When Carolyn Garcia was a child, she found a four-leaf clover.
“I wished for a horse and the next day I had a horse, no kidding! The power of four-leaf clovers!”
This accidental magic made a big impression on Garcia’s young mind, one that’s never left the Portland artist.
Garcia grew up on the broad prairies near Cheyenne, Wyoming. The setting gave her an appreciation of nature and quiet, and fueled her abundant, free-range imagination.
Her mother’s family was made of up of avid musicians and writers. Her father’s family came from New Mexico, where they’d lived close to the land for generations. The Garcias and Archuletas hunted, fished and made everything by hand. Garcia loved visiting them.
“They made their own cheese, their own bread, their own tortillas, and my tía Maclovia was famous for her remedios.”
Behind the white-washed walls of Tía (“Auntie”) Maclovia’s tiny adobe house, Garcia found more enchantment.
“There was no running water. And she had a little wood stove with a fire going. And if you were sick in any way, she had a tincture for you and they were incredibly effective,” Garcia recalls. “Everything in her house was cozy and comforting. It was like going to another time.”
But the treeless prairies and arid landscapes that Garcia knew growing up were about to expand. The summer she was 11, Garcia and her family traveled across the Rockies, Cascades and Oregon’s verdant Coast Range to take part in Cannon Beach’s Haystack Arts Program.
“To me, coming to this landscape felt like coming into a fairy tale, the lushness of it, the trees covered in moss, the ferns everywhere. There’s just a wild abandon of plants. It blew my mind,” she remembers. “I was enthralled by it.”
Garcia’s infatuation with this storybook landscape was seminal. At 17, she enrolled at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, studying fine art and illustration.
“I loved it. It felt like I had really just met my people, had found my place.”
Ever since, Portland’s small-town feel and colorful, hyper-local identity has provided Garcia with the perfect spot to call home.
Today, Garcia sustains her vivid, imaginary world with art. Her paintings are small, detailed and constructed as one would build a diorama – background first, then each element painted over that until the image is complete.
Garcia acknowledges the extra work this painstaking process demands might seem excessive.
“But I feel like it’s more realized, like it’s more fully in there. Like you’re actually creating this dimensionality,” she explains.
Alone in her attic studio, adding tiny brush strokes with the aid of a handheld magnifying glass, Garcia focuses on creating images rich with narrative nuance and illustrating books for children… one brush stroke at a time. The work takes longer than she’d like, but for Garcia, this careful attention and almost-microscopic work isn’t tedious.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve loved detail. It’s really meditative, a lot like my walks that I go on.”
Daily neighborhood walks with her dog Scout provide Garcia with all the variety she requires.
As Scout surveys the myriad smells along the sidewalk, Garcia scans familiar sights for new details. Stopping to take a closer look at a just-about-to-blossom poppy, it’s bright red petals insistently pushing open its spiny, gray-green husk. She sighs with delight.
“I love when poppies are just about to come out of their shell. It’s like there’s a really beautiful dress in there about ready to pop out.”
Though Garcia’s enchanted view of the world shows no signs of abating, she is concerned that our growing absorption in technologies such as cell phones and virtual reality are providing the next generations a poor substitute.
“I think when people are sort of tethered to technology, they miss these experiences and opportunities to really exercise problem solving skills and to connect to something that’s real.”
Garcia’s work provides a portal through which to reacquaint ourselves with the charms of a simpler time.
“I think that there’s nothing as valuable or mysterious as the things that are easy to see on our planet,” she says. “There’s a just vast amount of inspiration in the smallest of things; look up, look down, it’s everywhere, things to notice, things that are important.”