Student Life Archives (2001-2008)

Get your Squeak on!

Bernell Dorrough

I like to believe that I am among the many Washington University students sleepily wandering through campus, bleary-eyed and oblivious to the myriad events and visiting speakers scheduled. Truth be told, this a lie I tell myself-and others-to avoid having to admit that I really belong to a much smaller group of students who do notice the calendars littered with infamous, intriguing, and informative speakers and still choose to sit at home in pajamas watching Family Guy episodes. But last Wednesday, my life as a student and a fledgling artist changed dramatically; the same artist whose book I’d been schlepping around U-City for the past year was the guest lecturer in Givens Hall.

Her name is Squeak Carnwath, and until last week, all I knew about her life and works was contained between pages one and one-hundred and eight of her self-titled collection of oil paintings that I had recovered so long ago from the soporific stacks of Steinberg Library. In addition to obsessively perusing the colorful pages, I had reread the preface, written by Squeak herself, convincing myself that we had oodles in common. She, too, had set fire to a bed in her childhood home by accidentally igniting the stash of art supplies hidden underneath-only she managed to quell the flames almost immediately, while my family had the indescribable joy of living with my grandmother until our house was rebuilt. When Squeak reminisced about her first painting class in Marblehead, Massachusetts, which she attended in 1956 with her dog and a handful of old ladies, I recalled the rumored stories floating around Bixby about Max Beckman riling the nerves of his students-elderly, wealthy “Sunday painters.” Despite this obvious wealth of knowledge about Squeak, I, like countless others, piled into the over-crowded room and anxiously awaited a slide talk directly from the artist herself.

Standing nervously behind the faux-wood finish podium in the corner, Squeak began her talk by confiding that she despised delivering these sorts of speeches and vowed never again to be convinced to talk in front of an audience for at least another ten years. She also implored those who desired to leave early to please do so, insisting that she would not be the least bit offended. Once comfortably drenched in darkness and decidedly in charge of the slide projector’s magic-twonger, Squeak revealed very personal and interesting snippets of her life and her own unique process of making art.

Squeak identified herself as a painter, displaying her characteristic mammoth oil paintings on square canvases. However, she is also an accomplished printmaker, ceramicist, and sculptor. Her works transform everyday objects and images into an iconic language brimming with sensuality and life. In her opinion, painting embodies the use of “built light,” while printmaking, for example, utilizes “available light.” Not surprisingly, the brilliant luminosity and vibrant color exhibited in her pieces demonstrate this point better than I ever could do in this article. One of her pieces titled “Pulse” is almost entirely covered in a radiant red that resonates that same familiar color filtering through closed eyelids. Towards the bottom of the canvas reads her familiar scrawled text: “If we close our eyes very tight we can see the colour of our pulse very clearly.” Squeak builds this effulgent light by adding the oil paint directly to the canvas with a palette knife. In places, the paint protrudes inches from the original level of the canvas.

In fact, several of her works have underpaintings, or layers that aren’t always necessarily apparent-at least not at first. Squeak explained that oil paints become more transparent over time and, eventually, the thinning pentimento reveals a whole new painting. This effect, which is “like old people’s skin, really,” allows Squeak to paint seemingly subliminal messages as an almost guilty pleasure. She admitted to including the controversial phrase “every woman’s right to choose” in one specific underpainting. She had always secretly hoped the painting would end up in the home of a Republican whose son would grow up to eventually become president. Another work of hers boasted an underpainting depiction of an old-fashioned phrenology bust. When I inquired about the origin of the image, she simply replied that she’d been drawing brains and it just made sense. She continued her explanation commenting that once she had admired exquisite phrenology heads and beautifully ornate Chinese acupucture models from a store window.

As you may have guessed, the subject of her work varies drastically; she claims to entertain even the dumbest of ideas as she is always in search for something new. Squeak has a whole series of paintings listing things that are round, yellow, blue, bad, etc. Even the everyday lives of her dogs-a nine-year-old fox terrier and her young Airedale-did not escape her creative eye. On a 60-inch by 60-inch oil and alkyd on canvas titled “Between” exists a delicate rendering of a hot dog-shaped plastic dog toy. Not immediately identifiable as such, Squeak still adheres to her assertion that all her paintings are very physical and sensuous, even “psycho-sexual.” Therefore, it was not surprising when Squeak named mad-scientist Rupert Sheldrake as one of her more predominant influences; he has written such books as “Dogs that Know When Their Owners are Coming Home and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals” and “The Sense of Being Stared At.”

In addition to referencing bizarre objects or crack-pot theories, many of Squeak’s paintings have an attached anecdote that she was kind enough to share with her attentive audience.

One early morning after returning home from working in the studio, Squeak, like usual, climbed into her cozy bed and gave her husband Gary a kiss. Much to her dismay, his only response was a very audible, yet sleepily muffled, “Tina.” The very next day she returned to her studio and, in extremely large lettering, scrawled the words “My Name’s Not Tina” across the entirety of a piece. Gary appeared to have little reaction to the painting and Squeak concluded that he was indeed faithful. However, she did warn her listeners to inform her if Gary Knecht was ever seen with a woman named Tina.

Once while meticulously painting the words “I’m Sorry” over and over again onto a large painting with only a tiny brush, she was rudely interrupted by phone calls apparently one too many times. In seeming retaliation, Squeak concealed the therapeutic and ethereal words with an enormous, black, and even more therapeutic “Shut-Up.”

Not all of her pieces carry such a light-hearted and amusing tale. In her current hometown of Oakland, California, a man violently ended his own life after a dismal lover’s quarrel. His body was found on the doorstep of Squeak’s building, and she thought it only appropriate to produce a piece dedicated to his memory. The rich, thoughtful work is titled “The Man in Love,” and the word “belief” is written across the top.

By the close of Squeak’s colorful slide show presentation I had ascertained several truths about her life. She, much like myself, prefers an almost entirely nocturnal existence, which she captures in a piece appropriately titled “Virtue.” Ironically, when she sleeps, her dreams are “incredibly boring… [for instance] I might dream about doing errands so I don’t have to do them.” She is also a terrible student who, likewise, loathed art history classes and the boring, rote memorization associated with them. She even failed art history, resulting in the incompletion of her B.F.A. In stark contrast to my doomed fate, when she applied to an M.F.A. program in 1975, the B.F.A. prerequisite was simply waived. I was officially enamored with her.

When I approached her at the reception-liquid courage in hand-my excitement was barely controllable. I resembled a small child with an intense urge to urinate, my weight shifting rapidly from one foot to the other. She graciously accepted my invitation for an interview and agreed to share any other interesting tidbits of her life that came to mind.

And now, the answer to the question that I’m sure you’ve been thinking all along. Is her name really Squeak? Well, yes…and no. She was born premature, and, for lack of a better name, her parents called her “Pipsqueak.” Her birth certificate officially reads her mother’s name, Shirley, a name both she and her mother always hated. Consequently, she has always answered to Squeak; it appears on her credit cards, taxes, and driver’s license.

Currently, Squeak Carnwath teaches two afternoon classes a week at the University of California at Berkeley and spends the remainder of her time in studio. She works on several paintings and drawings at once and spends, on average, about $2,000 dollars a month on paint. Interestingly enough, she attempts to advocate the right of small paintings to be sold at the same price as large paintings since “it is equally as hard or harder for a small painting to make the ‘same punch’ on the wall.” Her only advice for fellow artists is as follows: “Work hard and take care of your work-no one else will. Read art magazines, go to shows, galleries, and go to studio!”

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