Carole d'Inverno, Painter

 The Northern Kingdom #7 by Carole d'Inverno

The Northern Kingdom #7 by Carole d'Inverno

Abstract artist Carole d’Inverno’s paintings combine beauty and mystery, playfulness and seriousness. Like cellular beings seen under a microscope or creatures from a deep sea or faraway planet, the shapes are not life forms we can name—yet they seem very much alive, and communicate with each other and with us. Using paint on canvas, her colors are bold, straightforward, and confident. 

Carole has exhibited widely in galleries across the Pacific Northwest, New York, and Italy, and is included in many private and public collections. To see more images of her work, visit her website at

From her home in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, Carole spoke with Constellation617 about her journey to become an artist, her unique way of seeing the world and how that affects her art, and the role of the artist in society. This interview took place on December 6, 2013.

 Carole d'Inverno, Painter  (photo by Monica J. Frisell)

Carole d'Inverno, Painter (photo by Monica J. Frisell)

C617: How did you start making art?

Carole d’Inverno: I grew up in Italy, very poor, after the Second World War. I was born in 1956, and so for a girl, there was just no room for art. But it was always in my life. My father was a piano player, but he couldn’t do it professionally for various reasons, the war and all that, but it was always around. He was the one who would show me anything in architecture or art. He was really into it. He would show me all these books. Probably my love for art books comes from that.

I remember I had an art teacher, in the equivalent of middle school, who was really great, who got me absolutely fired up. She kept saying, “You should do this, you should do this.” But then in the end, you had to go to work. The reality was that there wasn’t any room for anything like that.

In retrospect, I don’t mind. I had to do a lot of things to survive, and it was good. It’s not a bad thing. I always drew, I always did stuff on the side, and I constantly learned whatever I could. Whatever book I could lay my hands on. It’s always been there, that creative urge. It’s just that it really wasn’t a practical thing. There was just no money. And then being a girl. At that time, it was like, “Really?” Only men could be artists. There were no role models. So it just wasn’t real.

C617: So how did you end up becoming an artist?

 Carole in her studio, with Lucy  (photo by Monica J. Frisell)   

Carole in her studio, with Lucy (photo by Monica J. Frisell)

Carole d’Inverno: Well, it was always there. And little by little, literally a minute a day, and two minutes a day, and then three minutes a day. Probably until I was about forty, slowly by tiny little increments of time, I made it so there was a little more time every day, and a little more time every week, and I just started clearing this space for it. Then I was able to do it full time. But it took a long time, waiting to have the space and the time to do it. It was a long, long process.

And I’m self-taught, so that takes away that element of building it into your life because you have a degree in it. But I was never interested in getting a degree. I didn’t need to because the way I learn is not that way. It just doesn’t work.

I did study science because it had a very creative part that interested me. I studied it when I was in high school—in Europe you can go to a high school that is targeted toward what you want to do—and that was toward the idea that I could get a job with that. I became a lab technician, and when I moved to the states I went to the community college and did chemistry and physics. I had only a handful of credits left, but meanwhile I kept doing art, and I said, “The hell with this. I don’t want to do this. I want to do art,” and that was it.

I had a turnaround where in my head things were clear enough. That’s what I had to do and it didn’t matter. It helped in some ways that I was married to a musician, to an artist. Things are up and down all the time, and I felt like I could handle that. That was okay. Whereas when I was growing up, it was always the anxiety of making it at the end of the month. That was always present. But now it was more like it was there, but who cares? When you’re a child, it’s a problem that’s imposed on you. But as an adult, you choose to go up and down with the rollercoaster.

C617: And you’re with someone with the same values?

Carole d’Inverno: It’s much easier. That person understands the craziness and the commitment. All that. So it definitely makes it much easier.

C617: What is your relationship between words and music and images and shapes?

Carole d’Inverno: As I said, my father was a piano player and when I was in my mother’s belly, there was music. It’s always been there. It took a long time for me to realize not everyone sees that way.

