During the Pandemic: A Conversation with Carolyn Latanision, CM

Written by: Francesca Sinnott

Pictured: Carolyn Latanision, Copley Master

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Pictured: Cellphone Break, watercolor on paper, 14” x 19”

At first glance, watercolor artist, Carolyn Latanision, comes across as a delicate woman. Yet, a conversation with her reveals a strength of character and an empathy fostered by growing up in the steel mill town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. An extraordinary watercolor painter, Carolyn is proud to say she has been with Co|So since 1978 earning the title of Copley Master because of the honors she has received.  Most recently she was the juror for awards in Co|So’s “Summer Member’s Show."

I learn right away about Carolyn’s Post Depression era upbringing. She grew up three blocks from Bethlehem Steel, the second largest producer of steel in the world, where the sounds and smells of the blast furnaces are permanently etched into her identity—both as woman and as artist.  “My Irish great grandfather and grandfather (at age 11) worked at the plant. He later became a foreman in the iron foundry and was severely burned in a plant fire." Her father worked as a smokestack painter and would die from lead paint poisoning. It was therefore a deeply personal decision for her to paint Bethlehem Steel in a series.

When in 1995, she read in The Boston Globe about the closing of Bethlehem SteelShe realized that she had to go and chronicle it. She was allowed to visit multiple times, walk all over and photograph the blast furnaces and other structures up close. She had pushed aside memories of the role the plant played in her family’s history. However, this became an opportunity to paint the “quietude of this historic plant closing, while memorializing the lives of the people who worked there”. Carolyn’s voice catches with emotion as she admits. “The paintings have a hopeful light in them because of the people who I knew worked there. I have always been drawn to architectural structures and I know now it has everything to do with my upbringing, surrounded by massive geometry of structures: row houses, train cars loaded with scrap metal and iron ore, and the plant itself”. In “Ladles and Cranes” she indicates how “if a person stood next to this ladle, he would be only as tall as the B on the ladle.”

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Pictured: Ladles and Cranes, watercolor on paper, 28” x 16”

She shares an historical tidbit about another architectural painting. The original of “Manhattan Bistro”, that she painted in Soho was purchased by a law firm and hung in World Trade Tower One until it was destroyed on 9/11. Thankfully the firm and its employees survived and would later request a print of the original for their new offices.

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Pictured: Manhattan Bistro, watercolor on paper, 22” x 29”

For Carolyn, the pandemic has challenged her in terms of establishing structure and remaining disciplined. With all galleries going on-line because of the pandemic, Carolyn has been able to enter more National and International competitions, as the format allows for all sizes of paintings.  This summer she has completed more paintings in the Bethlehem Steel series including “Rusting Pinions” and some others.

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Pictured: Rusting Pinions, watercolor on paper, 22” x 29"

Carolyn’s watercolor talents extend to all subjects, but she also enjoys figure painting. “I love people and can watch them all day, attracted to the more intimate, unguarded moments”. Her painting “A Day at the Beach” is on-line at an exhibition at the National Association for Women Artists (NAWA, Florida Chapter). When I painted it in 1982, “I was teaching myself to size figures in a painting in proper perspective from very large to very small.  It is clearly from another era, “note the transistor radio and thermos bottle.”

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Pictured: A Day at the Beach, watercolor on paper, 22” x 29”

Carolyn has worked in other media, but after a trip to Japan (1973) she became really enthused with watercolor, winning an award in a Baltimore Watercolor Society exhibit, giving her “the confidence to do more”. Early on, Carolyn worked abstractly on large canvases (48”) and found techniques she could also use with watercolor. She tells her students “it’s like a wild horse; you have to let it lead but you also have to rein it in”. “ I enjoy the challenge and creative freedom, as it also allows me to be looser in my approach and still be able to correct. I remind my students, if something unintended occurs on the paper, wait to do something about it, because you may wreck the painting if you do or you may miss the pleasant surprise. I also teach my students techniques on how to fix watercolor, as it is much more workable that people think”.   

Carolyn works in the studio from photos and memory.  “I can view more closely the details of a scene” and I can recall play of the light. She prefers working in the studio rather than in plein air.  A work she recently completed, gives a loose modern impression of a street scene in Naples, Italy. 

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Pictured: Summer Rhythms, watercolor on paper, 15” x 11”

Carolyn grew up with an artist mother who encouraged her interest in painting sharing her arts books and allowing her to take private lessons from 7th-12th grade. She wanted to study fine arts at Pratt. However when it was time to go to college (Kutztown University B.S. Art Education), she took “the more practical path of becoming an art teacher”.  After she married, she worked with teens in the East side of Columbus, Ohio (1965) and experienced first hand the civil unrest at that time. She also taught elementary education at Weinland Park, an inner city school, where she incorporated art in to the curriculum to keep the kids engaged.  Carolyn eventually took up the brush full time when she was home with her newborn son in 1968. “I have chosen to paint with watercolors even though I know I could make more money with oils, but I am fine with that.  I wanted to find my own style, so I have not taken many workshops and I encourage young artists to do the same". More recently, “I have reached a place in my arc of work where I am painting what interests me. I may be selling less, but I am really enjoying the work”.