Mixing Tar and Oil Paint: The Art + Response of Laura McCarthy

By Lynn Trenning

When Laura McCarthy was an Affiliate Artist at McColl Center for Art + Innovation in 2005 her studio was in the tower, which at the time did not have a sink or ventilation. “My work was kind of toxic,” she says of her large paintings made with oil paint and tar. McCarthy took full advantage of McColl Center’s resources, often wandering downstairs to the sculpture studio, from which she could easily work outdoors. She used the workshop to build enormous frames for her 8’ by 15’ canvases. She reveled in the company of her fellow artists. “It was a dream come true,” she says of her residency.

McCarthy forged lasting friendships with other McColl Center artists, and they’ve partnered on several endeavors. “It was an exciting summer, because they had to fix all the grout on the bricks of the church, so there was constant jackhammering, and something happened with our show, so we organized and put on our own show,” she remembers. The group called themselves ARPA, and their show was organized by 2005 Alumni Affiliate Artist J. Michael Simpson and took place in Georgia. It was the first of several exhibits for which the group collaborated before they disbanded.

McCarthy’s turn as an Affiliate Artist came during her pursuit of a BFA from UNC Charlotte. It was her second degree; the first was in History from Davidson College. She grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia playing sports, with little interest in poetry, philosophy or art, all of which are now vital to her persona. No one was more surprised than McCarthy when she decided to pursue an education in art. “I can’t explain what happened,” she said, likening the experience to a stroke, or a brainstorm.

On a whim she signed up for a class in ceramic sculpture at Central Piedmont Community College, and another in painting, and she was hooked. “God love community college,” says McCarthy, of the institute where she immersed herself in art prior to enrolling at UNC Charlotte. “I didn’t start school with the intent of being an artist but I graduated, and I am an artist,” she says.

Laura McCarthy (Coutresy of Swaraj Yoga)

McCarthy’s art is influenced by her love of German romantics, including Goethe and Rilke. She became enamored of Goethe’s unconventional color theory that rejects the idea that black is the absence of color, and embraces the theory that black and white exist on a spectrum, with color occurring when they overlap. Then she mused over Rilke’s philosophy that all things are in gestation, and have lived within us prior to recognition. She ruminated about cellular processes, and alchemy, and what happens in darkness, and “tar popped in my head,” she said.  

She makes her own canvases, which are layered and thick.  She paints with water-based tar mixed with titanium white paint. “When tar and oil paint meet, tones are created. It ends up being really lovely. I mush this stuff around, and it is a process.” McCarthy acknowledges some of the art is out of her control. “You are taking this black messy stuff and turning it into peaceful places.” She calls her paintings “interior landscapes,” and they are large. “I like people to feel it meets them,” she says.  

Her exhibition Momento is on view in the window of the UNC Charlotte Center City building from January 22 to March 4, 2016. Director of Galleries Crista Cammaroto contacted McCarthy in 2015, shortly after her father passed away, and asked if she would be part of a show. “I hadn’t been in the studio in a while,” said McCarthy. Inspired by a book called Japanese Death Poems, she created five large paintings, a series of three and a diptych. The paintings did not assuage her grief, but painting them was “helpful,” she said.  

Laura McCarthy, Momento (installation view), 2016 (Courtesy of UNC Charlotte, College of Art + Architecture)

Each work is a serene abstraction, with smatterings of color amidst the tar and white. One story that inspired them was about a family who chased a man, who after death turned into a white bird. “It’s a child’s way of thinking ‘where did he go, what is he doing?’ I borrowed from that story because it is very beautiful and very nature based and easy to picture.”  

Since 2008 McCarthy has been a Recreational Therapist for the Saber Program, a 9-month outpatient program for men experiencing substance abuse and homelessness. She started a non-profit named Swaraj Yoga that uses yoga to teach body awareness and mindfulness practices to homeless and incarcerated men as treatment for substance abuse. It’s been an artistic revelation.  “It’s like being in the studio every day because there are new clients every day and you are being asked to respond,” she says. “It’s a little like tar and oil paint. A chemical reaction occurs and you never know what is going to happen.” 

Her dream is to spend more time in her art studio once the non-profit is firmly established. At McColl Center, McCarthy was energized by the collective artists working side by side. Today, she is inspired by the radical work of changing lives. “An art student couldn’t ask for something more creative than being in the middle of that,” she says.

Lynn Trenning is a writer based in Charlotte, NC.

Photo, top: Laura McCarthy, Fusion, 2006, tar and oil on canvas, 8′ x 8' (Courtesy of the artist)