When Carol Hungerford was in sixth grade, her teacher drove a stake through the heart of her artistic ambitions.
“Sorry, your daughter has no talent,” the teacher told Hungerford’s mother. After that, “I didn’t do any art in school until I was a senior in high school.” In the meantime, however, “I had fallen in love with the theater.”
“Later, my husband said: If you’re an artistic person it’s going to come out somehow or another. So I was very dedicated (to the theater); I fell in love with it, and that’s how I ended up in L.A. I was an actress, pursued it in school, professionally…” – and then became depressed by the unglamorous reality of it.
“I did not like the acting business,” Hungerford says. “I loved acting in the theater, I love all the literature, I love all that stuff; but the acting business is pretty brutal and I just remember starting to draw. And that just brought it all back.
“I’d always liked art. When I was a kid my mom went to art school, so she had art books hanging around. She had her sketchbook; I had my sketchbook. She also gave me a lot of beautifully illustrated children’s books – Maxfield Parrish, Howard Pyle – so that’s what I saw as a little kid.”
Hungerford began to redirect her energies.
“My father-in-law was a commercial photographer and illustrator. He looked at some of my stuff and said, you know, you ought to pursue this.” Which she did. At the same time, Hungerford opted for a different approach than she had with acting:
“I took it so seriously,” she says of her stagecraft, “and I had such reverence for it.” However, “You come to Hollywood with reverence for theater, Shakespeare and all, and they don’t know what you’re talking about. So I thought, I’m gonna attack art differently and not be so attached. I was really careful how I went about studying it.”
The palatable palette
Carol Hungerford was born in Southern California, but grew up in Seattle. She acquired her degree in dramatic literature from Seattle Pacific University, and later attended school in San Francisco. Not long afterwards she moved south, to West L.A. (and currently resides in Harbor City). Although her interest in theater has waned, the discipline she cultivated as an actress (and director) continues to play a part in her creative pursuits.
She studied storyboarding at Otis and then took life drawing and a painting class at the Palos Verdes Art Center. This was followed by four years of hardcore art instruction at Associates in Art, in the Valley.
While she was there, Hungerford says, “I got introduced to all these artists I’d never heard of – (Joaquín) Sorolla, (Nicolai) Fechin; my eyes just popped out of my head: I got to learn how to do that!
“I think if I’d walked into an art department in college and seen that, I would have connected right away, too. But when I was in college it was big hanging pieces of macramé. It was just a different time.”
Hungerford, I guess we could say, is primarily a portrait painter, although she enjoys painting outdoors. She appreciates a well executed landscape as much as anyone, and yet, as far as her taking up the brush to churn out a few of her own, “It’s just not my forte; I’m so drawn to the figure and people and gesture and activity. That kind of stuff. A tree is just not as interesting as a person to me.”
As for finding or selecting her subjects…
“Some of the work I do is commission work,” Hungerford says, “so whatever gets thrown your way you do.”
One may also notice a predilection for scenes at the shoreline on a bright and warm day.
“Sometimes I’ll go to the beach and I’ll just take random pictures because I like the light, the color, and whatever people are doing.”
Her palette seems to reserve very little room for darker hues, although – as her interlocutor points out – it would be interesting to see what she’d produce using more somber or even eerie tones.
“When I first started painting we did a lot of stuff that was darker,” Hungerford replies, “and then you kind of learn, no, that’s maybe too dark.” And what this leads to is some speculation as to just what extent we’re the masters of our own shop. Or, as various writers have said: I don’t choose my subject, it chooses me.
“I don’t know if I have total control over what inspires me,” she says. “One can exclaim, ‘Oh, I’d like to do that.’ Well, you can like to do that but it doesn’t mean that you can really accomplish that.”
Landscapes? Sure, she’d like to do them, but knows that painting them won’t be as easy or as satisfying as painting a six-year-old boy prancing on the sand next to the ocean. Apart from knowing our own strengths and weaknesses, there may be interior directives, subconscious leanings this way or that, and deciding for us what we’ll do before we’re even aware of our choice.
For the most part, art is still crafted by hand and is stamped with a human touch. Hungerford questions where our visual culture is headed now that the technological cavalcade is never-ending.
“Sometimes I wonder where my kind of work fits in,” she muses. “Are people aware of art or are we getting lost in the shuffle? And yet when people come to see work they are generally moved and they like it and they appreciate it, but there just seems to be a little bit of a disconnect [between] the people actually owning art and the average person – even owning anything handmade in their house anymore. You have your big screen TV and you have all these electronics, but do you have a handmade quilt, something that’s hand-created? We’re holding our little torch up, our little flag, going hey, don’t forget about that kind of thing because it’s important; it really is important.”
Our absorption in the latest technologies may be fostering shorter attention spans, but one benefit, as Hungerford emphasizes, is an immediate access to whatever kind of art is being done. It’s now about exposure, and thus new ideas:
“So you have a big smorgasbord of stuff to really influence you,” she says, “which is kind of neat.”
Now it’s a new year, and Hungerford is clearly looking ahead.
“One thing people ask me about, Do you make a living? Then I’m like, Well, I do a little better every year. But how do you sustain yourself? It’s mostly through portrait work.
“So, I’d like to explore that more and market that better. I don’t like all that stuff, I’d just as soon shut my door and paint, [but] you really have to get real about the world we live in and bring art to people.” Not surprisingly, then, “One of my goals this year is to [create] a virtual gallery. It’s hard to get people out, too; they don’t come to stuff. Artists go to everything, but getting average people out and about, it’s hard. So I’m going to try to be more pro-active that way.”
We’re forever making New Year’s resolutions, but what we really need – all the time – is discipline and focus. Hungerford mentions that her husband, Grant, a professional musician, has to practice on his trumpet every day or he’ll lose his chops.
“I was working in the garage for three or four hours a day,” Hungerford says, “but when I got that studio (at The Loft) it was like, Okay, I’m going to go down there between 10:30 and 11, and I’m gonna be there till five, Monday through Friday. And I’ve accomplished a lot by just keeping those hours and not allowing myself to get distracted doing other things. You can’t expect to master something a couple of hours a day, or an hour a week, or ‘I’ll take an art class once a week.’ Well, that’s a hobby.”
Hungerford’s work is pleasing to the eye and often looks almost effortless in execution. But very few artists achieve a high standard of accomplishment without working very hard at it.
“You have to master the thing about yourself,” she says, “and if you paint every day you’re gonna face your ugliness or your weakness and you’ll get past it. But you have to go in there and go through that torture to accomplish what you have to accomplish.”
Transitions, painting by Carol Hungerford, is on view through Jan. 25 at The Loft, 401 S. Mesa (at Fourth) in San Pedro. The gallery is open to the public this evening, Thursday, from 6 to 9 p.m. (during the First Thursday Art Walk), and thereafter by appointment. (310) 831-5757.