Artist Carrie Beth Waghorn is Creating Art, and Herself
For Charleston, South Carolina-based artist Carrie Beth Waghorn, making art is a way to deal with past trauma. In doing so, Waghorn is building a stronger, more evolved version of herself, in true life-imitates-art fashion.
By Renata Certo-Ware
This article originally appeared in After Nyne Magazine’s Women in Art Issue, October 2018
For a lot of people, past trauma is something to run from. That’s certainly one way to cope, but for Carrie Beth Waghorn, it is a something to discuss, dissect, reassemble, and splash across a canvas. In this way, Waghorn performs a sort of alchemy, turning sexual assault, loss and pain into beautiful, empowered artwork that pulls the rug out from under the male gaze.
Waghorn is not shy about sharing raw emotions and unglamourous truths - just look at any one of the number of deeply intimate, revelatory posts on social media that she peppers in between images of new work, or the incredibly personal artist’s statement on her website.
“At the age of 14 I became a statistic,” she writes in her statement. “When I went to sleep I was myself. I was whole. I emerged from slumber as half a person, as half a girl. My body was there. He was there.”
Later in the statement, she explains how, years later, she used this and other experiences to inspire her art. “In this way,” she adds, “through a combination of movement and creation, I slowly purged the darkness that had taken refuge in my own form. The images I create are derived from negative sexual experiences in my life. [They] are powerful and sometimes ironically erotic. I like to play off modern stereotypes to add irony to my work, depicting the balance of feeling empowered with the vulnerability and objectification, a contrast felt by the modern woman.”
There is a lot in her work to suggest physical, even violent separation. She describes the central figures - nearly exclusively all female - in her work in one instance as “an abstract head on a limbless body,” as “dismembered” in another, which she attributes to the scattered ways in which she experiences intimacy. It could also have a lot to do with the loss she’s experienced in her life, more by the age of 30 than most people could imagine - her father died when she was a toddler; as a young adult she lost her mother and then her sister.
She discusses each of these losses, and the ripple effects and randomly occurring pangs of pain that result from each, openly and baldly on her instagram account. The way she talks about her past, the sad and scary occurrences in her life and the effects they have had on her, is as stark and bald and in your face and factual and beautified as her art, and, like her art, it just is what it is; it asks nothing of you, and it’s expressed in a way that very few are capable of doing.
There is no spiral, no self-pity, no self-affirmations thinly veiling doubt and insecurity. It just is, and it’s beautiful.
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t begin an article with talk of past abuse; I might not even discuss it at all - it might feel like hijacking or exploiting the artist’s experiences to underline a point, to simplify the artwork into some quick commodity.
But to not do so in this case feels like only telling half the story; it’s something with which Waghorn begins most conversations about her work, and the emotional element feels like a crucial companion to the visual medium, like a scent story or a soundtrack. It’s quite literally why Waghorn makes art, and it’s like watching a spider patch up holes in its web or an ant rebuild its home or an axolotl regenerate a limb. It’s an acknowledgment that yes, something is broken and this is how I am fixing it.
“Each new woman on the paper was akin to a new extension of my own rediscovered femininity,” she explains on her site.
A big part of Waghorn’s brand identity - how she reaches new audiences outside of Charleston and creates and shares her narrative - is Instagram, a medium so often used to propagate a false veneer of beauty, success, riches, fulfillment. It’s ironic, then, that Instagram is the very place where Waghorn gets most candid about the truly ugly stories behind her beautiful artwork, and the less-than-glamorous lows - suicidal thoughts, loneliness, insecurity - she experiences right alongside the highs - successes, new work, features and accolades.
In one Instagram post, for example, next to a photo of herself sitting on a bed in a light-filled room, she begins the caption with a statement: “I’m lonely.” She goes on to talk about loss, anxiety, fear, and soldiering on. Another post shows her lying on the ground, part of her torso exposed, looking for all the world like one of her iconic dismembered bodies IRL. Here she talks about the long healing process after a bout of suicidal thoughts. In another photo, she poses naked in front of a white backdrop covered in words in her trademark scrawl, words like “runaway,” “bucolic,” “pathetic” and “swipe left.” She begins with “Here’s a reality check,” and the sentences that follow describe how tired she is of death, loss, being told that she’s strong, needing to be strong. “I'm tired of picking up the phone to call my mom to tell her I'm sad that my mom died. I don't even know how to talk about losing my sister. I'm tired of being alone, of people reminding me that I'm not alone.” The caption ends with “So hey. It's a Friday night and I'm fucking tired.”
