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“Autonomic Healing” is on view at the Lounge Gallery at Naropa University’s Nalanda Campus, 6287 Arapahoe Ave., from Jan. 9 to March 3. (Photo by Kirsten Lewis Photography)

Katie Caron wants you to question your world

By Haley Gray

Katie Caron spent much of her summer holed up in what she calls her “dirty” studio–the one of her three studios that’s designated for roll-your-sleeves-up kind of work. She liked to be there alone, in silence, surrounded by cast-off scraps from a rubber-toy manufacturer and countless softball-size porcelain orbs.

Katie Caron uses nontraditional media, especially repurposed industrial waste, to make installations like the wall behind her that make us think about our relationship to our environment. (photo by Haley Gray)
Katie Caron uses nontraditional media, especially repurposed industrial waste, to make installations like the wall behind her that make us think about our relationship to our environment. (photo by Haley Gray)

For hours at a time, Caron would arrange the objects in 21-by-21-inch squares. She’d cluster the bulbous ceramic forms and layer multicolored star-shaped rubber forms in and over them, nestling the objects together with raw clay. She’d step back, chin on her fist, brow furrowed, and study her work with a stern, curious expression. Did she like the balance in this composition? Was the sense of movement right? Where was the emphasis? She’d return to the square, make an adjustment, and step back again.

When a composition seemed right, Caron covered it with a layer of misty-white plexiglass. She would hold up the squares to her window, examining how her creations might look when ultimately set into professionally made, backlit frames.

The body of work she created, “Autonomic Healing,” is certainly evocative. On view at the Lounge Gallery at Naropa University from Jan. 9 to March 3, the panels Caron spent her summer creating are lined up like a storyboard. As the viewer’s eyes pass over each lightbox, a narrative emerges in the changing relationships between the forms. “I was thinking of these almost as frames of a film,” Caron says.

The sculptures–for lack of a more precise word–might not immediately register as fine art, but they thoughtfully employ all the formal principles of design that we innately appreciate, like composition, light and color.

The Art of Raising Questions

Caron likes to use nontraditional media, especially repurposed industrial waste, such as Styrofoam and shrink-wrap, to construct installations that often swallow entire spaces. Her imposing installation “Glacial Retreat” took over all of Longmont’s Firehouse Art Center this past fall. With what felt like plasticized mountains and melting Styrofoam glaciers, Caron put viewers in the uncomfortable position of reckoning with their environment. Her work asks: To what extent do we live in the natural world, and to what extent do we live, quite literally, in fabricated, mostly plastic spaces? That tension, between the organic world and something else, charges most of Caron’s work.

In “Autonomic Healing,” a struggle between synthetic toxicity and the biological world is at play, but mysteriously so. Are the bulbous forms like cysts, toxic growths in the body that the astral antibodies are dismantling? Or are the orbs the ones under attack, like white blood cells succumbing to dark viral invaders? Which forms are doing good? Where do we empathize? Caron’s work is meant to imbue its audience with these questions, not answer them.

“Autonomic Healing” started with clusters of ceramic forms and star-shaped pink rubber. (photo courtesy Katie Caron)
“Autonomic Healing” started with clusters of ceramic forms and star-shaped pink rubber. (photo courtesy Katie Caron)

“It’s juxtaposing two different ideas and putting them together to make you think differently,” Caron says. “I think people get intimidated by conceptual art, but I think the goal of conceptual art really is about communicating ideas that, in our culture and what we’re used to seeing, wouldn’t normally be questioned.”

The Art of Inspiration

When Caron moved to Boulder from Boston 16 years ago, she was a ceramicist who loved to throw pottery on the wheel. She took a job at Boulder Arts & Crafts Gallery (or Cooperative, as it was then called). For two years, she split her days between working at the co-op and teaching at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities. In her own time, she created abstract ceramics. Her pieces walked a line between sculpture and two-dimensional art. Some objects, like hexagonal wall hangings that fit into each other like a beehive, were hung together on the flat surface of a wall. Others, like a tower of clustered, spiky balls clinging to one another like grains of pollen, sat in three dimensions on the floor. All were inspired by the plains and mountains that were her new home.

Before long, Caron set her sights on a ceramics masters program. She landed in Detroit at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, a prestigious, forward-thinking institution. Her work evolved there to embrace media far beyond clay and glaze. Caron’s thesis project, “Dominion,” was a towering, glowing and, in some places, moving cube topped with forms that clearly invoke Boulder’s Flatirons. The mountainous forms were heaped with iron filings illuminated in red. Beneath them, internally lit layers alternated between industrial objects like exposed wire and organic forms resembling the natural world, perhaps an ocean floor.

“That piece was really me looking back and thinking about landscape,” Caron says. “I think that the landscape of Colorado–you can’t deny its impact on you psychologically.”

Gritty Detroit wasn’t for her, though. She had felt most inspired in Colorado, so she returned to the Front Range soon after her graduation. Caron has been here since, showing her poignant installations across Boulder County, Denver and as far away as Berlin.

In 2017, the artist hopes to co-teach a course with Boulder artist Martha Russo at CU-Boulder. That would allow her access to CU’s industrial vacuum forming equipment in the Idea Forge College of Engineering and Applied Science lab. With this would come the opportunity to create room-engulfing installations at her grandest scale yet, to continue her exploration of how, as she says, “unconscious reactions shape emotions and how spaces, sounds, and objects may provoke fear or incite wonder.”