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Friday, March 23, 2001

Creative Collaboration

Larry Enge and Carol Wilder find a marriage
of true minds in their art and life


By Bill Marvel / The Dallas Morning News


They could be any happily married couple working together, cooking a gourmet meal, perhaps, or refurbishing an old house or planting a garden.

She lays out the basic outline of what is to be done. He begins fleshing out that outline. They stand back and examine the work, talk a bit. She makes some changes; he makes some adjustments. As the project advances, there are occasional differences of opinion. She does something that requires him to redo part of his work. He discovers something that takes it in a new direction.

But Larry Enge and Carol Wilder are not cooking or refurbishing or planting. They are painting a mural, a major project commissioned to hang in the lobby of a professional association in Austin.

Great painters of the past, Michelangelo and Rubens, Mary Cassatt and Georgia O'Keeffe, may have had studio assistants and apprentices. But they did not have collaborators, and they most certainly would never have considered sharing their walls or canvases with a wife or a husband.

Mr. Enge and Ms. Wilder, on the other hand, have been painting together for six years, one of the most successful teams in what is usually a fiercely individualistic activity.

"We have his work, my work, and our work," she says.

"We're really three artists," he says: "We're Carol and Larry and Wilder-Enge."

Husband and wife, parents and helpmates, the two recently completed a pair of murals for the Texas Association of Broadcasters in Austin. Other paintings have been exhibited in several museums. They have a show at the Bath House Cultural Center and, after April 3, at Oak Cliff's Thomas and Hall Gallery.

Different worlds

They painted long before they met in 1979. She was a graduate student in the University of Dallas art department. He had studied art at Indiana University, then moved to Dallas with a friend. She was working on a community mural project with a group of high school students. He was working in a framing shop, painting in his spare time. A friend brought them together.

They were from different worlds: She was East Dallas, middle class, white. He was working-class and black, a former social worker who had once labored in the steel mills of Gary, Ind. They had different styles and ambitions: Her paintings were coolly modern and abstract, suggesting geological strata and architectural structures; his were warmly figurative, intimate portraits and figure studies that drew heavily on the high style of the Renaissance, but often with African facial features.

But they hit it off. After their first date, a movie, they sat talking in front of her apartment for more than two hours. A year later, they were married.

After marriage they continued to work separately, easels set up at opposite ends of the big studio they shared in a loft apartment overlooking Fair Park.

Discoveries

Then one day, at her suggestion, they began working together.

In fact, she says, her work had come to an impasse; she didn't know where her next idea was going to come from.

"In the summer of 1994, I had just read an article in ARTnews about collaborative teams," she says. "I thought that would be fun. But I wondered who I could collaborate with." She stuck a yellow Post-it note on the article, wrote "Check this out," and left it on her husband's desk.

Larry's first reaction to the article was "So...?"

"I didn't particularly want to collaborate," he says. "I hadn't been working in the studio for a couple of years. I felt I was behind."

"Besides, I thought I would lose my individuality."

"Larry kind of put his own work aside for a while," Carol says. Times had been hard on Dallas artists. Several important galleries had gone out of business in the mid-1980s. Nobody was buying art; the framing business had dried up. By now the couple had two daughters. Larry had taken a job refinishing wood.

Nevertheless, Larry says, "We did a very simple trial piece."

"It didn't work."

Home work

Several times a day, Larry or Carol steps out the back door of their Oak Cliff home and climbs the wooden steps to the big open room above their garage: home sweet studio.

Chances are, the other is already at work. The CD player is on, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk trading themes. Larry's big, powerful charcoal drawings on brown wrapping paper are taped across one wall. Two unfinished paintings rest on easels. Carol has already drawn in the vaults and columns that will frame and contain the figures and begun enriching the space with colors and textures that give an air of mystery: deep blue-greens, a glowing orange and gold mosaic.

One by one, Larry will transfer the figures from his drawings (they come from sculptures Carol photographed last year on the facade of the municipal building in Tours, France) to the paintings, positioning them until they seem to take possession of the composition.

"I had always admired the way Carol organized space and designed abstractly," he says.

For her part, she had been edging closer to the human figure in a series of icon-like paintings in which figures were silhouetted. But the human figure - that was Larry's territory.

"Larry's always been a very direct painter, very process-oriented" she says. "I work in stages. He steps in, and then I step in. It goes back and forth."

The breakthrough came in a painting called My House.

Going places

She had been looking at pictures of native houses in Ghana, fascinated by the way the colorful geometric patterns that women paint on those houses play off against the swelling curves of the walls. Larry had found a magazine photograph of two South African children sleeping in the back seat of a car. They combined the themes, creating a tender vision in which the sleeping children almost seem to dream the space around them.

Today, the painting hangs in the couple's bedroom.

A trip to France, in 1995, put the cap on their collaboration. They visited cathedrals, but also an African market in the heart of Paris.

"That cleared up a lot of questions about what we were doing, about how cultures mesh," Larry says.

"I had been trying to simulate a figure on a curved surface," Carol says. "In Sacre Coeur cathedral, I saw that very thing."

They returned to Dallas and set to work.

Taking advantage

A year or so after they began collaborating, Carol and Larry organized an exhibit at North Lake College pairing local artists in first-time collaborations. None of the partners were married to each other; some hadn't even known each other's work.

The exhibit was a success even if none of the teams continues to work together.

Real artistic collaboration apparently demands something special: a marriage of true minds.

Though they bring different backgrounds and talents to the work, they share deep commitments: to the marriage; to their daughters, Amelia, 17, and Jora, 11; to their Christian faith. (Both are members of Christians in the Visual Arts, an organization of Christian artists.) When their daughters come home from school every afternoon, they are there.

"We spend a lot of time together, and that's a plus," says Larry. "We never get tired of it. This way of working is consuming. But that's part of the success of it."

"We've never even considered stopping our collaboration, until one of us gets too decrepit or dies," Carol says.

"We're starting to fine-tune our vision, the way a single artist does," Larry says.

"We're able to take advantage of each other," she adds. Then they both laugh.

Two years ago, the couple were exhibiting their work at the Community Art Collective in Houston. Lodged in a converted apartment building, the collective is a relaxed, democratic kind of place. People literally were invited in off the surrounding streets to see the show, Larry recalls.\

One visitor, a woman, wandered from room to room, studying the couple's work.

"Then she started asking me questions about the paintings and how we worked together," Larry says.

She listened to his answers carefully, and finally paused.

"You know," she said, "I think I better go home and work on my relationship with my husband."