Despite her candid confessionals, Waghorn is not by any means all doom and gloom. She speaks in a sing-songy voice over the phone, her words tumbling out when she gets excited about something and breathy as she lays out plans for her future. She answered all my questions in a thoughtful way, but almost rehearsed, on-brand in a way that only an artist of the
Internet Age can be. She has a cat that joins her for coffee in the morning sunlight, and an apartment in Charleston’s historic district, where she lives and works. She spends time with friends, goes for walks, travels to Paris. She has bangs and does yoga. She’s a young woman, living with trauma but living. And creating.
Waghorn was born in Connecticut, but moved to Chicago, where she spent most of her childhood. She did art all throughout high school, enrolling in AP art classes and experimenting with Impressionism and photorealism. She relocated to Charleston for college, and never left, although she wasn’t always a career artist like she is now. After graduating, Waghorn worked as an ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapist for children with autism. “My mum was a special education teacher, which was a source of pride for me at the time, but the burnout was intense, and it wasn’t until I had an ex of mine kind of push me to get out there as an artist.”
So Waghorn began creating more and more, honing in on her now iconic style - minimalist, mostly black works, studies of partial or full female bodies painted in big, bold swoops of India Ink. She achieves the basic contours of the body through quick, fluid strokes, translating the lines into a feminine form. She describes creating the bodies as “one and done” - meaning, there’s no going back once the brush touches down; really, with India Ink, there’s not a whole lot of editing possible. But when she includes faces, however, she spends more time fine tuning them, filling them in with a Micron pen, drawing and redrawing dozens of times if necessary. “I find the illustrative aspect of eyes enjoyable, it’s important that they convey proper emotion.” Sometimes, however, faces are kind of scribbled over with a veil-like nest of lines afterwards, as if Waghorn is pulling back a little, retreating from sight.
Something about her aesthetic calls to mind those continuous line drawings, another darling of the Instagram world, except that Waghorn’s pieces are very decidedly not continuous lines. A lot of the bodies are fragmented - in “Over Easy,” for example, there are visible breaks at the ankles, at the toes, a missing pubic section - an absence that speaks volumes.
Although her earlier work was almost exclusively done in black ink, she has been adding color in lately. She was commissioned for work for a group show at Meyer Vogl, a gallery with which Waghorn now has a contract, called “Bloom Boom Boom!,” and the notion of contributing black and white flowers sounded unsavory to her. “Color in my work represents an emergence of self-love.”
She has never, however, tackled the male form. “I think just because of the nature of why I create, and when I create - I do a lot of pacing and yoga, I channel energy, and really quickly I get these minimal outlines of a body. The lines are very soft and organic and they lend themselves to the female form. And it’s also an interpretive thing, when I look at those lines I’m interpreting them as feminine and not masculine. It just is the way it is.”
Before her very first show, at The Southern, a contemporary art gallery, Waghorn was initially worried that her art was too sexual for the Charleston scene. “It was a plethora of beach scenes and paintings of oysters and craft, and here I am making minimal, black and white nude figures. I struggled with kind of being up front about that, and what truly helped me to be creative, to just create without censorship, was when the Charleston City Paper published my artist’s statement. Once it was published I felt this amazing relief, this sense of freedom, I felt like people accepted me - the words ‘rape’ and ‘abuse,’ those things are all very stigmatized and that was an incredible, freeing moment.”
Accompanying the artist’s statement were portraits done by Allie Monday, a Greenville, S.C.-based photographer who Waghorn met via Instagram. In them, an ebullient Waghorn is naked, smiling and painting on a white backdrop. The sense of liberation and elation, and her sense of place, practically burst from the pages, and in fact, in the last year or so, her nude figure has become a mainstay in her work - both in self-portraits and in photographs by and collaborations with other artists.