 The Northern Kingdom #5 by Carole d'Inverno

The Northern Kingdom #5 by Carole d'Inverno

C617: Could you describe the way you see?

Carole d’Inverno: There is a dual thing. I can look at a painting and I can sound it in my head. It will make specific sounds. When I say sounds, it’s not just music. It’s actually real sounds, like the sounds of words. And when I read words on a page, they will form shapes in my head. I started paying attention to that. I always thought it was just normal, that it was the way people read or see. I never assumed that it was unusual.

It was like in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, the Oliver Sacks book. There’s a thing in there about that, and it made me think that maybe this is not normal. I started asking around and people said, “No, I don’t have that.” I’ve met a couple people since then who have it. It’s called synesthesia.

But more to the point, what I’ve realized—it took a while; it seems that everything takes so much longer than it should—if I read something, there is that initial shape that happens. So, I’m trying now to actually capture that one shape and stay with that. A lot of stuff is changing in what I do because I’ve become aware that I have this thing that happens in my head. And I want to trust it.

If I see something when I’m traveling, and I think back to this one landscape, it comes in very specific shapes in my head.

C617: So when you see real things in life, they form abstract shapes in your head?

Carole d’Inverno: Yes. I can look at a tree and I immediately see it as an abstract shape. It’s so fast. That’s the first thing I see, and then I’ll see the things on it, and the colors come after. It’s all like that. I’ve come to realize that’s the first thing I see. That’s why, in a weird way, I see things on a flat plane. It’s almost like I see things on a page all the time. It’s a weird way of seeing, but that’s the way I see.

I did life drawing, and I painted bodies, I did all that, and that was great. It was a training ground for me. To do the figurative work was very much a thing that I needed to grasp. I think my understanding of the organic form, even if it’s abstract, is definitely is rooted in that.

Shapes all connect in my head and—this sounds crazy—but they’re very much alive to me. These shapes are present. They’re the things I saw first. That’s the representation for me. So, I’m just giving into it. I’ll see where it goes.

C617: When you look at your paintings, can you then remember where the shapes came from? Even years later?

Carole d’Inverno: Oh, yeah. But I am starting to forget, so I want to start writing notes on the back of paintings because I tend to forget the specifics.

 Gathering Stuff by Carole d'Inverno

Gathering Stuff by Carole d'Inverno

But each shape has a meaning. I don’t just put in a shape because it balances or works out the composition. I’m not interested in that at all.

C617: Have you ever met anybody who looked at your paintings and saw anything related to what you had in your mind where it came from?

Carole d’Inverno: Let me think. Well, people seem to grasp the sense of it. But because it’s abstract, I think that person should see whatever they want to see in it. That’s the point of the whole exercise, I think. People see all kinds of things. I see all kinds of things when I look at abstract art. I think it’s true for everything. You read a poem, you read a novel, anything—you get out of it the rhythm that matches you. The sense of who you are. It resonates or it doesn’t. The dialogue is more about that in looking at art, watching a dance, whatever. I think it’s that thing we have that’s innate of relating through space.

C617: What kind of art do you find yourself drawn to?

Carole d’Inverno: Well, you can tell in here [she gestures to the artwork in her home]. It covers the gamut, doesn’t it? I think primarily, when I look at something, I want to know that it’s that person. It’s the uniqueness, in some ways, of the artist that interests me. And it can be anything—a puppet—it doesn’t have to be a piece of art. It can be anything as long as there’s a personal language that interests me.

There’s something about getting older, and you know you’re going to die. I just don’t have patience. I don’t have time. Just tell me who you are. That’s what interests me. The rest I don’t give a damn about anymore. I don’t care what style it is, how advanced you are or not advanced. It doesn’t matter. We’re locked into such a culture of imitation, of reflected light. The whole thing around being famous and all that stuff. It creates all these layers of soot and darkness. Those people who are themselves, in whatever they do, are the ones I really relate to. It’s always been true.

