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A splash of realism: Duluth painter hones her style for animal paintings

Alexa Carson of Duluth works on a painting featuring an owl in her studio recently. Carson brings her love of bird-watching and nature into her work as a local wildlife painter, illustrator and designer. Owls and foxes are prominent in her paintings, some over pages out of old books. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com1 / 9
A photo of a bird and a prepared canvas sit on a table in the Duluth studio of Alexa Carson. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com2 / 9
Some of the brushes that Alexa Carson uses while she creats paintings of owls, foxes, and other wildlife. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com3 / 9
Alexa Carson uses a brush to add paint to the canvas of an owl painting she is creating in her Duluth studio. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com4 / 9
Paintings in progress rest against the wall in the studio of Alexa Carson a local wildlife painter, illustrator and designer. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com5 / 9
Alexa Carson smiles while looking at a painting she is creating in her Duluth studio recently. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com6 / 9
A finished owl painting created by Alexa Carson of Duluth. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com7 / 9
Alexa Carson brings her love of bird-watching and nature into her work as a local wildlife painter, illustrator and designer. Owls and foxes are prominent in her paintings. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com8 / 9
Artist Alexa Carson of Duluth works with a small piece of work featuring pages out of old books. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com9 / 9

Alexa Carson was greeted with sympathy at an art fair over her "damaged" canvases. It'd been raining that day, and her work has long drips of paint.

"They're supposed to be like that," Carson recalled saying with a smile.

The Duluth painter and illustrator uses this dripping technique in many of her larger paintings of foxes, owls and eagles.

Hers is a naturalistic style with a unique touch, said Lizzard's Art Gallery director Penny Clark. "The drips that come off the birds' wings just add to the dimensions of the painting," Clark said.

In one, an owl's wings are high on the canvas. Dark and light white drips fade into a background of brown and charcoal speckles. In another, a fox stares out with a muted smirk amid a gray terrain. Dark streaks appear smudged downward, mimicking drizzles of black falling from its paws.

"I've been in the art community for 38 years. I saw Alexa's work, and it wowed me," said Clark.

A fox acrylic painting by Alexa Carson.

Carson, 27, used to do photo-realistic portraits, which she was good at, but she often got caught up in the perfectionism of it, she said. She started using acrylic paints like watercolor at the Columbus College of Art and Design, where she was challenged to do quicker assignments. "It was a lot harder to learn how to paint loosely and more expressively than to do exactly what you see," she said.

"I'm still coming to terms with drippy looseness," Carson said.

I haven't seen that with acrylic, which is typically more dense in color and feel, Clark said. "Her colors are soft and painterly, but ... her birds look like the birds that she's portraying."

During a visit to Lizzard's last week, several of Carson's works hung at eye level. Some were birds painted onto pages. Each piece was a single image with earthy browns and creams in the background.

Carson likes highlighting animals this way. "So all of that focus can just be on that one soul ... and its perfectness, not my painting, but that species," she said.

On the subject of painting, Carson talks with her hands. She moved to Duluth three years ago with her husband, Jeremy.

Hung in her Piedmont home studio are works by their almost 2-year-old son, Jasper, and a picture of Carson holding two opossums. Resting on the floor are her larger paintings of birds, a deer. There's a tackle box of acrylic paints, brushes in a Mason jar and a Sony camera with a high-end lens.

She used the latter to capture an owl up the North Shore. From its photo taped next to her easel, Carson recreated its stern face and squinty, almond-shaped eyes. She dipped her paintbrush into a large plastic bin of murky water, as she worked on its face.

Also on her desk were pages pasted onto 4-by-6 canvases. There's a learning curve with painting on pages from old books because they can crack easily, she said. "I had to learn how to layer with gesso correctly and make it as manageable as possible. They are still a bit fragile," she said.

The end result, though, is a chickadee on sheet music for "Love's Old Sweet Song," a 3-D looking lizard on the start of a chapter titled "Return," a raven painted onto its page from the dictionary.

"People really like snowy owls painted on Harry Potter book pages," she said, adding that the books are still readable — she only uses the contents page. Whether her pairings are random or intentional, people find something that connects to them in the words or the painting, she said.

Carson started drawing animals and puppies when she was tiny, and she took every art class she could in high school. She fell more in love with animals when she started volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation center.

Today, she's an avid birdwatcher — her favorite spot is Sax Zim Bog — and she hopes her work will foster stewardship for the environment. "I really want to try to initiate a deeper connection with these species that are in our backyards, and are very much in our power to protect and care for."

A barn owl acrylic painting by Alexa Carson.

A favorite part of the process for Carson is painting the eyes. That's when a piece comes to life, she said. Owls are a go-to subject, which can be seen in a scan of her work. ("Sometimes, I have to force myself to paint other things," she said.)

A big draw is owls can be surreal, preciously adorable or frighteningly majestic, and they mate for life, she said. "They're so complicated, and I find them fascinating."

Her affinity for owls has caught on with her son. Whenever he sees an owl in a painting or a picture, he says "Hoo, mama," she said.

Carson and her husband are expecting their second child, and she said that parenting and being an at-home artist is a balancing act of pursuing your passion and family. A tip she learned from experience, "Stop feeling guilty and just do what you have to do for both."

• View Alexa Carson's work online at alexacarson.com or facebook.com/alexacarson, or at Lizzard's Art Gallery and Waters of Superior.

Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features and health reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

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