There’s no mistaking the metaphor meticulously mapped onto canvas after canvas in Carrie Marill’s latest solo exhibition.
Geometric shapes, some spiky, some blocky, come together into squares, diamonds and circles to form barriers – shields or fences – all radiating a confident energy. But between the gaps in the patterns, they reveal glimpses of what they defend: delicate flowers and tender tendrils of greenery.
Protected Vulnerability opens Jan. 7 at the Lisa Sette Gallery, which has represented Marill for more than a decade. The show has been a year in the making, during which time the Phoenix artist – known for several mural designs around town – was also caring for her ailing mother.
How Marill brought her emotional life to her paintings
“I am the epitome of a parentified child,” she says. “I was constantly taking care of my mom until she just died in September, and that’s actually what a lot of the show is about – that armor that I had to build up as a small child to protect myself. And at times the armor becomes porous and you can see through it.
“There are different coping mechanisms I use to protect myself, and painting is one of them. Distance is another. Intimacy is another: How vulnerable can I get, and then yet how much can I protect my vulnerability? Because that’s how we connect is to be vulnerable in front of one another, but it leaves you feeling exposed and sensitive, and sometimes people can take advantage of that sensitivity. So I’m still trying to figure out how to navigate that.”
Marill is talking about her core relationships – including with her husband, fellow artist Matthew Moore, and their two children – but for an artist who brings the full depth of her emotional life to every painting, Protected Vulnerability is a bigger metaphor than just one exhibition. It’s the key to her identity as an artist.
From hippie California to the (cultural?) desert
Marill grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, where she says the hippie ethos of celebrating uniqueness and independence made her feel safe despite a difficult home life. Drawing was an escape from an early age, and her fascination with patterns was there from the beginning.
In college she tried out a few “practical” majors but finally decided she would never be happy if she weren’t making art full time. After earning an M.F.A. in painting at Cornell University in New York, she moved to the Valley with her husband in 2004.
“We moved to Goodyear, and I was like, what the (expletive),” she says. “I would go on walks or bike rides and people would pull over and say, ‘Are you OK? Do you need a ride?’ The best thing to eat was Applebee’s and Chili’s. I always say my husband tricked me – ‘It’s only going to be a couple years.’”
Moore is a fourth-generation farmer born in Waddell. He was running the family farm in the West Valley, which was on land slated to become a housing development. Se he carved the “blueprints” for the subdivision into his field and photographed the project for the ASU Art Museum’s ambitious “New American City” exhibition in 2004.
‘It was really nice to have that validation’
Marill was featured in the same show, which instantly marked her as an up-and-comer in the Phoenix scene. She and Moore were both picked up by Lisa Sette, and they would find their separate ways at the Phoenix Art Museum as well – in Marill’s case, both as an artist in a group show and in a stint as assistant curator for fashion design.
“She’s way beyond what most artists are researching in terms of pattern,” Sette says.
“I’ve only taken on a husband and wife as artists once before, but they were a collaborative team. Carrie’s and Matt’s art was distinctive and very much their own. I was interested in both, but they were sort of polar opposites in the type of work they create.”
Marill’s fascination with patterns led her to study folk art traditions that worked their way into her painting. Her new paintings draw on a class in Moroccan patterning that she took in London, while some of her earlier work was inspired by quilting techniques from the American South.
The Arizona Republic’s art critic, Richard Nilsen, praised her 2008 show “A Big Small Town” in a gallery review.
“As a newcomer to Arizona, Carrie Marill can still see things we no longer notice,” he wrote. “The city and its surroundings fairly pop out of her work…Art is supposed to wake us up to the richness of our lives; Marill does that in a quiet, understated way.”
“He got it right away, what I was doing,” she says, “and it was really nice to have that validation in a new place.”
It’s a dream job, but it’s not easy
It made her feel a bit more welcome, a bit more safe. But the vulnerability remains. She’s grateful to make a living as an artist – including all the side hustles, from murals to jewelry, that expand her brand – but she’s still deeply uncomfortable with some unavoidable parts of the job, such as schmoozing at prestigious art fairs.
Or, you know, opening her studio to a reporter whose job it is to ask personal questions of perfect strangers.
Marill works on a painting – the last of them are due to be couriered to the gallery in just a few days – during most of the interview. She says she’s multitasking because of the looming deadline, but she’s clearly anxious. She definitely doesn’t want to rehash a 7-year-old news story about one of her murals getting vandalized, even though she’s the one who brought it up.
But she answers all those personal questions anyway.
“This has been a messy, crying space,” she says. “I am really ready for this show to be out of my studio. It’s been very intense. My mom is literally in that closet. Her ashes are right there. I’m ready to head out of here and cleanse the (expletive) of out of my space and have some time to work on something totally different.”
The “protected vulnerability” of Marill’s life as an artist is even embodied in her work space, part of a small apartment complex designed by the prolific Phoenix architect Al Beadle. It’s a mid-century-modern gem with an all-glass facade facing an inner courtyard, giving her a wide-angle view of her neighbor’s living room – tidy enough for a photo shoot – from her equally exposed studio.
The see-through wall is Marill’s metaphor made real, a literal shield. But it is not a symbol of fear or fragility.
What matters isn’t what it protects, but what it reveals.
Carrie Marill: Protected Vulnerability
When: Jan. 7 – Feb. 29
Where: Lisa Sette Gallery, 210 E Catalina Drive, Phoenix
Details: 480-990-7342, lisasettegallery.com