FEATURED ARTIST: CARISSA POTTER CARLSON

Carissa Potter Carlson‘s work creates a strange, cathartic experience. A feeling of intrusion, as if you were reading a stranger’s thoughts, but also, a feeling of vulnerability, as if at the same time, that stranger were reading yours. Her art relieves loneliness by showing things everyone experiences but no one talks about, from small embarrassments to existential interrogations. Simple lines, touches of color or sometimes no color at all, a few words – this is all she uses to depict the complexity of what it’s like to be a person with an almost surgical precision. Carissa lives in Oakland, California. She gave us a few moments of her time for a quiet email conversation while her newborn daughter was asleep.

How would you describe your artistic style?

Fast, emotional with lots of mistakes. Mistakes are style.

Who / what inspires you to create ?

I think that making things gives me purpose. Seems to me humans along with other species are builders and creators, there is such a joy derived from making something come from nothing. The things that I tend to be drawn towards are emotional in nature. I have always been interested in why we do and feel the things we do. How we relate to each other. How we place ourselves in the world. I am interested in how I can know that we are all connected and yet feel so alone at the same time.

What is your creative process?

I don’t remember what it was like before the baby when I had a practice. But since she was born I think that she is my practice. Let me try to recall. I used to fixate on topics. And try to sort them out in my head and then on paper. In hopes that they would resonate with others, and perhaps make people feel something, anything, hopefully better. A bit less alone. More human. Now I just fixate on the baby. And worry about the future. Sometimes the things would take the form of objects. It would depend on what I was thinking and then the form would take its cues from there. Lots of the time the process depends on what is available. I wouldn’t know what to do if I was an artist who had means to do anything they wanted. I would find that stifling. But I still fantasize about it all the time. What it might be like to just make. And worry later.

Let’s talk about consuming art instead of making it. What are some of your latest favorites?

I was really into Fleabag and Insecure. I liked My Year of Rest and Relaxation. I like the classics like Miranda July, Sophie Calle, David Shrigley, David Hockney, Joan Brown (I have definitely been in a Joan Brown phase) etc. Art by simple means. I have started indulging in music from high school. Ani Difranco and Tori Amos. When I listen to it, I time travel back to a space in my life where I think that things were complicatedly simple. Emotionally chaotic. I feel something when I listen to it that that’s impossible to replicate with new music. I assume this is the case for most people. Like listening to the Laura Veirs song “Lake Swimming” — takes me back to skinny dipping in undergrad. Or the 6ths “Just Like A Movie Star” brings me back to being in love for the first time.

You have founded your own business, which you have named “People I’ve Loved.” What have you learned from these people?

Everything. That there is meaning in life. I think there is something so bittersweet about the name. It is simultaneously nostalgic and heartbreaking.

In an interview for Rare Device, you mentioned a “collective consciousness”. What does that mean to you?

At the moment, at any moment, I feel like our thoughts are a reflection of some greater culture. It is hard for me to know what is really my own, if anything. Like my thoughts are also the accumulation of every artwork ever made. Often time, I get the feeling that my thoughts are my own and I can control them – and maybe I can. But I also think that I can use my thoughts to tap into something bigger. Just to know that I am not alone – and to know that other people are out there, likely feeling and thinking similar things.

How would you describe your relationship with your online followers? And your online followers’ relationship with you?

This is tricky. I am not sure I know how to describe it. I think it shifts. I have been wondering if being so open online creates a sort of intimacy that is false or an illusion. Originally, I started posting really personal stuff to help connect with other people. It felt good. And I hope that it made other people feel good too. But I keep questioning it. Is it really healthy to spend time with people you feel close to online but have never met? And I cannot offer the support that some people need. So it is really hard to know what is ultimately the best thing. And I realize that what is good for some people will always be different for others. In my heart of hearts, I want everyone and everything to be positive – but that is not always the way it turns out despite my efforts.

What do you want people to feel through your work?

A sense of self acceptance. Of common humanity. To feel like they belong.

What does it feel like to be so transparent and open to the entire world? Does that scare you sometimes?

Not really. I think I just have bad boundaries. I have been thinking about this in relationship to my mother. She was always really open with me, about what she was going through. And I was really able to be open with her. I think that this created a relationship where we were friends in a beautiful way, but also I was exposed to her struggles and perhaps emulated them at times. I am sure she has a different version of the story. I know my sister does of our childhood. I think that I just have a tendency towards the negative that I have to fight against on the daily.

So what scares you?

I am so scared. And I have no talent for certainty. I think that I just find things that I can tell myself to delusionally feel better and then share those. The thing that I am wrestling with right now, that I have not found a way to talk about is how my body is not my own. My life is no longer my own. We had a baby a month ago. And she will have some lifelong health issues that we are working on. Before she came, I was so scared that I wouldn’t like her. That I would have this baby that I didn’t love. But I loved her. I promised her that I would keep the hope for her. That I would be strong. And I am having a hard time with that. I desperately want to have faith that there is some purpose to life – that it all is not just random nothingness in the end. That all this pain and suffering will be worth something to someone someday.

What does being a parent feel like to you?

I don’t know. It still seems too soon to have an answer. M has been diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis. Before she was born, I was tested for all the things – and everything looked perfectly fine. I was so confident that our baby would be healthy and strong. After she was born, we started having a hard time with her health, I thought, she is normal, this is what normal babies are like. Things take time. She just needs time. I can be patient. I am in a haze right now of medical treatments and force feeding and baby cries and I am thinking about just letting her sleep on my chest despite the fact that she might fall.

What is a question you wish I had asked you?

Tell me why you are crying right now?


Carissa Potter lives and works in Oakland, California. Her prints and small – scale objects reflect her hopeless romanticism through their investigations into public and private intimacy. Speaking both humorously and poignantly to the human condition, Carissa’s work touches chords we all can relate to – exploring situations we’ve all experienced at some point in our lives and conveying messages we simply long to hear.

Carissa received her MFA in Printmaking from the San Francisco Art Institute in 2010 and is a founding member of Colpa Press and the founder of People I’ve Loved.

People I’ve Loved has over 600 stores globally and has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Martha Stewart Living, Create Magazine, New York Times, The Lily, Cup of Jo, Teen Vogue, Real Simple, Happinez Magazine and more.

Carissa has worked with the ICA in Boston, BAM/PFA, SFMOMA, De Young Museum, CCA, The Body Shop, Anthropologie, The Color Factory, Urban Outfitters, The Hammer, & Pinterest to name a few. Carissa has also served as a mentor in Southern Exposure’s One-on-One Mentorship Program.

Since 2010, she has been an artist in residence at Kala Art Institute in Berkeley. In 2016, Carissa was an artist in residence at Facebook and in 2019 she is an artist in residence at Google with Leah Rosenberg. She has exhibited across the globe, most recently at Eleanor Harwood and Legion, both in San Francisco

Carissa finished her first book with Chronicle books in 2015 titled “I like you, I love you.” Currently she is working on being a better listener and just finished her second book with Chronicle books, titled “It’s Ok to Feel Things Deeply.”

Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, poetry, and creative nonfiction from marginalized creators.