This article is the second in our series of “Conversations With” members of the creative community in the Triangle who are thinking big, working hard and making a difference in our Region.
By Cyn Macgregor
I met Carrie Knowles at her studio off Bloodworth Street in downtown Raleigh. The quiet neighborhood and her comfortable studio were the perfect spot to catch up with this busy writer/artist. We talked about her writing, visual art, the importance of collaboration, and her most ambitious and exciting project to date, the Cary Cross Currents Chamber Music and Arts Festival.
You began your career as a writer and you are a visual artist as well. What was it about the visual arts that attracted your attention?
I like how words can create images…visual images in our minds. Writing to me is both telling a story and painting a picture. Moving from the written word to a visual world was an easy transition. I’m not a trained artist, but I took a studio drawing class in college. I had this very unorthodox drawing professor who made us talk about what we were going to draw before he would let us draw. Not just talk about it, but discuss it in detail. We would spend the first two hours of the four-hour studio just talking about what we were going to draw. We’d look at the shapes, the shadows, the contours, then we’d take a break, get out our pencils and start drawing. I was the only non-art major in the class. One day, after class, the professor stopped me and asked what I did on Saturday mornings. He told me he had recommended me for a job. I got hired to teach art at the Detroit Art Institute with a group of art teachers from the university. I was the assistant teacher for the professors and had a great time learning about sculpture, printmaking, clay, and painting.
After leaving school I continued to enjoy drawing and creating things but didn’t take myself seriously as an artist. For a number of years, I helped organize and run the Boylan Heights ArtWalk. I loved working with the various artists and putting the show together and as time went on I began to want to do more artwork myself. I like working on paper and use traditional printing methods in non-traditional, non-toxic ways. Various editors have often commented that I was a very “visual” writer. It is an easy transition for me to go from writing about something to creating an image about the same thing. I see writing and visual art as the same.
You moved to Raleigh from Chicago years ago, before it was cool to be here. How did that decision affect your life?
I had a great life as a freelance writer in Chicago, then we moved down here to Raleigh. I felt I had done something very, very wrong in some past life and was being punished. Thirty-three years ago, Raleigh was a very different town than it is today. It was shocking coming from Chicago. You couldn’t get dinner after 8 o’clock, the airport wasn’t an international airport … we couldn’t get anywhere without going someplace else to change planes first. Other than Friends of the College at the University, where my husband was offered a position, the arts culture was barely visible. I wept for three years then woke up one morning and told myself to just get over it. If we weren’t leaving Raleigh then I decided to get involved and make Raleigh the kind of place I want to live in. I started volunteering with arts advocacy groups, Artspace, NC writers network, United Arts, Burning Coal Theatre, Raleigh Chamber Music Guild, and others where I built a lot of connections and met many friends.
The Boylan Heights Art Walk is a very successful Raleigh tradition, tell me how you got involved?
Nineteen years ago a very shy cabinet maker who lived in Boylan Heights asked for my help marketing these beautiful lathe-turned bowls he was making. I had been to this great neighborhood art show in Chicago one year that was held on people’s porches along this row of townhouses. It was a great show and great fun to walk from porch to porch looking at artwork. I thought Boylan Heights would be a perfect place to have such a show and that’s how it began. We started with seven artists that first year and now have over 100 artists who show with us. It’s such a great show. People love it and I’m thrilled that it has gone on for nineteen years now and has become part of the art scene in Raleigh.
You are the founder and director of Cary Cross Currents Chamber Music and Arts Festival. Tell us how you prepared yourself for this role and how this festival came to be.
As it happens, our son Neil is a very gifted musician and plays with the Brussels Chamber Orchestra, a collective of 12 musicians from all over the world, based in Brussels. They were looking for a place to have a festival. Neil called me saying they were going to be in New York and would like to make a stop in Cary/Raleigh. I had
six-weeks to get the funding together and we did two concerts that first year. The audience loved them and the musicians loved it here. They came back the next year and did four concerts and from there, things kept building.