C617: What are your thoughts on the importance of having a creative community?

Carole d’Inverno: The raw bottom truth is that it doesn’t matter if I’m working by myself in the middle of Antarctica, I’ll be doing my work. That’s true. That given, I Iike humans, I like people. I like to have friends, people in the arts. I like to have discussions with them. All of that. I miss it if it’s not there. But the reality is it doesn’t matter. I could be the last person on earth and I’d still be doing my art.

But it is important in terms of emotional support, that there’s a web of people all over the world that you can relate to somehow. Because the construct is very constricted for art in this country. It’s certainly not something that’s accepted. It’s like, “Oh, you’re having fun, okay.” Or the importance of it is determined by how much it sells.

 All Up by Carole d'Inverno

All Up by Carole d'Inverno

I just heard that [a famous musician's] guitar from 1960-something sold for a million dollars. What the hell does that mean? It doesn’t mean anything. All it means is that the guy who bought it has bragging rights. But three songs were played on that guitar. And you know what the biggest problem with that is? It’s not only that a million dollars could have fed a bunch of people, that first, but truly that guitar is out of circulation. And it might be a very good-sounding guitar that somebody who actually knows how to play it could use. You know? There is no reality, there is no humanity, in that.

C617: It wasn’t like the guitar was the music.

Carole d’Inverno: Not at all. It’s just going to sit there like a piece of wood. The value we put on things is just so based on reflected light.

C617: What are you seeing with young people and art?

Carole d’Inverno: What I’m seeing is a lot of struggle making it. That’s a really difficult place to be. The powers that are in place say you have to have a degree, which may or may not be true. That’s another conversation. I think the fact that they come out of art school with a hundred thousand dollar debt is preposterous. The arts is the place where you don’t make money. And to create this fake notion that if you do these A, B, and C business things, you can make it. Well, guess what? Most of them won’t. So what does that mean? That they’re losers or failures? No, it’s the system. There’s a constant struggle to be all these places and do all these things. It’s all about competition.

All that takes a lot of energy and the energy of creating gets blurred. The business of art and the art gets blurred. The line keeps moving. It’s an exhausting position to be in. It’s true for any kind of artist trying to “advance your career” and all that. It’s exhausting. When you’re young, you’re trying to acquire enough time—not only physical time, temporal time—but just have experiences. If you have to spend so much damn time trying to sell yourself, it takes a lot of energy out of you. Of course, you get millions of rejections. That comes with the field.

My biggest thing would be to always ask the question: Is this about the business of art or is it about art? Try to keep that goalpost clear. Because it’s really upsetting to all of us. We all fall under that. We all feel hurt, or feel that we should be in the Museum of Modern Art, or whatever. The reality is that there are six thousand galleries in the United States and there are millions of us [artists]. It’s a numbers game. So I always ask myself: Is this about the business of art or is this about art?

C617: And you try to stay true to what you want to create?

Carole d’Inverno: Yes. Exactly. Because there is nothing else in the end. There is nothing worth compromising your work or your search for what that work is. There’s nothing that compares to doing it.

You hear so much that something sold for blah blah. And that’s all that is—blah blah. I don’t give a damn. Show me the work. Let me look at it. That’s what’s important. Or again, it becomes a reflected light. It’s a constant loop around us. It’s selling. And it’s hard, because there are things you have to do. But the clarity to stay yourself is the main thing. That’s where it grates.

C617: Do you have anything now that you’re working on that you’re excited about?

 Drawing by Carole d'Inverno at Vermont Studio Center

Drawing by Carole d'Inverno at Vermont Studio Center

Carole d’Inverno: In May, I went to the Vermont Studio Center, spent a month there, and started this whole new series. It was a huge change for me in terms of not using oils and changing certain technical things and kind of pushing that idea of going flat to what I want it to be. Now I’m quite excited.

