Forging Feminist Culture: Carolyn Whitehorn On Sculpting, Homesteading, And Identity (Part 2)

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Guest columnist Mary C. Waters interviewed Carolyn Whitehorn.

One of the first artists to make jewelry with iconic feminist and lesbian symbols, Carolyn Whitehorn spoke in part one of this interview about how she came to start carving and why she continued.

You had a thriving business in Laguna Beach. Why did you leave?

One Tuesday, after tourist season was over, I drove to my storefront. It was bumper to bumper all the way, and I said, “I’m out of here.” That night I called a realtor and put my house on the market.

I bought land in northern California. Twenty acres with no running water, no electricity, no phone, no structures of any kind — just a creek, a spring, woods and meadows. My three oldest had left home, so I packed up the three youngest and moved. This was in 1978, and I was 41.

I went from a spacious home with mountain and ocean views to living off the grid in a cab-over-camper. The first winter, it got down to between zero and 10 above at night. To make a cup of tea in the morning, I melted the ice in the tea kettle.

A couple of years later, I purchased an old trailer, gutted it, rebuilt it, and lived there for ten years until I built my home. I drew the plans myself. I moved in when it was still bare Tyvec wall wrap—no siding or insulation. I slid pieces of plywood across the doorways and taped plastic over the window holes to keep animals out. It took me five years to save enough to finish the house.

What do you like about your place?

To carry on my business, I had had to develop a public persona that was nothing like my inner self. I am basically shy and crowd-phobic, so doing sales was hard. More and more I needed to spend time alone. Here in the country, days go by and I don’t see anybody, and it’s fine. I do hermit real good.

And it’s beautiful on my land. I see bears, deer, elk tracks in the meadow, and once, a mountain lion sauntering down my driveway.

How did you make a living?

I bought a small storefront in town where I displayed my work. My business in Laguna Beach had been quite successful, partly because my then-partner handled the mail-orders. I’m lousy with paperwork. So I had some pretty lean years up here.

What inspired you to return to sculpting?

My youngest turned 18 and moved out. I didn’t have anyone to support! Sculpting had been my passion from the time I could pick up a knife and find something to carve. In fact, many of my jewelry pieces are miniature sculptures.

I rented a garage and started working in bronze. The focus of my sculptures was women, women’s power, and powerful women. That year, 1984, was the beginning of many years of designing and creating sculptures that I continued to sell at women’s events.

What do you think of as your central identity?

For a lot of years my central being was that I’m a lesbian feminist artist. I was a wife for a number of years, I was a mother raising children for a number of years. I am still a lesbian and still a feminist. I am no longer producing art; I have too many physical limitations. And I miss it. But my identity is still as a lesbian feminist artist because being an artist has been so much of my life, all of my life.