Lost and Found at Sea: Carly Butler in the Studio

September 9, 2015 by

DSC_8567Sheets of paper hang on a dimly lit wall, each with succinct pressed type against an otherwise bare page. “You are somewhere on this line,” it reads. Red waxed bookbinding thread ties these words together, boldly underlining them before tapering off and hanging limply off the edge of the paper. The words read like poetry, and in a way, they are poetic, though their origins may not seem as such.

“I pick quotes that intersect with life,” Carly Butler says. “It’ll be a lifetime before I run out of source material. Every book I get on navigation is something new to work with.”DSC_8641

Carly, WSW’s first recipient of the new Parent Residency grant, is inspired by text. An interdisciplinary artist with a research- and concept-driven practice, Carly pours over the pages of books like Practical Celestial Navigation and Boating in Canada then uses these words as found materials. Words and phrases pulled from these larger texts, such as “Calms are usually only of a temporary nature” from Seamanship Notes, exist in Carly’s prints as philosophical quotes, but gain another meaning once their naval context is learned.

Carly takes quotes away from their original contexts just as she was taken away from the sea, using them as a way to cope with being trapped on land. Carly’s father was a master mariner and a ship’s captain. As the oldest among her siblings, Carly took it upon herself to be the safety officer on board. It was up to her to plan for disasters, prepare for a shipwreck, survive at sea. Her family’s life goal was to eventually sell their house and live on the sea, a dream they only realized once Carly had already left home.  “I would visit my family on their boat, but at that point I was a ‘wannabe sailor’ according to my father,” she says.

DSC_8628This relationship with the sea and its navigation permeates all of Carly’s work across a variety of media. In her performance and video piece Anywhere Else, Carly drags a life raft across dry land as a way to explore these feelings of restlessness and longing for an alternative lifestyle. Her more recent turn toward minimalist text- and line-based work develops from an impulse to translate the technical, specialized knowledge of the seafarer into a personal guidebook that resonates philosophically with the viewer. “Out of context, what does this say about life?” she asks.

The analog nature of the letterpress is in the same vein as these old forms of navigation found in Carly’s research books. “It’s keeping with the kind of history I’m working with. No one knows how to set type anymore, no one knows how to use a sextant to navigate anymore,” Carly says. “We know exactly where we are at all times, but we have no idea where that is.” But Carly takes it a step further than simply our ignorance of antiquated strategies of navigation. With GPS technology and the internet, we have a simultaneous excess and absence of knowledge. Carly’s work points towards a search for solitude in our overly connected contemporary world.

For Carly, the single-handed sailor is successful on his search for loneliness. Her heroes are Steve Callahan, who survived months on a raft lost at sea, and Bernard Moitessier, who nearly won an Around the World boat race without a radio before turning around and starting again to “save his soul.” Carly had always imagined herself being among these solo sailors, but for now she’s landlocked and lost in her work. Conceptually disconnecting words from their books, Carly mirrors our disconnect from bodies of knowledge we no longer have. And her experimentation with blind embossing acts as a perfect vessel to explore themes of loneliness and absence. The words inklessly pressed onto the page are haunting, ghostlike.

Despite her deep personal connection with these lone sailors and navigation experts, Carly is having a hard time even traversing Rosendale. “It’s driving me crazy that I don’t have a map of this place,” Carly admits rather shamefully. “I don’t even know where north is!”DSC_8652

Carly Butler is a Halifax-based interdisciplinary artist currently working primarily in mixed media and letterpress. She has an MA in Art History from University of Manchester and recently completed a BFA at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. View more of Carly’s work at carlybutler.com and see more images of her residency on flickr.

Carly is the first recipient of our Parent Residency grant, a four-week residency for an artist with dependent child/children under the age of fifteen. We are now accepting applications for 2016, learn more about this opportunity here.