This is particularly striking for someone who created artwork as a way to explore and repair her sense of sexuality and her relationship with her own body - her life is truly imitating her art, as she herself becomes a part of her art, a layer in multi-dimensional works, mirroring the nude figures she has made her trademark. “I’m more comfortable posing nude in photography than posing for a picture or a selfie in a social setting, actually,” she explains. “The organic body is more interesting. It’s just more comfortable, and that’s how I paint, too. [I usually] get pretty high, strip down to my birthday suit, and just kind of let my body flow. The art always follows.”
Aside from a canvas, other surfaces include wood, clothing she makes herself (more on that in a moment), bodies, walls. Another person she met on Instagram tattooed one of her portraits onto her arm. (Waghorn was so flattered, she ended up gifting the original portrait to the woman.) She has also done a handful of interiors, including a friend’s bathroom. “The boobie bathroom was my favorite. We painted a pair of breasts in honor of his mother, who had had a mastectomy. It made the whole project feel so intimate and meaningful.”
Waghorn also just launched a fashion line, called World Ink Project. (Its acronym, WIP, also stands for Work in Progress and Women in Power.) She laid the groundwork for the line last summer, and in July 2018, a year later, released the first capsule collection.
“It’s been a dream of mine since forever. I always wanted to put on a runway show someday, not for the recognition, but - art that is wearable, that moves on a human form blows my mind, and textile is always something I’ve been drawn to.”
Once again, Waghorns mother served as a role model. “My mom made her own wedding dress, and my grandmother was a seamstress, so it’s sort of in our family.” The evolution felt natural, but also crucial.
“If I’m going to be honest with you, I just reached a point with my fine art where I just really want to challenge myself to find another medium. The satisfaction I get after a piece is fully put together - it’s so exciting, and it really plays off of my fine art.”
Her second release is planned for this Fall, but Waghorn won’t follow a traditional fashion retail model in terms of seasons and wholesale. “My main worry is making sure that I can create according to the demand. I want it to be small. The whole model of the company is one-of-a-kind, handmade pieces, so once I sell out of a size, that’s it - I know I’m not going to make that design ever again, so it is, in a sense, wearable art and I’d like to keep it that way.”
As of now, Waghorn is making everything on her own, from start to finish. “I might hire a seamstress just so I can keep up with potential volume and just to have a second set of eyes - I’m not opposed to having someone edit my patterns. It’s a lot: Ordering the fabrics, making sure it’s organic and natural fiber, making the patterns, cutting out the fabric, ironing the fabric, lining everything up and sewing it together, putting in pockets, and then painting it! It’s very involved.”
Aside from an e-commerce site and occasional pop-ups, Waghorn doesn’t plan to add any wholesale availability. “I don’t want to be a slave to production, I want it to be intimate and I think that putting it in stores might take that certain specialness away. Which is not to say that, if Anthropologie approaches me and would carry my work for a small amount of time, I’m not going to say no, but it’s not something I’m looking for.”
One of her main goals for the line proves that Waghorn is true minimalist, even in her production values. “Really and truly, I would like to get the line to a place of sustainable production, where I’m not creating in a mode of excess fabric and scraps or making sure that the byproduct I make is able to be donated or reused in some way.” She would also like to eventually include some more androgynous silhouettes, something that could be worn by a man or a woman of any age, body-type or lifestyle.
This past summer, right after World Ink Project launched, Waghorn spent a month in Paris, culminating in a collaboration with artist Armando Cabba on a series of photographs and portraits where their various limbs and body parts were shown protruding through holes in a plain white backdrop or in front of a backdrop painted with words.
“Our initial intention was to demonstrate the more stereotyped roles in relationships, and the manifestation of romantic partnerships, that sort of push and pull, that duality and then discovering of the self all in picture form,” Waghorn explains. “We both went through really turbulent relationship, and it all boils down to shared human experience.”
The collaboration was just a hint of what is to come for Waghorn, a teaser of yet another evolution in her aesthetic, and a change of place.
“I’m considering moving from Charleston. One of the final projects that I want to make here is of a man and a woman facing each other, and I want to do it in a completely different medium, totally different than my normal style, sort of saying ‘This is what I’m capable of, this is what I can do.’ “