Paintings hanging in the studio of Carmen McNall.

Where are you from and where do you reside?

I was born in the Bay Area and have lived here all my life. I am currently living in Oakland, CA.

What’s your favorite part of living in Oakland?

I live in a very industrial part of Oakland, there are train tracks nearby, a huge concrete factory and a flour mill. It feels like a place of the past with people always working, hands-on productivity that inspires me and reminds me of the hands-on aspect of my work. I love my community in Oakland, the many artists in this city I am surrounded by. The unity that exists here especially in this hard time is so strong. People support each other and look out for one another. I also love that you don’t have to go far to get away from city life to see the ocean or set foot in nature and be in the quiet alone. I love this town with all my heart and feel lucky to live here and have grown up in this place.

What themes or motifs are you consistently drawn to?

My work tells the story of female figures of strength, their essence, and role in the world. I am drawn to handmade objects from ancient times and the present, meaningful items that people choose to hold on to and carry through life. I take pride in practicing a handmade trade passed down through generations, aiming to preserve the significance of a past time and place.

Two bright, abstract paintings by Carmen McNall on a wall.

How do the different elements of pattern come together in your works?

Each pattern and texture in my work has a purpose, it represents and describes a specific element or surface, like a symbol. The composition informs the pattern and the pattern informs the piece.

Do you find that environment relates to your work?

My environment plays a significant role in my work, often my personal collected treasures show up in my paintings interacting with one another, creating new scenarios. I believe that every place and object has energy and this energy interacts with us. This is why places and objects can hold such spirit and importance, inspiring and guiding us.

Where do you find your day-to-day inspiration?

I am inspired by textures and patterns I find in both nature and the synthetic world. Items that I have collected over the years that hold a significant, personal power. I am interested in the relationship between people and their environments and the connection that fastens us to our items of importance. I like to think of artifacts from old and modern times that tell intimate stories that can never truly be known.

A series of bright paintings in the studio of Carmen McNall.

To what extent are the patterns you use in your work invented?

Most of the patterns are inspired by textures I find, often objects I find in nature such as rocks or shells or patterns and textures of weavings and textiles I come across. I am interested in the history and techniques of textiles and weavings and the intimate stories they tell.

I don’t limit myself to what may inspire a pattern or texture. I try to take walks with my eyes open and aware and at times there is something that really catches my eye and I hold onto it, creating my own interpretation and repeating it in my work like a language.

Each pattern is both invented and inspired by existing objects and items.

Why did you choose to work with wood?

My process today is influenced by my background in printmaking. When I first began printmaking and learning the different techniques, I was drawn to woodcut. It was the most direct and physically intimate of the processes – it felt the most intuitive. With woodcut you can instantly see the mark you make and within the mark there is so much life and movement. Often in printmaking the woodblock itself is just used as the matrix for printing and is hidden away or destroyed. To me, the woodblock had more life and story than the print itself. I chose to work with the concept of the wood carving being the final piece, using the carve marks to create texture, movement and dimension in the work. Working with wood can be a battle and there is a lot of resistance you face; It’s a process of learning to work with mistakes and honesty.

Painting by Carmen McNall of the torso of a figure wearing a floral-patterned dress.

It feels like a place of the past with people always working, hands-on productivity that inspires me and reminds me of the hands-on aspect of my work.

Carmen McNall

Are there any aspects of your process that are left to chance?

Everything in my process is very intentional and planned out, however, I like to create room for unexpected moments in my creative process. The wood in many cases takes the lead and my carve marks must follow. The hand carved marks are very spontaneous in my work, they trace the history of the piece being made and show themselves for what they are. Nothing can be hidden when carving wood, every mark that is made is there forever and there is an unreplicable, handmade quality to the process that I love.

What is the most difficult part of the artistic process for you?

One of the most difficult parts of the artistic process for me is knowing when to stop and when a painting is finished. Knowing that exact instant that nothing else can make the piece better and will in fact only begin to destroy it. It is a fine line to walk.

How do you choose the colors that go into your work?

The colors in my work tend to change series-to-series. I become temporarily obsessed with certain combinations and find myself unable to use any other colors. When I create a composition or design for a piece I almost immediately know what colors I want to use. It's like a gut instinct, and the decision I am most sure of when creating.