Censored: Rockport artist brings controversial work out of storage

By Christine Dunkle | Jan 15, 2020

Rockport — In 2014, Carol L. Douglas was part of a duo show at a university gallery in Rochester, N.Y. It was vast — a body of 60 large pieces including abstracts and nudes. While the gallery director was obviously on board, once the college administrators saw the show, they closed it down.

“I’m old, I consider myself a blue-haired church lady. I’m the polar opposite of what they were thinking — I was not looking for trouble,” Douglas said. “I couldn’t believe it was happening to me of all people.”

Douglas’ work dealt with misogyny and the marginalization of women, exploring issues like religious submission, bondage, slavery, prostitution, obesity and exploitation. “I am a serious feminist though. Some of the women are provocative… there is a beggar, and sex workers,” she said.

Douglas explained that the administrators were concerned that anyone walking by the building could see the paintings through the large glass windows. While they considered putting up screens, in the long run they simply required the show be removed. “It costs thousands of dollars [to frame and hang an exhibition]. I felt bad about [the other abstract artist], he was a passive victim,” she said. “I was so disheartened and upset.”

The paintings were put into storage and have not been shown as a body of work since. Douglas’ work from the show is being reprised in “Censored. Me. Really.” on Saturday, Jan. 18, from 4 to 6 p.m. at Carol L. Douglas Studio, 94 Commercial St. The public is invited. She will give a short presentation on the subject, the process, and the impact of censorship on her craft.

“We live in strange times,” Douglas said. “We not only tolerate but glorify the cardinal sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. On the other hand, we are leery of serious conversations, we don't like serious effort, and we vilify those with whom we disagree.”

What originally inspired Douglas to paint on the subject was discussing women’s issues and genderism with a friend. She said the cynic in her thinks that if she painted Odalisques there would have been no objection.

“People love these coy, cute nudes that look classical; they’re voyeuristic,” she said. “They are young and beautiful. They’re not about reflecting real women’s lives.”

Douglas said there are no paintings of men that really compare. “There are no nude men, all tarted up,” she said. “Young people are exposed to sexually-charged but stupid images every day; in fact, this is part of the problem facing women today.”

Douglas felt it was time to show her censored work simply because these women’s issues were on her mind and always seem to be a current problem. “It’s not an area I’m interested in painting any more, but it’s still an area I’m deeply concerned about.”

She recalled how collaborative the process was with her model for the censored nudes. “She would understand what I was trying to drive at and really work to [recreate it],” Douglas said. “Which was amazing considering I attempted to wrap her in Saran Wrap and paint her in a meat tray. That was a fail.”

Douglas has been a painter all her life, growing up in Buffalo, N.Y. “My father taught me to paint. He was a competent amateur,” she said. After his stint as a World War II photographer, he came back home and started a studio. “[But] he lost his shirt, he had no business sense.”

While Douglas had “good skills, good chops,” her father had learned painting in the 1930s, so her own studying wasn’t on the contemporary side. She commuted to a class in New York City, where the instructor said her abilities would be up-to-date “if this was 1950.” She learned to paint alla prima, where paint is applied wet on wet without letting earlier layers dry. Paintings created in this approach are usually completed within a single session.

With more study and practice, the rest is history. She’s now been teaching painting for more than 20 years. Her father always said she should be a teacher, but she didn’t want to deal with the bureaucracy. “[With art instruction] it’s the best of both worlds. I do it on my own terms. I love teaching,” Douglas said. Even though her first year doing so en plein air resulted in losing a student into the water.

Her favorite workshop is on the Schooner American Eagle, where students on a four-day trip paint while moving. “You don’t know what the weather and wind are going to do, it changes how you paint. You have to think fast on your feet.”

When Douglas struggled with her first bout with colon cancer in 2000, she quit her regular graphic design paycheck to paint full time. “My husband says I didn’t do anything I didn’t want to,” she said.

Her road trips for teaching and exhibitions brought her more and more to Maine, so she finally told her husband she’d either have to retire or move. They bought their Rockport home five years ago. “It was the most seamless move ever,” she said. “I knew a lot of people. They were all used to looking at my ugly face.”

While Douglas taught and did figure painting for a long time, she’s now focused primarily on landscapes. She works in oils, watercolors and pastels, but her field work is mainly oils. She also has a highly-rated art blog.

In 2016, she traveled 10,000 miles across Alaska and Canada over six weeks' time to paint in the northern backwoods. She stopped in every province to create her series of small works, and her adult daughter went along for the ride. They began the fall trip by sleeping in the car.

“We were in this ratty, clap-trap of a car that broke down every thousand miles,” Douglas said. “I thought if I kept it up I was going to die.”

There was no cell service and the two couldn’t even stretch out on the short bed among all her paintings. Her daughter contracted mono around the Yukon. “I can’t imagine why she got sick,” Douglas said. “Never sleep in your car in winter, it cools down too fast.”

The pair began their excursion in Alaska during a snowstorm and ended it with Hurricane Matthew in Newfoundland — with plenty of difficulties in between.

At one point, while she was painting and her daughter was off collecting Tim Horton’s coffee, Douglas wandered down a trail and came across bear scat. A quick adjustment in the other direction had her running into a gutted moose (thankfully by human hand). They also didn’t take that hurricane seriously enough, ending up stranded on an island on Canadian Thanksgiving in a hotel with no running water.

“And nothing to eat except a hot dog at a gas station,” she said. Mother and daughter even jumped a fence to visit a Viking site the next morning, but had to take a several-mile detour to get back out when they couldn’t scale the inside wall.

“My true heart is the far north, I love it. It was a fabulous adventure,” she said. “I would do it again, just with a better car.”

Douglas has traveled extensively for her passion, from Scotland and Australia to New Mexico and on to Argentina in March to paint glaciers. Then the plan is to settle in and stay home to run her studio throughout the summer.

“I thought, ‘I live in a fantastic location. Why am I going to all these other places?’” she said. “I like Maine a lot. I can stay here. And sleep in my own bed.”

“Censored. Me. Really.” will be on display through Feb. 29. Visit watch-me-paint.com for studio hours and more information on classes and upcoming shows.

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