“The Artwork of Carole Wantz: Collected Stories from Columbus, Indiana” currently lines the halls at the Indiana State Museum. Although these paintings are colorful and vibrant, the most vibrant thing in the exhibit is the apparent love and respect Wantz has for all of the subjects she’s painted over the years.
During the ’70s and ’80s, Wantz, living in Columbus, Ind., painted more than 150 commissions for families in the area. Prior to her success as a commissioned artist, Wantz took a few years to find her distinct style. She began painting in her 30s, and after a friend saw her work, she and the friend enrolled in art classes with a Herron instructor. Wantz wanted to be an abstract painter, but the instructor gave her some feedback. “He pulled me aside and said ‘I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but you’re not good,’” Carole told us during an interview at her exhibit. “So after I cried, I spent about six months at the IU art library looking up painters.” After finding great inspiration from Grandma Moses, Wantz decided to paint what she knew: her everyday life.
She immediately enjoyed documenting her children’s sports events and capturing the energy of her family life. “After I started painting, my mother showed me my drawings that I had done when I was 6 years old, and they were like what I’m doing now. I didn’t even know she had them!”
After developing her distinct style portraying people playfully living their lives, that same friend who encouraged Wantz to enroll in art classes helped Carole get her first commission. Wantz’s first commissioned piece was in 1975—a portrait for J. Irwin Miller. Wantz’s friend had a connection to the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, who commissioned the painting of Irwin from Carole. As this was Wantz’s first commission, she was nervous. Wantz decided to zone in on taking a personal approach on this portrait, showing stories and people close to Miller that Wantz learned about in the process of making the piece.
She began this commission the way she still begins all of her work, by interviewing her subject. Since it was a gift, she didn’t meet her subject until after the piece was finished, so she interviewed people who knew Miller. Wantz read magazine articles where Miller was interviewed and tracked down people mentioned in each article, asking them about Miller and stories of him.
Wantz calls her pieces portraits, although they feature much more than a traditional portrait view of her subject. Wantz takes a more “personal approach” to all of her subjects, creating their portrait by portraying specific people and events that complete them. She recalls a portrait she did for the Baker family, also featured in the exhibit. “I watched hours of family videos,” Wantz said. “I just tried to find something that would identify a person.”
She certainly captured the spirit of Mr. Miller in his portrait. He loved her work and proudly displayed it in his home. After this first successful portrait in 1975, Wantz continued to make hundreds of commissions for families and companies over the next ten years.
Wantz said her research and interview process takes a long time. She spends physical time with her subjects, looking at old photos and speaking with them, but she also allows some time after the initial interview before she starts painting. She says her subjects and their families often call her and give her more information that they remember before she starts painting, similar to how you remember old stories after chatting with a friend.
Wantz’s pieces are colorful and specific, featuring mostly flat, bright colors sprinkled with faceless people and identifiable Columbus landmarks. She strives to capture the “light, humorous side of life,” and although the people in her work don’t have faces, there is a clear playfulness and joy in each piece she creates. The composition is always full, and Wantz paints in a way that skews the perspective of the piece. The subjects and buildings in her foregrounds and backgrounds are the same size, and equally in view. Once someone asked her about her skewed perspective, wondering why the information in the background was just as large as the foreground. “I told him it’s because things are harder to see back there,” Wantz said, laughing. Painting this way allows the viewer to take their time with each and every part of the piece.
Since everything is the same size and value, all aspects of the portrait seem equally important.
After speaking with Wantz and hearing her recall specific stories about each of her subjects in her paintings, it is clear she has tremendous respect and admiration for everyone she has painted. There is a tenderness to Wantz when she speaks about her subjects, and that tenderness and love comes across in her work, drawing people in to connect quickly with her subjects.
I initially viewed the exhibit a few weeks ago on a Sunday afternoon, and found several people connecting with the pieces, and each other. I chatted with two people who went to high school in Columbus and realized they graduated the same year. They left the exhibit exchanging emails so they could connect about their upcoming reunion. I also spoke with two women who grew up in Columbus. Sandy Lucas, one of the women at the show, knew almost every person in each painting.
After spending time speaking with Wantz, it’s clear why she has had so much success capturing the spirit of her subjects, and why she was busy making commissions for so long, and still is. At 80 years old, she is as vibrant as her paintings, and she is truly engaged and present when you speak with her. Her energy clearly puts people at ease, and her curiosity to know her subject has led to years of specific, playful paintings that have been loved by many generations of families that treasure them.
“The Artwork of Carole Wantz: Collected Stories from Columbus, Indiana” is on display at the Indiana State Museum now until July 25. The museum is open Wednesday-Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Bekah Pollard is a visual artist, writer, and educator living and working in Indianapolis. She teaches at the Indianapolis Art Center.
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