Sometimes Life creates the Artist—through circumstances, some painful and traumatizing, and through people met along the way who comfort, uplift and inspire. Experiences, bad and good, inform whatever innate desire to create may have been dawning already. For Connie Karleta Sales, who endured sexual, physical and psychological abuse, writing became her first balm. “I have been writing since I was old enough to hold a crayon,” she says. “Writing was my friend and confidante I told all my secrets and dreams.” She wore the pain of her words, taping letters that she wrote underneath her clothes, and then discarding them in alleyways.
In college, struggling, she took a photography class. At semester’s end, her professor asked if she had ever thought of art as a major. Connie hadn’t, but, she says, “That was all it took. Something broke. I entered the art department and never looked back. I had found home, where I had always been, deep in word and image.” In Taos, NM, she spent summers focusing on plein air landscape painting, drawing and woodblock printing.
She credits her professors with being the first and best inspirational figures in her life. “I describe them as wrapping me up in this cocoon of encouragement and opportunity,” she says. “They allowed me to be that terrified and painfully shy girl in all my idiosyncrasies. They told me: never stop creating.”
And she has not, although she has endured, since that time, cancer and, in 2015, the onset of a progressive, neuromuscular autoimmune disease that left her paralyzed. It was her desire for a better rehabilitative process that brought her from Idaho, where she was living, to the NC mountains where friends had retired. “We love the art scene, we love our friends, and, when we learned about what kind of medical access is available, my husband and I packed up and moved here in the summer of 2016. All my friends and family help share the load with me today in order that I may keep creating. One professor, Tracy Hicks, along with his wife, Victoria, became lifelong mentors, friends and chosen family.”
Karleta Sales’ creative process begins with observation of the places around her and of her own body, which she uses as a model for abstracted figurative work. “I work from life,” she says, “experience, direct physical observation and an inward listening.” Early on, when she developed a love of plein air painting, the practicality of carrying a smaller pack birthed the tiny landscapes, some smaller than postage stamps, that she creates. “I found people connected intimately to these ultra-miniature landscapes.”
A favorite memory at an event in Idaho drove home for her what her work is all about. “At the artist talk, a woman spoke up to ask me a question,” she says. “She said, ‘Your work is so painful I want to look away. It is so beautiful I cannot stop staring.’ Then she walked right up and swiped her fingers across the charcoal and paper. It was then that I fully realized how intimately we connected. The creative process has always been my best communication tool.”
Her first love—language—informs her work. “I cannot divide out word and image. Words are drawings to me. In fact, words are symphonies of sound, color, texture that I feel within my body. Sometimes a word drips off the back of my ear and other times it resides within the tip of my elbow. Maybe it’s blue or pastel pink. It may have a deep, sustained vibration or a higher staccato. I draw words. I write drawings.”
She often makes her own inks from dirt, dead leaves, spices, just about anything. “My favorite is when it comes from something special. I have coffee with a friend. I will save those grounds and make ink. Every drawing is made with love.” She knows that a drawing or poem is done when it becomes unfamiliar to her. “Then I know it is no longer my story on that paper, but, instead, the story of many.” It is, she adds, “ready to dance.”
With the upcoming launch of her own space, Crooked Little Flower Studios, she is moving beyond her own creations to embrace others. “The studio is about people,” she says. “continuing the legacy of my dear friend and artist, Tracy Hicks.” Offered will be workshops, Creative Conservations, short- term residencies and plein air painting packs for visitors to check out and use on the trails surrounding her home and studio.
Initiatives Karleta Sales has coordinated include Brave House Secrets, a traveling series seeking to break down barriers of isolation and shame after sexual abuse and family violence. “I start with the art and allow others to direct the conversation,” she says. “What I love most is using the creative process to share and connect with others.”
See Connie Karleta Sales’ work at Crooked Little Flower Studios, at 39 Castenea Street in Bakersville, during the TRAC Holiday Studio Tour Friday, November 30, through Sunday, December 2, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. To learn more, visit CrookedLittleFlower.com, or find her on Instagram @ crookedlittleflower, Medium.com @ crookedlittleflower and Facebook @ crookedlittleflowerstudios. She is also represented by dk Gallery in Marietta, Georgia.