Carl Crawford’s greatest artistic influences — music, community, and his grandmother — have been with him since his formative years. He won his first art award in fifth grade through a competition sponsored by Providence Hospital, but his artistic interests preceded the coveted blue ribbon.
He recalls drawing as a young child, first using a coloring book, then advancing to freehand.
Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, he continued to pursue art, adding to his collection of awards along the way. In high school, he was exposed to a canon of art history that significantly expanded his portfolio of inspiration, namely Harlem Renaissance artist Romare Bearden, whose work opened the young artist’s eyes to collage media and abstract style, both of which were relatively new concepts for Carl. He says that during this experimental phase of his artistic growth, “I was fascinated with different art and artists.”
It was also during this time that he began to hone in on a concentrated subject matter: community. “Community,” Carl says, “is family, friends, dance, anything you see when you go out of your house.” He began to depict his grandmother, “Big Mama,” along with other figures and scenes that repeated themselves in his daily life.
“We are all influenced by our surroundings,” Carl says, and Big Mama, who raised him, was always a part of his. She remains a firm, but loving figure whom Carl respects greatly — enough to submit to her insistence that he complete post-secondary education even when, by the latter half of his high school years, he was already confident that he would pursue a career in art. Rather than distracting him from his passion, this endeavor only made him more dedicated to his creative pursuits. By age 25, he was fully invested in the artistic medium he later coined — and trademarked — Collage Illusion™.
Carl describes Collage Illusion as “painting with paper.” The process begins with flipping through magazines in search of shades to collect for a color palette. He has learned that thick paper with rich colors makes for the best raw materials. When a particular shade stands out, he uses an X-Acto knife to carve out his selection, distributes the scraps into bins organized by color, and repeats this process until he has enough paper on hand to start piecing together an image.
While there is certainly an art to curating tiny colorful scraps, one of the most distinguishing factors of Carl’s collage art is the support he uses to build his masterpieces on top of: glass. A series of trial and error led him to this material, preferable to its predecessors for its transparency and adherent qualities. Once he procures the right piece of glass for the project, he uses the X-Acto knife like a paintbrush to outline the subject matter onto the glass, lightly carving out lines that will dictate where he positions the colored paper scraps.
Larger, more detailed works like “Jazzy Reunion” and “Girl Gossip” require this step before the patchworking begins. For less detailed scenes, such as silhouettes against a simplified background, he skips this step and jumps straight into pasting scraps onto the glass, guiding the pieces together until, eventually, the image is revealed. He admits it’s a tedious process, one that can take anywhere from two months to two years, depending on the level of detail.
At a glance, the end result strongly resembles a painting. “It’s the illusion of paint from a distance, but when you walk up close, it looks like pieces of paper,” Carl says. His layering technique creates visual seamlessness, each sliver of paper connecting to the next as if they were cut from the same cloth. As stunning as this illusion is, the real hallmark of his art appears when a work is held up to a light source, revealing an effect that mimics that of stained glass. Layer upon layer of paper scraps form dark, shadowy sections of the work, while other portions of the image, consisting of only a thin layer of paper, allow light to pass through. The result: fragmented light illuminates the subject matter while the background fades into itself, creating depth, contrast, and a wow factor.
For Carl, the ability of his artwork to expose fragmented light is an extension of the literal and symbolic piecemeal qualities of his compositions, which he believes ultimately point to the fragmented nature of life. Symbolism is a predominant quality of nearly every aspect of his work, all of which is guided by four major principles: feel, energy, movement, and color. He believes intimate moments — many of which reflect these four principles — are captured through art.
“Every time I look at a work and the symbol behind it, the subject matter is movement; movement is high energy, and color gives energy. When you see the colors, what I’m trying to do is put you in a certain mood. Every color gives a sense of feeling and energy. If you can introduce the colors right, you can be in a certain place.” His job as an artist, he explains, is to understand the fragments of feeling, energy, movement, and color well enough to be able to combine them into a coalescence that conveys a particular mood or feeling — a responsibility he sums up as “capturing moments of passion.”
Carl is able to measure his ability to capture these moments by experiencing his art secondhand, through the eyes of his patrons. As his style and subject matter began to gain traction early in his career, he was moved by the depth of emotion his work engendered.
