Please explain what just happened.

I just took a breath and blinked at the same time.


What is your earliest memory?

My parents’ benevolent, smiling faces; myself, expressing delight as only an infant can; hearing those sounds gurgling out of me.


If you weren’t an artist, what other profession would you choose?



Describe a typical work day.

Lately, I’ve been starting the day writing or reading, and just looking at whatever projects I’m working on. Then a workout, during which I process impressions of what I saw and get my energy going for the day.  Then I get to work.  If I’m on the computer I generally try to do that during the daylight hours, because it seems to disrupt my sleep, though more often than not, it ends up spilling into the night, too…it’s hard for me to stop working, once I begin. If I’m printing in the darkroom, it’s an all day affair…I can very happily get lost in there. And when I paint, I pretty much always paint at night, into the wee hours of the morning, though I’m thinking about stirring that up a bit… like maybe going to bed early, and painting in the other wee hours of the morning, on the other side of sleep.



Is there a time you wish you’d lied?

Yes, one time in particular comes to mind, when being honest actually led to an interpretation by someone that was much further from the truth.  My honest answer was taken out of context, and I didn’t have an opportunity to fill in the redeeming details.  In this case I think it would have been much less damaging, had I lied in a way that would have led to an impression more consistent with the truth.  But truth is very important to me, especially in my work.


What would you say to yourself if you could go back in time and have a conversation with yourself at age thirteen?  

I’d say, “Much of what you think matters, now, will have little relevance for you in just a few years.”  I loved school, but I there were times at that age, when my social life took over my concerns in a way that was disproportionate to the parts of my life that had lasting value.  In the end, probably all of it was necessary to my growth; it fed my artistic development because of the richness of the experience and the need to do something with it. All those intense teenage feelings were a potent, driving force for my art.  I wanted to make use of them so they didn’t just make use of me.  I needed to do it.



If you could have only one album to get you through a breakup, what would it be?

That’s a hard one, since there’s so much great music really perfect for that…but I guess during my last significant breakup I listened a lot to Alicia de la Rocha playing Granados’ Goyescas.  It has this quality of resilience, turbulence, intensity of emotion, and it keeps on moving, which is what I think one has to do during times like that.  Major breakups produce so much energy, and of a particularly raw, uncovered kind…I most of all want to make use of that opportunity, to see what I can find there that in ‘normal’ times remains comfortably latent.


What are three websites—other than your email—that you check on a daily basis?

New York Times, The London Financial Times, and NPR.



From what or whom do you derive your greatest inspiration? 

A sense of possibility. The work of remarkable, conscientious people, in any field. Great music probably has the most consistently profound effect on me, though… it gets into me in so many different ways, physically, emotionally, intellectually.  I think there was a Harvard study, a few years ago, showing that listening to music engages more parts of the brain than any other activity they tested, and for me that is certainly true.  It also has a way of illuminating and activating parts of me that otherwise might be left in the dark, asleep.


Name three books that have impacted your life.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays; Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet; and a book called All and Everything.


If you could relive one moment over and over again, what would it be?

My birth.


How are you six degrees from Kevin Bacon? 

The same way I imagine most people in the arts are six degree from Kevin Bacon:  I probably know some people who either know him or who know someone else who does…. It’s really a pretty small world, which I guess was the point.   It does beg the question of how interconnected we all are, though.  Which brings to mind another coined phrase, ‘the butterfly effect.’   Most of what we do in our daily lives is a link in a chain, a result of some cause, in turn producing a subsequent response in other people.  It makes me want to try to be the cause of more of my own causes… to learn what true initiative is about, and to become more capable of it.


What makes you feel most guilty?

I feel guilty when I don’t put the most important things first, like the people I’m close to, and especially, my work.



How do you incorporate the work of other artists into your own? 

I believe it was TS Eliot who distinguished between artists who imitate and artists who steal.  In my case, if someone’s work is incorporated into my own, it’s only after I’ve taken it in, digested it, and assimilated it into what I am, as a person. In this sense, I steal. I take it for my own and make it mine. And then it might come out in my work, but it’s from the inside out. I never try to emulate surface qualities, without knowing for myself, what produced them…finding it in my own experience.  That’s what I think it means to imitate. To do so feels dishonest to me, like I’m speaking a language without knowing the meaning of the words. My most potent work comes from my own experience; otherwise, I think it can only be an approximation.

But to answer that question slightly differently, I do learn from the work of others.  So much of my artistic education has come from getting intimately familiar with work of others.  I grew up looking at a lot of extraordinary art.  It inspires me to aspire toward something even higher, and helps me to see more of what is possible.  It can awaken or stir something deep inside.  It also sometimes gives me another way in—a side door, so to speak. Or it can give me something to push away from, or help me to become clearer about what I’m doing by articulating what I am not doing.




Please explain the motivation/inspiration behind Resonance and Reverberation.  

That was the title of a recent solo show at the William Siegal Gallery.  It included two related projects: photographs from a project called Glimpses, and a group of paintings. Your question is probably best answered by what I wrote for the show:

Glimpses is a series about nature of sudden insights.  These often come in ways that bypass the logical, contemplative mind; they pierce through the surface of one’s usual mode of existence, and find a deeper truth. The project was conceived to set the stage for the emergence of these kinds of insight in a visual way. The images were taken from a moving car, on interstate highways across the United States.  I used speed to invoke an intuitive collaboration between emotion, intellect, and action.  Doing so depends on recognizing, in a split second, a resonance between the total of what I see, and an inner truth. Two other themes are inflection and limits.  In mathematics, an inflection point refers to the place where a curve changes direction.  Like the point in time where the future turns into the past; breathing in becomes breathing out; coming becomes going.  These photographs show both coming and going in one frame, which means that there must be a decisive point, also embedded in the image, where one shifts into the other.  A related mathematical concept is limits, which can never be defined precisely with a number; they can only be continuously approached, to infinity, with more and more numbers after the decimal point.  In human terms, this can be similar to an intuition that one pursues, despite not knowing exactly how to say what it is.

