the silk panels together, but the actual act of painting such large pieces is very tiring.

VB: Have you still been able to perform during COVID? What does live performance look like for you now?

HC: I’ve done a few symphony performances over Zoom, painting live with the musicians performing from their own homes. I have developed a children’s mental health program in collaboration with the Canadian Mental Health Association, called “Story Lines,” where I provide a visual prompt and children draw along at home while I paint live and create a story based on the feedback from the kids. I’ve also turned my installation, Light In The Forest, into a children’s book which has now been published, and right now I am working on developing an app for the book which includes sounds, narration, music, and dance performances, as well as a virtual walkthrough of the installation.

To learn more about Holly Carr and her work,
visit her website or follow her on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, or TikTok.

Watch: A behind-the-scenes look at the artist’s live silk painting performance at the Bust A Move fundraiser.

Watch: Installation and live performance on the Halifax Waterfront as part of the Nocturnes event. Holly painted for six hours while being accompanied by Jennifer King playing Nocturnes on the piano. Nocturnes On Silk By The Sea Live

Read: The artist’s large-scale installation “Light In The Forest” recently became a children’s book. During COVID, Holly has been working to turn the book and story into a multimedia app which incorporates sound effects, dance, music, and a 3D walkthrough of the installation. 

Enjoy this gallery of Holly’s work. Click on the images below to see them full-size.

All images provided courtesy of Holly Carr.

Copyright © Victoria Bingham except as indicated.

About Victoria Bingham

Victoria Bingham currently lives in the Haliburton Highlands of Ontario with her dog, Molly. She is an avid supporter of arts and culture and can often be found in the audience or on the stage at local events. She loves cooking, baking, embroidery, and knitting, and is attempting to learn how to garden. She is also the resident studio minion at indie yarn dyeing company, indigodragonfly.

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