Carolyn Wing Greenlee

The Fabulous Freedom of Wearable Art

I sit before a blank sheet of d’Arches watercolor paper. It says, “You’d better be good.” Are you kidding? I haven’t painted in six years. There’s no way I’ll be any good. Brush strokes reveal immediately whether your hand and your brain are cooperating. It’s like playing piano. You can’t sit down after five years and play a respectable Bach.

I don’t have time to “keep up my chops” when it comes to painting. It wouldn’t be a fruitful investment of my time. I’ve done museum and gallery shows, gone to the expense of matting and framing, and sold enough to recoup some of the cost. In the long run, however, painting as fine art has been out of my range. I hung around with great painters long enough to know I’m not one.

Then my friend Stephanie invited me to accompany her to our friend Diana Liebe’s gallery to learn about fabric painting. I was intimidated at first, but I finally painted some gold koi on an old black silk scarf I’d brought. I was hooked. That was months ago. I’ve been painting on tee shirts and tote bags ever since.

What made the difference? It’s wearable art. Fine art says, “Admire me. Desire me. Let me provoke you to purchase because you cannot bear to be without me.” There is value implied, validity ascribed to the creator, investment potential to the collector of such a piece—or the sheer satisfaction of being able to live with that picture on the wall, viewable and enjoyable every day in the privacy of one’s own home. That’s how I feel about my Milford Zornes paintings.

Milford Zornes once told me painting was not fun for him. He didn’t do it for entertainment or relaxation. It was something he was compelled to do. There was always something about the sea he hadn’t yet captured, the convolutions of the banyan tree he hadn’t adequately expressed. Even in his ninety-ninth year, he rose early and painted all day long if other obligations did not force him to be elsewhere.

But wearable art is akin to folk art. It says, “Use me.” The decoration is not self-conscious. It doesn’t have to be brilliant in its execution. The pressure is off. The enjoyment is relaxed.

After Milford Zornes lost most of his sight to macular degeneration, he told me he thought he had become a better painter because he could no longer see details. Now he was forced to simplify to the basics of form, the real truth of the subject matter.

I’ve never felt free in my painting. I’ve been afraid of color. Now that my color perception is greatly reduced and my ability to do fussy things with paint are lost in distortion, I’m finding immense freedom. I’m juxtaposing all kinds of outrageous combinations, and having as much fun as a kid with her first pots of finger paints. It doesn’t have to be good.

I once heard an interview with Harrison Ford. He said he took on the role of Hans Solo in the Star Wars movies, and then Indiana Jones knowing that he would never win an Oscar for those roles. I realized that he didn’t choose to make his aspiration an award for outstanding achievement in acting. He was giving his audiences something else—something that will help them forget their troubles for a little while.

I have given up needing to make fine art. I’m having so much fun. To my delight, out of my heart keep flowing images from more than sixty years of subjects I’ve loved and learned to draw and paint.

In a world too full of pain, I’m hoping my shirts will bring smiles to the wearers and to those who see them coming their way. I no longer have to be good. It’s good just to be painting again. And, surprisingly, I think it’s the best painting I’ve ever done.

My cheerful, inventive models are my friend Stephanie Del Bosco’s children Anna and Nicholas. Luke wasn’t part of the official photo shoot, but I just had to include him in the red shirt that is four sizes too big for him. It was delightful to see my paintings on little humans who moved and gave purpose and meaning to what previously I’d only seen on hangers. Until then, I didn’t realize that fine art can never be more than it is, but wearable art, animated by the person inside, gets to go places and be an expression of the life inside.

White Tree shirt
(photo by Carolyn Wing Greenlee)
Tote bag inspired by Mondrian
(photo by Carolyn Wing Greenlee)
Love You, Baby tote bag
(photo by Carolyn Wing Greenlee)
Swirly shirt
(photo by Carolyn Wing Greenlee)
Bunny tote bag
(photo by Carolyn Wing Greenlee)
Boxed Hearts
(photo by Carolyn Wing Greenlee)
Fish shirt
(photo by Carolyn Wing Greenlee)
Frog and Giraffe shirts
(photo by Carolyn Wing Greenlee)
Glamor shirt
(photo by Carolyn Wing Greenlee)
Gold Medallion shirt
(photo by Carolyn Wing Greenlee)
Horse Girl shirt
(photo by Carolyn Wing Greenlee)
Princess Bird shirt
(photo by Carolyn Wing Greenlee)
Spider back
(photo by Carolyn Wing Greenlee)
Frog shirt
(photo by Carolyn Wing Greenlee)
Wait for Me Bird shirt front
(photo by Carolyn Wing Greenlee)
Wait for Me Bird shirt back
(photo by Carolyn Wing Greenlee)
Konocti Night
(photo by Carolyn Wing Greenlee)
Leaping Zebra
(photo by Carolyn Wing Greenlee)
Noah’s Ark
(photo by Carolyn Wing Greenlee)
Praying Mantis
(photo by Carolyn Wing Greenlee)
Wonder Cow
(photo by Carolyn Wing Greenlee)

16 Comments

  1. gracie (hi granma)

    August 29, 2012 - 7:11 PM
    Reply

    hi grandma!!!!!!!!! i love the bunny tote bag. i love a lot of them actually:) i can’t wait to see you again and hopefully i get to see you some time soon. bye bye!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!:)
    love you lots!<3
    Gracie

    • Carolyn Wing Greenlee

      August 30, 2012 - 10:41 PM
      Reply

      Hello, my dear, artistic granddaughter! You picked one of my favorites. The bunny looks so peaceful, snoozing in those pretty pink flowers. When I first designed this rabbit for stationary many years ago, the Scripture that went with it was “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee.” It’s from Isaiah 26. I hope your mind is perfectly peaceful no matter what happens. It will have that perfect peace if you remember that Jesus is always there even when it looks like everything’s a horrible mess. He promised to turn it to good for those who love Him and live for Him. So, be at peace, my dear Gracie, and sleep blissfully as this bunny amid the flowers.