My style “changes.” I bottom out on something and I’m done. In Vermont I did a four-feet by twenty-feet drawing that was completely filled. And then these very simple, clear paintings came out of it. My whole vocabulary went in there, and that was it. It was making gazillions of lines and that cleared layers and layers of stuff. I like at some point to just let go. If things become automatic, it’s time for me to run away screaming. I can’t do that.

I saw that happening in a painting a while back, and I said, okay, I’ve got to just draw. So I spent probably three months just drawing. And by the time I got to Vermont, I was ready to do that really long drawing and move on. That’s usually the way I structure it when I know I’m done with something in my head.

C617: Can you talk a little more about your process?

 Drawing by Carole d'Inverno

Drawing by Carole d'Inverno

Carole d’Inverno: When I do the drawing, that can last for weeks, and I don’t paint during that time. I draw and I read anything that attracts me. I don’t care what it is—it could be a catalog. It doesn’t matter because I know there’s something in there that’s brewing in the back. I’ll write down a word or a sentence that interests me or make a little drawing. I accumulate all this stuff so by the time I start painting, I’m deep in this dialogue in my head. Then it just comes out. The drawing slows me down in some ways because I do it very methodically, line after line, and it settles my mind and I can hook into something that I’m interested in.

It’s not my goal to analyze any of it. It’s really important for me not to. Especially at that time when it’s brewing and developing. Because by the time I get to the painting, it’s nuts and bolts. If the foundation is there, then I can do it. There is this internal dialogue with these shapes, very much so.

C617: It reminds me of journaling, but you have a different language.

Carole d’Inverno: Yeah, it’s exactly the same thing. Bill [Carole's musician husband] was talking about how he’ll write a few notes here and a few notes there, and maybe six months later, he’ll come to something. It’s gathering information. And there is some kind of thing that happens that it clears my mind in some weird way by accumulating that much information. I don’t know why.

I’ll do stupid things, go on eBay and look at things. One time I went on there and got completely lost looking at fish lures. I have no frickin’ idea why. [Laughs.] But I don’t censor myself that way. I just go with it. Maybe a year later, I’ll see some shape and go, “Wow, there’s a relation to that fish lure color,” but there’s another layer to it, too. But again, trying not to analyze the work, for me, is the best way to approach it and getting ready for a new series.

C617: What are your thoughts of the role of the artist in society?

Carole d’Inverno: Art is important. It’s an important human occupation. We’ve always had artists. It’s always been there. I read an article about the finding of a factory that was a hundred thousand years old, and which was used to make pigment. There was an actual factory. It was in the area of southern Africa. And it was not where they painted the cave. It was strictly where they made the pigment, and then they would take it out to wherever.

 The Northern Kingdom #2, by Carole d'Inverno   

The Northern Kingdom #2, by Carole d'Inverno


This was an actual occupation that’s always been there. So denying its importance is denying who we are. Conversely, giving it importance with a price tag is also denying things. Hopefully we’re at a crossroads where things might change at that level. Because ultimately right now, it’s considered as entertainment. It’s true, that you look at something or listen to something, and you’re pleased or displeased. So there is that. But I think we need to understand the importance of it.

Kids, when they’re going to school, should have art and music. It should be part of the curriculum. There’s no doubt about it. Because it’s a reality of being human. It’s part of our wiring. It’s an important human endeavor.

People will say, “Oh, you’re having fun.” It’s not about that. It’s work. It’s serious work. It’s not some stupid thing. It’s a lifetime. I mean, you die and you’re not as good as you wanted to be. It’s never going to happen. And that’s the thing that’s kind of great about it. You know the limitations, your limitations are always there. With everything else, you can think you get to the top. With art, you don’t. That is, in some ways, what I like about it. It’s an open-ended search. 


Visit Carole d'Inverno's website at

Click to view a booklet of Carole d'Inverno's artwork.

Watch a short film of Carole d'Inverno creating a drawing at Vermont Studio Center (film by Monica Jane Frisell, Carole's daughter, with music by Bill Frisell, Carole's husband) (below).


©2014 Christine Waresak. All rights reserved.