By Frances Figart
Sometimes grief inspires the highest level of our creativity. This seems to be the case for Debra Carpenter, whose prolific work on display in her home studio just outside of Spruce Pine is a part of this month’s Toe River Arts Council (TRAC) Studio Tour, held June 2–4.
An artist since childhood, Carpenter endured a life-changing event in April 2002: the death of her 22-year-old son, Elijah, who was to graduate from college the following month with a degree in Religious Studies. For the next six years, she painted relentlessly, sometimes 20 hours a day. Her work became a form of self-directed therapy, an unleashing of primal screams and unconscious dreams. “I wrote and continue to write letters to my son,” she says. “Some canvases have many layers of letters; I see characters in them and paint what I see.”
Carpenter paints in oils on canvas and says she loves the medium because it remains pliable for days. “It keeps me under its spell, I have yet to conquer it so… I love a challenge! I am a full-time painter and I live by the quote by Van Gogh, ‘If the voice inside you says you cannot paint, then by all means paint, and the voice will be silenced.’ I must paint and get up and paint some more.”
Growing up in Florida, Carpenter was influenced by her father, who studied art in college and passed on his love for painting, but chose economics as a career focus. “My parents kept a large collection of art books on topics such as masterworks from museums around the world that kept me interested and curious,” she says. “Dali, Magritte, de Kooning, Hans Hofmann, Bosch, of course Van Gogh and Michelangelo—many more but those really fascinated me.”
Her father became part of the building boom of universities in Florida, where he was founding vice president for Florida Atlantic and the University of West Florida, as well as founding president of the University of North Florida. Her mother produced and directed educational television in Pensacola, Boca Raton and Jacksonville. “We moved every couple of years,” Carpenter says, “but art has been my constant companion and escape.”
After graduating high school in 1971, Carpenter attended East Tennessee State University, but was only interested in art so became frustrated with academics rather quickly and returned to Florida to work at Disney. She seized an opportunity to travel to Europe in 1972 and lived what she calls “the hippie life” in Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Austria, Spain, Morocco and England, where she met her first husband. The couple returned to the states in 1976, having their daughter, Claire, and son, Elijah, in the late ’70s.
In the early ’80s, Carpenter divorced and moved with her children to Memphis, where her dad had become president of University. Working in graphic design as she attended school, she studied painting, color, drawing, sculpture, interior design, drafting and lighting. Her career included roles in interior design and glass and as a sculptor, muralist and faux finisher. A second marriage ended after the tragedy of Elijah’s death.
During her grieving, in 2004, Carpenter moved to a small house on the beach in St. Augustine. She used letters to her daughter, Claire—who was then attending the French Culinary Institute and would become a New York City-based celebrity chef—as a way to regroup and practice color and a new way to see landscape. “My eyes were losing far sight so I noticed the way light ‘mosaics’ between the branches of trees. I painted that using the letters and light play, signing those FMD, for my daughter, who lives, as does the land and light.”
By 2016, 14 years after Elijah’s death, Carpenter felt it was time to leave Florida. “The dart on the map was to be in the mountains of Georgia or North Carolina,” she says. After her father’s retirement, her parents had relocated permanently to Blowing Rock, where they had enjoyed a vacation home since 1987.
“My mother, an art glass collector, would often come to Penland, TRAC and Twisted Laurel to purchase glass, so I had enjoyed some day trips with her here,” Carpenter says. “I found a Zillow listing that seemed to call me to Spruce Pine. Here I am, one year since my arrival, and I feel as though I have been here all my life… and never happier.”
Through her painstaking work, Carpenter has arrived at some release and a healing of sorts, though her scars remain not far below the surface. Of the 103 paintings displayed in her home studio for the TRAC Tour event, only two are not for sale: The Scream (2002) and The Healing (2012). These represent the beginning and the ending of her grief, which continues to find its expression in portrayals of whimsical nightmarish characters and mischievous spirits of madness, all with the signature address: Dear Elijah.
“I think we’re all a little mad,” she says, “some only hide it better than others. After nearly 40 years, it seems I am lost as to how to label, or summarize, my madness with words.”
But, for her, painting itself is a communication, a reaching out. “In my canvas I see characters emerge, as you may see in the clouds, from the layers of letters I write to my son, Elijah. A subconscious world just beneath the surface, it is my obsession to share that madness with you.”
Carpenter’s home studio is at 98 Veed Garland Road off Highway 19 East between Micaville and Penland Road. In addition to her studio being a stop on the TRAC Tour this month, Carpenter’s work can be seen hanging in Spoon Lounge and Ya Ya Yoga, both in Spruce Pine. She will have a solo show at the Burnsville TRAC in October. Learn more at dearelijah.com or by calling 917.270.3695 or e-mailing email@example.com.