      Love,
      Grandma

  2. Mary Holtz

    August 27, 2012 - 7:36 AM
    Reply

    Dearest Carolyn,

    As the wind just began to whip hard and the heavy pounding of rain begins on the roof (hurricane Isaac) I am totally entranced in admiring your lovely art.
    I love your creativity and precision in these drawing/paintings. I have done wearable art and found it totally entrancing and entertaining, especially when given to my nieces and nephews.
    I really love your signature, it is so artistic and flowing! Jumping Zebra is one of my favorites and the white tree, well all of them are so special! Glamor shirts and boxed hearts are spectacular, I can see those being worn by many, I love the feeling you are expressing. Amazing to see the talent reappear after time. What a wonderful surprise.
    I have been working with pastels and channeled art, I will send you a shot of one via email.
    All Love,
    m

    • Carolyn Wing Greenlee

      August 30, 2012 - 10:54 PM
      Reply

      Mary, you are a doer of Chinese calligraphy, a very difficult form of artistic expression. I am honored by your comments. We have both loved painting, though you have continued and I took a decade of time off.

      Actually, when Mom was sick, I did quite a lot of painting with gouache, but after she died, I stopped. I’ve done nothing creative except music and jewelry making, and even those are fairly recent.

      Milford Zornes used to say, “Everything three feet from me is chaos, but when I paint, I have complete control over what I do.” He believed art is the way people bring order to their world.

      When Mom was sick, painting helped me keep my sanity. Now, however, I paint because I’m no longer worried about my ailing loved ones. They are all in heaven together. The time of heavy grieving is over. I have energy to paint with freedom and great joy. And I get to share my pictures with long-time friends like you.

  3. Pat Khan

    August 26, 2012 - 10:11 AM
    Reply

    Carolyn, how charming and creative. I had fun & with excited anticipation viewed all of your fabric art. You go girl . . . Wonderful and happy artwork. Thank you for sharing. Also, so happy to hear the joy in your voice.

    • Carolyn Wing Greenlee

      August 30, 2012 - 11:01 PM
      Reply

      Pat, you were there at the beginning back in the days of early microcurrent. I published my animal cartooning book in 1976, right after the Accu-O-Matic came out. You know all the ups and downs, and have shared my struggles and sorrows. And now we share the joy that comes out in the book you and I are working on about my parents’ lives, and my return to the land of the living after losing all three of those pioneers. I am so glad you can see it in my work and hear it in my voice. I can hear your strength as well. You’re a strong, strong lady, and a wonderful friend.

  4. Jeanette

    August 26, 2012 - 9:24 AM
    Reply

    How fun!!!!

    • Carolyn Wing Greenlee

      August 30, 2012 - 11:04 PM
      Reply

      Thanks, Jeanette! I’m working up the nerve to do some puppies in honor of you puppy raisers for Guide Dogs for the Blind. Do you think I should paint them in little green jackets?

  5. Thomas (son #2)

    August 26, 2012 - 7:31 AM
    Reply

    These shirts just scream “Mom” (in the very best way). I didn’t realize how much I’ve missed this part of you.

    BTW: At least two of your granddaughters are hoping to find an original Greenlee tee-shirt in their Christmas stockings. :-)

    • Carolyn Wing Greenlee

      August 30, 2012 - 11:08 PM
      Reply

      Thomas, I’ll have to paint one of your angels on a shirt sometime. Oh, I forgot. You said it wasn’t an angel; those wing-like appendages were hands with fingers, not feathers. Maybe you can do the painting, if you can remember what you drew in permanent marker on the hardwood floor under your desk.

      I’d forgotten that I started animal cartooning when you were only five. It was a long, long time ago.

  6. Sue Lehman

    August 26, 2012 - 7:04 AM
    Reply

    Love your paintings on fabric. You’ve got quite the artistic eye! Especially like the Praying Mantis one on black. Glad you’ve found another outlet for your art!

    • Carolyn Wing Greenlee

      August 30, 2012 - 11:11 PM
      Reply

      I guess I’m not surprised you like the praying mantis since you write about rats in one of your novels. There’s a happy aspect to this creepy shirt, however. On the back are a bunch of little skipper butterflies who are very happy they got away.

  7. b-rat

    August 25, 2012 - 10:30 PM
    Reply

    o0o I really like them!

    • Carolyn Wing Greenlee

      August 30, 2012 - 10:34 PM
      Reply

      Considering you do electronic music, I’m especially pleased that you like these whimsical pieces.

  8. Alice Trego

    August 25, 2012 - 5:24 PM
    Reply

    This new project of yours is so great, Carolyn! The painted tees and totes are wonderfully painted. I’m always amazed at your talents…

    Alice :)

    • Carolyn Wing Greenlee

      August 25, 2012 - 6:02 PM
      Reply

      Alice, I’m always amazed at the surprising roads I end up on. Who would have guessed that I’d be painting silly animals now that I’m 65? Second childhood? It just goes to show me that God has lots of surprises up His sleeves, and many of them are entertaining. Life in Christ is definitely not boring! So glad you enjoyed my paintings. It’s such an encouragement to know I’m not the only one who thinks they’re fun.

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