“My artwork brought the attention of people I never knew: tears, laughter, joy. From there, I knew what my purpose was: to become an artist, to enlighten others. When a person walks in my booth at an art show, they’re either going to come in there crying, laughing, full of joy, or wowed.”
The responses he receives are full of nostalgia: a piece from the Jazz Club collection reminds someone of the time they popped into a lively jazz club in Chicago; the depiction of Big Mama skillfully cutting away at a head of cabbage invokes a deep-bellied, empathetic chuckle from older generations that seems to say, “I know that chore;” something about a particular color, or the movement represented by a dancer’s bending arm, catches a pair of eyes, causing them to linger upon the subject matter.
Oftentimes, Carl says, people respond to the stories told by his artwork by launching into stories of their own, summoning memories from their childhood or places they have traveled to, sharing them with him in a cathartic manner. “If it can trigger you, whatever subject, then I’ve done my job.”
His other, and likely equally as creative, job is being a father to his 7-year-old daughter, Candace. She is depicted in his 2018 piece, “Butterfly Princess,” and continues to be a major source of inspiration for his art. Recently, Carl has picked up on his daughter’s knack for making art of her own and has consequently started to impart the skill of collage-making to her, confident that this is just the beginning of her connection to his line of work. “Anything that I do moving forward, I’m going to have her involved,” he says with assurance.
Candace follows in the footsteps of her great-grandmother and namesake, better known by Carl’s close relations and art collectors as Big Mama. Big Mama’s influence permeates her grandson’s work, and for good reason; after he spent a year in the foster care system as a child, she brought him into her care and has since remained his rock and arguably the most recognizable and prominent figure to appear in his artwork.
Carl’s “Big Mama” series depicts the firm, but caring female in her natural environment: within or around her shotgun-style home, minding daily tasks such as cutting cabbage, tidying up, and keeping a watchful eye over the neighborhood children from her porch perch. Altogether, Carl says, the series is a tangible tip of the hat to the matriarch of his family. He says of the collection of oil paintings, “Even though it’s not done in collage, it’s my foundation. It’s important that people know what my rock was that pushed me.”
At age 93, Big Mama remains a strong and resilient figure in Carl’s life. In the circular fashion of life, a natural role reversal has now posited him as one of her caregivers. The continuation of this close connection between the two inspired his vision of a final homage to his grandmother: Big Mama in angelic splendor. He is in no hurry to make this piece but has determined that it is only fitting to close out the “Big Mama” series in this way.
While preparing to complete one series, Carl is simultaneously exploring new artistic avenues in an effort to expand his footprint in the international art community. The advent of digital art through non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, provides a timely opportunity for Carl. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, travel was the name of his art game. He averaged roughly 40 shows annually, spread across the country with a heavy concentration in the Southeast: New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Seabreeze Jazz Festival, and Art Basel in Miami Beach, Florida, to name a few. The exhausting schedule came to a screeching halt in 2020, forcing him to focus primarily on private commissions until the world started to reopen and he caught wind of the NFT market.
He moved quickly to get his foot in the door and has since launched Collage Illusion on OpenSea, an NFT marketplace. Several of his pieces from the “Movement” collection, familiarly characterized by abstract dancers with twisted limbs and the use of a bright, bold color palette, can be found on this platform. He is also working with Robert Matheson, founder of the NFT Museum in Newberry, South Carolina, to better understand and take advantage of the opportunities available to artists in the digital marketplace. The appeal of this avenue lies in its potential for a relatively unrestricted reach, Carl says. Instead of traveling around the nation, his art can now travel around the world.
Regardless of where they end up, each of Carl’s pieces begins in Columbia, pieced together in his at-home art studio. For an average-sized work — 24 inches by 36 inches — the creative process takes about two to three months. He takes on anywhere from five to 10 projects at a time, code-switching as necessary to create simultaneously several distinct pieces of art. Larger, more detailed pieces warrant a significantly longer lead time, averaging one to two years. “Jazzy Reunion,” for example, was two years in the making. For Carl, though, the precision of the process is more important than the time it takes to complete it — both in art and in life.