The walls of Carol Spielman’s childhood bedroom weren’t plastered with posters of teen heartthrobs and movie stars. Instead, she pinned the art of Matisse, Rauschenberg, Picasso, and The Fauves.
Spielman grew up on Orcas Island, the largest of Washington’s San Juan Islands. Though the island was rural, the location cultivated creativity. Spielman recalls residents growing their food, working with leather, crafting jewelry, and painting watercolors to sell during tourist season.
Spielman started working at age 14 and graduated in a class of 25 students. Her pension for art was cultivated by her great aunt, a modern artist living in Seattle. She would take Spielman to contemporary art exhibits and encourage her to analyze art, its textures, layers, and the varying degrees of color—even within a seemingly stark, white Rauschenberg. After such outings, Spielman would return home with a poster of her favorite artist to hang on her wall.
Spielman, who now lives in Billings, has developed an unmistakable, uniquely western style. Her elongated horses, created by layers of acrylics and washed and scraped numerous times, have a personality derived from childhood.
While living on Orcas Island, Spielman was captivated by horses and would ride bareback along the beach. Her love of horses translates into her majestic pieces, full of evocative colors and rich textures. Her background in modern art also makes an appearance through techniques of minimalism, where she’ll strip the subject down to its essence, embodying the horse with overlapping layers of paint and texture.
Spielman left Orcas Island to attend the University of Washington. She began taking art classes, but it would be another 20 years before she finished her degree. Spielman’s life diverged from college into the fashion world, where she worked her way from gift box assembly to becoming a buyer for the northwest department store.
While buying for Nordstroms in Utah, Spielman met her husband Jim, a ski instructor, and their path brought them to Billings where Jim—in an effort to find work during the off-season—started up a successful road striping business. They’ve been residing in Billings for 20+ years, raising their two daughters, and consider Billings their home.
“I like that you can go in the grocery store and you know people,” Spielman said. “I grew up that way, so for me it fits. I don’t like to be in a big city where you’re an unknown entity; I like the interaction.”
It wasn’t until Spielman’s children were grown and off to college that she ventured back to finish her degree. She obtained her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts from Montana State University Billings. During her schooling, she poured bronzed, painted, worked with melting glass, photography, silkscreen, prints, welded, and toyed with ceramics.
“It’s under the radar how great MSUB’s art program is,” Spielman said.
A minimalist approach
Spielman’s horses are well known around Billings, yet her portfolio is full of images of the west: cowboys riding in a line, animals in the wild, farmers in the field.
The rich colors and thick textures of Spielman’s work remind of oil paintings, yet she’s strictly an acrylic painter. Perhaps by default, as when she was obtaining her degree the classroom didn’t have proper ventilation, so oils were out of the equation.
Spielman makes acrylics her own, evolving her style into more primitive forms, similar to pictographs. “I want the viewer to figure out what my images are,” Spielman said. “It’s ambiguous in a way, paired down to the essence of what you see—shapes and color.” She’s also heavily influenced by art of the 1950s, when bright colors reigned supreme.
Spielman was the fourth Artist in Residence at the Yellowstone Art Museum. During her time at the YAM, Spielman worked closely with the educational department and taught children and high schoolers alike the joys of painting. She also taught an art class at Crow Agency.
“In Billings there’s a wealth of people from all over,” Spielman said. “I meet so many interesting people. I find their insights and thoughts fascinating.”
Spielman has a philanthropic approach to painting. She donates art to auctions and charities to help raise money for worthy causes. “I love doing it, and the rewards are huge. I’m thrilled that someone wants to buy my work, and that money can go toward a good cause.” In 2012 alone, Spielman donated 14 paintings, with three months still to give. “It’s so rewarding and worth it to me.”
Teaching is another way Spielman gives back. “Children are really open. It’s fun to get their insights, reactions, energy, and spirit; it’s contagious. I’m a messy painter, so I like to get them making a mess. Art is a great way to express yourself, and the horse—especially with kids—is such a beloved animal.”
Find Carol Spielman’s art at Toucan (2505 Montana Avenue), Visions West Galleries (Bozeman, Livingston, Denver), Dana Gallery (Missoula), RARE Gallery of Fine Art (Jackson Hole), Terzian Galleries (Park City, Utah), Coda Gallery (Palm Dessert, Calif., Park City, Utah).
Originally published in Magic City Magazine, Nov. 2012