During a coffee break installing her immersive exhibition “Victoria/Veronica: Making Room” at the MCA, Chicago painter Caroline Kent walks over to Space 159, a concept store in the Gold Coast. She makes a “fancy purchase,” a new notebook. “I like to make lists, but this time I just spent some time writing in it. It’s very basic, but it’s also kind of indulgent, to sit and write. Feel how nice the cover is,” she passes it to me so I can touch the textured linen cover.
The notebook now sits on a worktable in her West Side Chicago painting studio, a creative oasis in an otherwise rough part of town. “The studio helps me slow down and spend time with one artwork or one idea. I need my space to do that, to not get lost in the notes and the constant looking,” she says about her creative process.
Caroline has an infectious optimism. She offers me the one “cozy seat” in her studio, a padded wooden chair, pulls up a metal stool for herself, and takes a seat in front of a large black painting she refers to as “midnight canvases.” Caroline is wearing a stylish blue art smock, its length masking the fact that she is indeed wearing shorts. “I don’t want the photos to make it look like I’m not wearing pants,” she jokes. This comes to mind later when I shoot her portrait: “Don’t make her look pants-less,” I remind myself.
As we chat about her studio process, I notice she has a yellow polka dot bandana casually tied around her neck. It’s a fitting accessory for someone so frustratingly positive. I pry for a gripe about the art gallery world or West Side gentrification—clumsily prodding for a biting quote I can open this feature with. Instead I’m met with clear, unbridled cheerfulness.
I’ve always wondered if cheerful people are born that way, or if it’s a skillset taught at a class the rest of us were never invited to. She thinks it’s the former. “I grew up in a small town and I remember being like, ‘I want the world,’ whatever that means,” she says. Her youthful wants manifested into a two-year stint with Peace Corps in Transylvania before relocating her studio to Chicago.
Despite having multiple exhibitions on view, Caroline appears tranquil, present, focused. “I’m coming into a slower moment. Even though there’s been a lot of momentum, a lot of wonderful things happening, I’m starting to have to navigate what you say yes to and what you pass on. It’s important to not feel the pressure, that if I say no to something, the opportunities aren’t going to go away.”
She wasn’t always so at ease with her practice. “Along the way I had my own crisis with painting. I had my own crisis with what’s really at stake with this kind of work I’m making. What does it matter? That led to a personal freedom to explore the possibility of where my work could go.” She lists fellow artists Nyeema Morgan, Rini Yun Keagy, and Harold Mendez as colleagues and sources of inspiration but finds her own studio work as her main muse. “I’ve been my biggest motivation. The excitement of the practice when I turn a corner, even a small step, that’s what has really pushed me.”
Caroline has developed her own system for renewable creative energy, harnessing power from even the most tiring of activities, like teaching college students painting at Northwestern University. “Academic life becomes really interesting and exciting when studio ideas start leading to curriculum ideas, so there’s still energy when you are teaching. It becomes an extension in some ways of the studio practice.” She has a similar approach to raising her young children, ages 5 and 7.
“Art time with kids is an easy go-to for me. I’m full of ideas! I invested in an art cart and put a bunch of random objects in it. My kids will just trash the house. Literally it’s a mess with string and buttons and everything.” She says making art with her children made her rediscover the joy of making. “When I hit my forties, I couldn’t believe how fun it was to just make. It brought this childlike excitement out of me. I felt so free. I allow myself to play because it feels so low risk, but then I end up making some of the strongest compositions in those moments, sitting there at the kitchen table with my kids.”
A version of this article originally appeared in Sixtysix Issue 07 with the headline “Caroline Kent.” Subscribe today.