Last year we moved the festival to the Town of Cary. This year we’ll have 12 concerts, 6 open rehearsals, and 3 intensive week-long workshops for high school students. The festival collaborates with local professional musicians, artists, Cary Visual Arts, and Cary Creative Collective. This year, we’re bringing in the Gavriel Lipkind Quartet from Europe along with the Will Scruggs Jazz Fellowship from Atlanta and we’ll be doing a performance with NC Opera featuring two amazing young singers, Anthony Roth Costanzo and Rachel Copeland. We’ll also be presenting a juried art show, the unveiling of the 2012 Cary Visual Arts sculptures along Academy Street and a concert with one of the latest additions to the classical music scene in the area, New Music Raleigh. (The festival runs July 30th through August 11th and you can find ticket info here.)
What ideas can you share with individuals, entrepreneurs, and artists that could help grow the creative class in the triangle?
I think this area is at a real tipping point. We have managed to attract and build a wonderful basket full of exciting cultural events. We have music, dance, theatre, opera, visual arts, festivals, and a wide diversity of cultural events. We’re the real deal and people are coming here because we offer such a culturally rich community in which to live. But, we are in danger of losing these things if we don’t support them and encourage them to grow.
One of the reasons this area always makes the top of the list for the best place to live is not because we have sunshine. Florida has that. It’s because we have this wonderful bubbling of creative energy. If we lose the arts, we are just expensive real estate. There is so much cultural richness here, so many creative people who want to work…it’s exciting to think about what could happen if we began working together. We could build an arts community that would be second to none in the country.
I really believe in collaborations and think if art groups are not collaborating with each other, they will not survive in the next ten years. By pooling our talents we can make things bigger, fresher, and more interesting. For example, Philip Glass’s Opera Les Enfants Terribles paired with NC Opera and Carolina Ballet was fabulous. Or Burning Coal Theatre Company’s Henry V on Trapeze in collaboration with NYC Fight or Flight was wonderful and made you see that play in a different way. I really like collaborative work, it’s energizing, it makes us think differently, plus it is an opportunity to learn from each other and to push boundaries. I’m happiest when I’ve been pushed out of the “box.”
How would you advise artists and students to approach criticism of their work?
Ask yourself, does this work or does this not work. If it doesn’t work, how can I make it work. Be willing to let go, accept what others have to say, and have the courage to do something different. If you have confidence in your work, but you’re not arrogant, you can say, “yes, this is good but I have the talent and skills to make this great”. The creative process is one where you should always be looking for growth. If you’re not pushing yourself, you’re not engaged in the creative process.
What new initiatives, if any, are you looking to launch in the near future?
I am working with a colleague to establish a new collective of published writers who are looking to transition into eBook publishing. I am bringing out my memoir, The Last Childhood: A Family Story of Alzheimer’s, that was originally published by Three Rivers Press as an eBook. I’ve also decided to publish my latest work, a novel entitled Lillian’s Garden as an eBook. Also, I love the theatre and have been working with Ian Finley trying to learn how to write a good play. He’s a terrific playwright and a wonderful teacher. I would like to do more theatrical writing.
What is your favorite color?
I don’t know. I have a lot of egg yolk color in my life! I prefer colors that reflect light, like the reds and yellows more than I do colors that absorb light like blues and greens. I guess you could say I like things that are both reflective and let other people/colors/things shine.
Cyn Macgregor is a guest blogger for Triangle Art Works, an artist on Zatista and city organizer for PechaKucha Night Raleigh. You can reach her via email, her website or follow on Twitter @cynjustcyn.
Do you know an “unsung hero” that is doing incredible work for the arts community in the Triangle? Tell us about it!
Tags: Boylan Heights Arts Walk, Brussels Chamber Orchestra, Carrie Knowles, Chamber Music, Cross Currents Chamber Music Festival, jazz