At Home with Carolyn Thayer
Artfully Celebrating the Season of Joy
“Come into my Moodio Studio,” says Billings artist Carolyn Thayer as she welcomes you into a world of color. That color begins with Carolyn herself, sporting lavender eyeglass frames and a purple-striped tunic, splotched with bright paint.
“This place will change your mood and state of mind,” she continues. And so it does. Colorful paintings are stacked on shelves, on the floor, and hung on the walls. Eclectic arrays of brushes sit upright in yogurt containers, and dancing puddles of light stream in through the balcony windows.
Continue perusing the artwork and it comes into sharper focus. There’s a painting of laundry shifting in the breeze on a clothesline in front of a clapboard homestead, and cats and chickadees make an appearance in the shadow of a home. And then, there are the whimsical snowmen and Santas scattered everywhere in various stages of creation — one with a grey crackled background and a cranberry-colored suit, another skiing downhill, yet another pedaling a bike, and one, dancing as the snow flies while holding a full stocking and a Christmas tree.
“It’s something that comes over me in October and takes over,” says Carolyn, a self-described Christmas-aholic. “I’ve tried denying it, but it won’t go away.” There’s no denying that this artist — and artist-of-life — loves Christmas and Santas. She thinks this love for the season began at her Aunt Helen’s home, where Carolyn would lie under the Christmas tree, transfixed by the ornaments and bubble lights. “She always made Christmas so special,” Carolyn says.
Carolyn also attributes some of her joy to fellow artist and teacher Sue Dolan. “I credit Sue with helping me to not take myself so seriously,” Carolyn says of her friend, who died in 2010. Sue was well known for her Santa dolls, and she’d stuff Santas while Carolyn painted. “We’d fire each other up and work all night,” she says, remembering their shared love of Christmas.
A life-long Billings resident, Carolyn’s interest in art began in childhood. As a teen, she’d paint old furniture and sell it at summer’s end. That’s when she realized her work was sale-able, and she continues to be grateful for the support of the Billings community. “You are your town,” her mom used to tell her, and that message instilled in Carolyn a sense of reciprocity and a love for being part of something larger. Mom was also a “chronic volunteer,” and Carolyn cites examples from her parents and grandparents to explain her own involvement in the Billings community.
After studying art at MSU Billings, Carolyn began a teaching career that spanned 40 years at the junior high and high school levels. Retired now, she continues to teach, mostly adults, at her home and at Crooked Line Studio. Believing that we’re all born with an innate sense of design and creativity, Carolyn loves helping students find their inner “a-ha.”
“Nothing beats when a student ‘gets it,’” she says. “There’s no greater high.”
Carolyn feels that too many people limit themselves with inner talk of “I can’t draw. I can’t paint.” But she knows they have ideas, just as she does. “The brain is a conveyor belt of ideas,” she says. “Just let it happen. I know that whatever runs the big show will send them.” Perhaps there’s a bit of mystic mojo in the creative process, too. “It’s part of being a part of the greater mind. I’ve been given ideas that weren’t mine.” And then, she reminds herself and her students that most art is 10 percent talent and 90 percent drive.
One of Carolyn’s ongoing joys is her summer arts camp that she and Gayle Tompkins have been putting together for 10- and 12-year-olds for the past 20 years. She, Gayle and the kids enjoy it tremendously. “I get to have my little kid fix during that time,” she says. It also reaffirms for her that art and creativity have their genesis in just playing and having fun. “Children show us the world we have forgotten. That’s why we love children so much.”
A firm believer in the healing power of creativity, Carolyn explains that it brings an inner calm. “When you can get totally lost in the playfulness, that is one of the best drugs there is.” She also sees her paintings as a transfer of emotion. “What is it making you feel?” she’ll ask. “I just want people to feel joy and fun … that the universe is basically a friendly place.” And her Santa paintings definitely exude that joyfulness.
Despite this sharing of the season’s joy, Carolyn has experienced darkness in her life, including hospitalization for severe post-partum depression, which she freely discusses. She has been a speaker at local NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) events, encouraging others to get help when they need it. “Don’t suffer. There’s no shame. If something’s crippling your joy of life, get help,” is her continuing message.
From dumpster diving for school art supplies to learning to fly when she turned 50, canoeing a portion of the Missouri River, selling designs to greeting card companies, doing set dressing and design on “Lonesome Dove” and other films, restoring rooms in the Moss Mansion, planning an art program at the local prison, and painting Santas during the Christmas holidays, Renaissance woman Carolyn Thayer has a larger message for this season of good will. “Go and visit someone who’s a shut-in. Be pleasant to people in stores. Just be kind. It can be that simple.” She advocates gratitude, too. “It’s a wonderful way to live. You just see the abundance when you start focusing on gratitude.”
Carolyn adds that we often get caught up in the Grand Canyon Syndrome, where we think we need to make grand gestures or do nothing at all. “Just pay for breakfast for someone at McDonald’s,” she says. “If you’re a giver rather than a taker, you’ll have a better life.” And she ends with great gratitude for her life, her family and terrific husband supporting her career, the support from the Billings community, and the joy she finds in everyday life.
“Life may be difficult,” she says, “but it’s still joyous.”
A LOOK AT CAROLYN’S WHIMSICAL WORK
Carolyn has a Christmas-themed show every November at the Frame Hut. She will have one at her home studio (844 Lewis Ave.) on Dec. 7. You can also view her work all year long at Gallery Interiors and the Frame Hut. She regularly gives classes from her home and at Crooked Line Studio. For more information, give her a call at 860-2860.