Studio visit on the East Austin Studio Tour: Caitlin McCollom

The art of the open studio tour? Answering the same questions


For artists, the East Austin Studio Tour — arguably Austin’s largest arts event — proves a stamina-testing whirl.

Caitlin G. McCollom’s studio is in the heavily tour-trafficked Pump Project complex, home of some 40 artists as well as two artist-run galleries, Pump’s own gallery and the Icosa Collective’s.

The routine of EAST for an artist repeats in “Groundhog Day”-like manner when each new wave of visitors passes through your studio.

“Are you the artist?”  “How did you make these paintings?” “How long have you had this studio?” “What kind of paint do you use?” “It smells good in here.”

(That last comment the result of a scented candle McCollom had placed in her studio.)

Late on the last afternoon of the two-weekend event, McCollom is still remarkably alert and friendly, though weariness shadows her composure. New visitors fill her small, high-ceilinged studio. Beer cups in-hand have replaced the coffee cups from earlier in the day. The questions begin.

“How do you make these paintings?” “These are paintings, right?”

On bright white backgrounds McCollom paints swooping swirls of blue and red. Cloud-like or teardrop-shaped, the forms are enigmatic, like vibrant, aqueous Rorschach tests. McCollom’s compositional strategy is to leave considerable white space around each shape, a tactic that lends her paintings a symbolic potency.

McCollom explains to her visitors that she uses high-flow acrylic paints mixed with water, a technique that creates an aqueous effect with small bubbles and watery striations emerging in the blue and red shapes.

“The paint has the viscosity of blood,” McCollom explains. It’s a comment that raises a few eyebrows but for McCollom, it’s sincere.

“Color is the principal part of my personal symbology. The blue and red I’m using in my paintings represent blood and water, complex and deep symbols of physical and metaphysical meaning.”

McCollom paints on Yupo, paper made of polypropylene plastic that is waterproof and hence completely unabsorbent. (Yupo is marketed as washable paper.) Unlike when paint is applied to canvas or paper, with Yupo pigment remains completely on the paper’s surface resulting in paint colors at their most vibrant and intense.

People tend to examine McCollom’s paintings intensely, trying to make sense of how they’re made.

“I’m using what are actually very traditional methods in my work, but it’s a process people have a difficult time detecting,” says McCollom. “I think that unknowable process adds a mystery. And I’m fascinated by the unknowable, mystical aspects of human existence.”

McCollom has rented a studio at Pump Project for three years. She is lucky. As art co-working spaces in Austin are concerned, Pump Project remains affordable because it is governed by an artist-run non-profit. (Popular EAST destination Canopy is developer-owned.)

“There’s nearly 500 people on the waiting list to get a studio here,” she says.

Most days finds McCollom at work in her studio. Her art is her sole livelihood. And like many artists of her generation, McCollom, 30, is a solo entrepreneur.

“That traditional model of artists having a gallery that exclusively represents and promotes them — that just doesn’t happen here in Austin and it never occurred to me to even look for that kind of situation,” she says.

Her paintings sell to private collectors and are in institutional and corporate collections including Kendra Scott, the Hilton Worldwide, the Rabboni Institute and Texas Tech University. She operates her own online store. During our visit, a private art broker comes to collect a portfolio of photographs of McCollom’s paintings to show a client.

McCollom grew up in Dripping Springs when the town was, she notes with a grin, “still very much a small country town outside Austin, not the kind of cool suburb of Austin it is now.”

She announced her desire to be an artist early on. Her parents shrugged. “It just didn’t register with my parents what it was I wanted to do and at some level it still doesn’t,” she says.

At Texas State University in nearby San Marcos, McCollom studied painting. But a ventilation flaw in the art department’s then-new building meant students couldn’t study the craft of oil painting with its rigorous techniques. (The studios are now properly vented.)

“I started painting with acrylic and just never stopped,” McCollom says.

Once past art school, however, her creative forays involved not so much painting as different modes of performance art. But after a few years experimenting she dropped performance from of her artistic practice.

“My mentor in art school told me that the best tool in an artist’s studio is the trash can,” she smiles. “My painting is now my total focus.”

From the clerestory windows in her studio we can see the sky growing darker. There is only a half hour before the tour ends for the day. McCollom is relaxing for a moment in a red velvet armchair. Then a new passel of visitors wanders in.

“How did you make these paintings?”

“It smells good in here.”

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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