The paintings also have to do with insight.  But instead of using the outside to see in, they are direct expressions of an inner reality.  They are like musical improvisations in color, stroke, and form.  Each painting is completed in one sitting, late at night, as the experiences of my day reverberate within me.  They echo within the walls of my thoughts and emotions, and are absorbed.  Over the course of several hours, the painting becomes a physical entity of its own, one that I can later look at and see what I was, from the outside in.

My aim is to get to the essentials of experience, without the details of a narrative.   In this way the deeply personal might suggest the more universal, if it also speaks to the essential in other people.”



What is the best advice you’ve ever given to someone else?

Recently a friend was trying to get over a guy she had been totally in love with. She couldn’t stop thinking about him.  I told her to begin by making small changes in the everyday aspects of her life.  Get up 5 min earlier or later, put on the other pant leg first, change the words you habitually use…then work your way up to the more significant things, and you will find that you start thinking in new patterns. The triggers are shifting so your associative thinking changes, too.  It’s amazing how much of a difference it can make if you really put it into action.


List your favorite in the following categories:  Comedian, Musician, Author, Actor

Sorry… it would take me at least a week to decide.  I might be able to list five in each category, but narrowing it down from there would be hard. I don’t really have absolute, exclusive favorites of anything.



If you had complete creative license and an unlimited budget, what would your next project be?

I have two large projects in development right now, both of which will require some major funding.   I’m not saying too much about them yet, but one of them will require a lot of high-resolution scanning, and large-scale printing. The other project will probably involve a specific type of treated glass, or possibly zinc and magnesium sheets. Both projects could essentially be considered portraits, but not in the typical way you think of that word.


What do you want to know? 

How to know without losing the possibilities inherent in not knowing.   In other words, how to maintain an openness of perception, while also continuing to understand more.



What would you like your last words to be? 

‘I’ve said all I needed to say.’  And, I would also say, ‘Thank you, I love you.’  I hope I’m with someone I love.


Please explain what will happen. 

I will probably continue to breathe, and blink again.

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CAROLA CLIFT was born in Santa Fe in 1974. The arts were an integral part of her life from the time she was born. Clift’s first languages were musical and visual. She began studying piano at age four, and has been painting and using a camera for as long as she can remember. She grew up in an accomplished artistic family: her father William Clift is a noted photographer; her mother Vida, a Harvard-educated PhD in English Literature, taught at St. John’s College; her brother Will is a sculptor; her great uncle was actor Montgomery Clift.

Clift’s early development was influenced by close family relationships with several remarkable artists of the time, including Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Caponigro, and Eliot Porter. At sixteen, she began studying piano more seriously with Jan Pytel-Zak, an exceptional Polish concert pianist and former student of Claudio Arrau. She decided against applying to exclusive art or music schools; art was already an essential part of her. Instead, she craved a broad public education and the diversity inherent to it. She graduated from UC San Diego in 1997, magna cum laude and phi beta kappa, majoring in Political Science (with an emphasis on both empirical research and philosophy), and minors in music and science. Throughout this time she was avidly photographing and painting in her own studio, and showing her work periodically to selected eyes. She attended UCLA Law School briefly, leaving when it became clear she would not be able to both be an excellent lawyer and the serious artist she already had become.

Clift had her first exhibit of paintings in 1999. This led to a commission for a photographic portrait of the Nathaniel Owings house in Big Sur (a founding member of the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill), which in turn led to her first solo show of photographs at PhotoEye Gallery. Concurrently, she began exhibiting her paintings at Owings-Dewey Fine Art. She also had shows with the Candace Dwan Gallery in New York and the RB Stevenson Gallery in La Jolla. In 2006 she purposefully left all of her galleries, feeling she had to break from that context in order to freely develop two ambitious new projects and to articulate the growing conceptual underpinnings of her work as a whole. She had a solo show of one of those projects, Glimpses, and a group of paintings, at the William Siegal gallery, earlier this year. She is the recipient of a Willard Van Dyke award in photography and a Robert MacNamara Foundation fellowship. She has been a full-time artist since 2001.

7 responses to “21 Questions with Carola Clift”

  1. Ann Morse says:

    You nailed it! Controlled,intelligent and thoughtful responses that went way beyond the questions.
    Images of your work played beautifully and were carefully paged throughout the interview.

  2. Tina Kane says:

    Thank you. It is beautiful, fresh, and I enjoyed reading, and looking, from start to finish. The images are compelling as are the words – the interplay so well balanced. I wonder if there is some way you could get music in there too? But how would that work? Or maybe not.

  3. H Davis says:

    Great interview and Carola Clift comes across as insightful and thoughtful. Extremely sad that none of those attributes come across in the work. The work is bland and unoriginal.

    • David L says:

      I’m surprised you find the work “bland and unoriginal”. To my sensibilities, I find the paintings thoroughly engaging, with masterly paint handling, and an emotional and spiritual depth. They are alive to me. “Original” is more delicate territory, that I won’t go into in this medium of brevity.

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  5. Hey Carola
    Do you think this bar is really going to re-open? Man, I really need it to open. This is New Yorker/stationary bike Bruce

  6. By the way, I’ve never had a nervous break down, but I got close enough that I could see it from there

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