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Art Review (NYC): Candle Lit Portraits by Claudia Carlson

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The Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village recented offered Candle Lit Portraits, a show by poet Claudia Carlson (author of The Elephant House). The exhibit featured “pencil and water color sketches drawn by candle light while listening to writers read,” offering a unique blend of the literary and visual arts. As an artist who works in several disciplines—poetry, sketching/watercolor, and book and web design—Claudia Carlson brings an educated eye to the portraits of authors she executes quickly at readings and events.

I have sat near her in a variety of venues, ranging from ComicCon to the Mystery Writers of America conference to readings at the New York Public library and, of course, the Cornelia Street Café—and have watched her, in an hour, take a likeness of the writer in motion while reading a poem, telling his or her life story, or making a vital point in a panel discussion. The portraits offer a view of the author a photograph can never give, by capturing the idea as well as the artist in the moment.

The Cornelia Street Café, a long-time center for Village cultural life, is famous for its poetry readings (as well as its wine list, perhaps not coincidentally). Poets feature largely in this show. Portraits of poet/essayist Phillip Lopate, Molly Peacock, and Adrienne Rich, offer faces familiar to many in a vivid new light. The watercolor of Mark Strand is particularly thoughtful; both the abstraction and wit of the poet shine through.

But the show was not all West Village, and not all poets; some of the best pieces come from the world of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery. From the great horror master Stephen King to fantasy humorist Terry Pratchett, these lively sketches give a wonderful sense of writers interacting with their readers. Carlson captures writers together in a few of these pieces, and it is great fun to see Esther Friesner and Harlan Ellison caught together, no doubt mid-snappy retort. The portrayals of fantasy writers Charles de Lint and Ellen Kushner capture the essence of both authors, both as speakers and writers.

Some of the most poignant pieces are portraits of writers who have passed on since the events at which they were captured. It’s a little sad to see Octavia Butler, the multi-Hugo Award winning writer who died only a few years ago at age 58, or Diana Wynne Jones, the writer of young adult fantasies, who died just last year, just as they appeared at writer’s conferences, intelligent, engaged, and looking out with interest at their enthusiastic audiences. There are also portraits (not taken from life, but from photographs) of the formidable J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, both looking tweedy and ready for a meeting of the Inklings.

There is an element of caricature in many of these pieces, as well as what Barbara Pym called “affectionate irony,” that particularly suits most of the chosen subjects. The hour or less that is the space of the usual reading or writers’ panel makes speed a necessity; these are not formal commissioned portraits in oil, but impressions of the moment, done quickly, and with enormous skill and verve. The authors, as well as the artist, seem to have often signed the portraits at the end of the hour, and must have been pleased to know they were being watched and listened to with such care.

You can catch a glimpse of the pictures in the exhibit at the Candle Lit Portraits Facebook page.

Many thanks to Claudia Carlson for supplying the images of her portraits for this review.

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About Deborah Atherton

Deborah Atherton is a writer, lyricist, and librettist living in New York City. Her work for music theater and opera has been presented by Lincoln Center Serious Fun, New York City Opera, Opera Theater of St. Louis, CAP21, the Culture Project, Parabola Arts, the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater at Symphony Space, and National Public Radio. Her short stories have appeared in a variety of literary magazines.