CAROLINE ADAMS wanted someone to be looking over her shoulder.
That’s why the 35-year-old painter launched a Kickstarter campaign last October to raise $5,000. By mid-month she had revised her goal upward, to $10,000. By the end of the month she had raised some $13,000. Of course money always helps, but the young mother of two was really looking to be held accountable. How else was she going to achieve her goal?
The goal was to paint 50 small egg-tempera panels in 10 months, abstract landscapes all. “I wanted to do some work with egg tempera,” she says from her home in Northwest Washington. And, like telling friends you’re going on a diet, announcing her intention meant “I really had to do it.”
“I needed a project to take me through the year,” she says. And she needed “a push” to do it.
In her Kickstarter proposal, Caroline had written, “I often think of my smaller work as being part of a larger whole. I envision the whole room full of small, intimate glimpses of one larger, shared landscape.” That whole is on view at Susan Calloway Fine Arts in Georgetown, where Caroline has rented space through August 30. Mountains and valleys undulate seemingly from one wood panel to the next; muscular clouds gather overhead. Hung in a group right next to one another, the paintings do indeed suggest one larger, shared landscape.
Caroline explains that she loves doing the slow brushwork that egg tempera requires, building layer upon layer of translucent color until she decides she’s done. Sometimes she adds a bit of oil paint to make some detail denser.
My well-informed friend Wikipedia tells me that egg tempera has been used for well over 1,000 years. Images in Egyptian sarcophagi were rendered in the medium; painters such as Botticelli used it on wood panels of extraordinary luminosity–viz., the Florentine master’s “Birth of Venus,” known to jokesters as Venus on the Half-Shell.
(Wiki also tells me that all the wood panels painted by Michelangelo that survive were done in egg tempera. Conversely, egg-based paint is too fragile for canvas, while oil paint has the flexibility canvas requires.) Twentieth-century painters such as Thomas Hart Benton and Andrew Wyeth helped revive the medium; contemporary egg-tempera artists include Sandro Chia and the Chinese artist Jie Yang.
So Caroline began painting last fall, 10 to 15 paintings in a batch, depending on size, often sharing the kitchen table with her children’s homework and coloring. Making the paint requires separating out the egg white, of course, but also piercing the yolk’s membrane and using only the gooey liquid inside, which binds the mixture of ground pigment and water. The yolk of one egg goes a long way, Caroline says, to explain why her family did not benefit from a bonanza of angel-food cakes during the months of painting.
There were a few bumps along the way, which she shared with her Kickstarter contributors. One day in February, for instance, she forgot to refrigerate the egg yolk at the end of the day’s work. Next day she tried working with the room-temperature yolk but gave up after about 10 smelly minutes and started fresh. Her Kickstarter update for that week, titled “The Eggs Smell Bad, But the Painting Is Going Great,” read in part, “Despite the olfactory setbacks, things are moving right along in my small studio in Northwest DC.”
Another Wiki gem has to do with that very eggy “fragrance”: Mediaeval icon artists who painted their egg-tempera images directly on church walls often added liquid myrrh to their paint mixture to add a pleasant scent and mitigate the eggs’ sulfurous stench, which could linger for quite a while afterward in the close confines of a church.
The Kickstarter contributors–there were 73 of them, two of them pledging “$1,900 or more”–have been able to follow the painter’s progress through her updates. They will also own pieces of the project: Caroline will choose a monotype for each contributor of $75, and 19 contributors who pledged $350 or more will get one of the egg-tempera paintings; the bigger the contribution, the bigger the painting.
Caroline, who signs her name Cari, grew up in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and went to the Rhode Island School of Design to study printmaking. She lived in Greece for several years and studied painting with Jane Pack at the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts.
The international lifestyle continues because Caroline’s husband, Christopher Saenger, is a foreign service officer with U.S. AID. He has served in Iraq and Jordan, and they spent three years as a family in Quito, Ecuador. Some of Caroline’s oils painted in that two-mile-high capital reflect the misty magic of the undulating Andes.
In a year or two the family–Chris, Caroline, 8-year-old Bea and 6-year-old Charlie–will pack up again for a new foreign posting. But that will probably suit Caroline just fine: Eggs are available just about everywhere.
“50 Paintings in 10 Months,” Susan Calloway Fine Arts, 1643 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20007; 202-965-4601; callowayart.com.