Ashby Carlisle lives in Old Lyme, Connecticut, the birthplace of American Impressionism. Approaching Carlisle’s studio, you’ll hear the soft sound of distant waves breaking on the beach. To the right is a peaceful woodland, on the left an iridescent glow radiates from the marsh. Inside, her studio is filled with warm sunshine. Reading the workspace in detail, you are captivated by her collection of vines lyrically dancing across every surface looking like sentences written in an unfamiliar language.
In this space, you discover Carlisle’s passion for the luminous light so beloved by the Impressionist painters. She has splashed translucent colors across the horizon of each three-dimensional landscape using dyed and torn papers. Over these sculptural vistas are twisting, turning vines growing out of the earth. The visual dynamics communicate the artist’s passion about making extraordinary art that challenges our curiosity about Man’s relationship to the natural world.
A Torch, a Kiln, a Printer
Carlisle employs an intriguing set of tools to fabricate her landscapes: a laser printer, a welding torch and a kiln. The laser printer provides text images on her papers. A welding torch wields intricate metal vines. Her trusted kiln provides fired clay, the earth’s crust pierced by vines. How did she come by these unconventional tools to create her landscapes?
Discovering Nature as a Child
Born in Providence, Rhode Island, Ashby’s family relocated to Wisconsin beginning a life of frequent moves with her father’s job promotions. Nature was the constant in a life of transitions. Her childhood was filled with outdoor freedom to dig in the dirt, build structures, and collect fascinating bits and pieces of nature. Combining different elements to create something larger than the sum of the parts was second nature to Carlisle. This intuitive talent comes to play in every art piece she makes.
Imagery of Line and Communication
Art was the glue in the lives of her maternal grandparents, both graduates of Massachusetts Art Institute. A master craftswoman with expertise in gold leaf and rug hooking, her grandmother’s beautiful designs grew out of vine and plant forms echoing a subject that Carlisle would continue. Her grandfather began his career as a mural painter in New York City’s Museum of Natural History, where Carlisle would spend hours musing over the curious objects on display. She was captivated by the unfamiliar symbols and marks on the bone implements, shards of pottery, and baskets. Her interest in early script is reflected on the papers in her landscapes.
Carlisle’s imagery was also influenced by a school project demonstrating that germinating seeds grow toward light and roots grow into water. The birth and life of seeds left a lasting impression. She was spell-bound by the intricate meandering and searching of the roots, and it became her life-long fascination. In these life experiences, you discover the rudiments of Carlisle’s imaginative balance between nature and culture in her sculptures.
Carlisle graduated from Beloit College, a top liberal arts institution in Wisconsin. As an art major, she learned oxygen-acetylene welding, a process uncomfortable for her, but a valuable tool when she needed a material to make her vines say “strength”. After graduation, Carlisle took a job teaching secondary art. Art teachers are required to teach many mediums not encountered in a liberal arts program. As a teacher, she learned to embrace clay as a sculptural medium, and explored kilns, the firing process, and glazing. She also taught a fiber arts course and through this experience rediscovered her old love of working with fiber. Carlisle continued to study paper making, dye painting, batik, and fiber sculpture. At 29, she left teaching to join the University of Washington’s MFA textile program. During this period in the art world, the fiber art field was exploding and the lure of New York City was too much for her. Three semesters into her degree, Carlisle packed up her studio and reestablished herself in NYC.
Career as a Sculptor
Carlisle’s first body of work was small and intimate in scale requiring the viewer to step in and gain an intimate face-to-face look at her art. The work of Charles Burchfield, Paul Klee and Lenore Tawney served as her inspiration to pursue the intimate world view, while the rest of the art scene was creating gigantic art. She treasures their microcosmic approach to exploring the mysteries of world. Burchfield draws and paints landscapes which literally resonate with the inner energies he experiences in nature. Klee paints the multiple layers below the surface of what we see. Tawney’s thoughtful, intimate work in fiber and collage inspired and encouraged Carlisle to explore and use nontraditional materials.
While sculpting in NYC, she learned basic graphic art paste up and mechanical skills to garner additional income. The old-school art techniques became integral to her work in making paper for her landscapes.
The Language of Man and the Language of Vines
In her Connecticut studio, the artist uses graphic art techniques to make paper for her landscapes. Carlisle collects alphabets and pictographs from different cultures throughout Man’s history. She arranges and glues the letters and symbols on a sheet of paper. A laser printer is used to make copies of her originals to permanently heat fuse the image to the paper. The papers are then dyed to create the luminous colors of her skies. The dye is translucent and creates a back light to illuminate the text.
To quote poet and fellow artist, Gray Jacobik, “Carlisle’s work suggests that she regards language as both a blessing and a curse. Her frequent use of dried bittersweet vines strikes me as the perfect trope for this nature vs. culture struggle. The vines ‘inscribe’ in the twists and turns and tangling ways, just as cursive letters and font types define how and what we see, and how we regard the physical world. Even the oxymoronic name “bittersweet” comes to underscore Carlisle’s point: to the plant itself, there is nothing bittersweet about its existence. It just is.” There is simply no literal translation of the uniquely beautiful sculptural landscapes constructed by Carlisle.
A Personal Note
Carlisle’s writings explain her work, “I strive to create a nature vs. culture balance in these sculptural landscapes. My surrounding environment is the lifeblood for this work. Literally living between a marshland, woodland, and the ocean is a wondrous gift to me as an artist. Here I investigate the variety of the world and watch the sky transform from season to season. Here I collect the lyrical vines which provide the basic elements for my sculpture. My work insists that its audience take a closer view of overlooked aspects of life. It is vastly important because without our acknowledgement and respect for Earth, the life systems supporting our existence could vanish, and so could mankind”.