Brilliant color and dynamic forms define Orin Carpenter’s poignant paintings

Mary Corbin, 48 Hills, 3 May 2021

Orin Carpenter became an artist because he needed to breathe. Growing up in the South, he learned at an early age that he was different. Originally from Memphis, Tennessee, Carpenter likes to say he was Southern raised but West Coast braised. “My artistic voice was cultivated here,” he said.

Fortunate to have been raised by two conscious, educated, and passionate parents who made him aware of his difference, they also made sure he was proud to be a person of color. As he navigated through the streets and culture of his childhood, he realized that not everyone agreed with his love for his culture. His mother would take him and his brother to the library on Saturdays in his early development years. “She told me, ‘This is one place you can travel the world for free. You can become anyone you want,’” Carpenter said. 

But the challenges only increased as he grew into his truth as a young African American man. Carpenter realized that the beautiful worlds he encountered in the library could be brought to life with the stroke of a pencil. His imagination became his escape. Like the superheroes he admired in comic books, art became his super-power.

His first inspirations evolved from the artists of the Harlem Renaissance because their stories were similar to his own. Able to visualize their emotions, he recognized how he was encapsulated into their work. Along with this influence are his own experiences: people, nature, and a passion for life. “All these elements help me to reflect on the life graph I have been fortunate to live and how I’ve been blessed,” he said. A spiritual man, Carpenter is inspired by a quote from feminist theologian Mary Daly, “It is the creative potential itself in human beings that is the image of God.” 

His vibrant and impactful paintings capture his passion in an expressive manner, from beginning to end in his creative process. When entering his studio, he takes a moment to pause before jumping in. First, he breathes, reflects, prays, and meditates. Then he organizes materials and sets up the space. Next, he selects his music for the day and answers texts to eliminate future distraction. He meditates a second time on the ideas for his work.

Finally, he begins to create. His essentials are simple, the most important tools are pencil, pen, or stylus. “I’m a conceptual person and every work begins with a drawing,” Carpenter said. He translates ideas from his mental space into a tangible place, whether it be drawn on a piece of paper, napkin, his hand, or a smartphone—some place for the idea to rest, awaiting birth, then coming alive physically on a surface. 

Carpenter’s work has been evolving through the pandemic. Though always socially conscious, most notably in his figurative series In Danger Species, current events have given his work new context and energy that has guided him to be more experiential and daring in his approach. This is palpable in abstract works from his Quarantine State of Mind series. A collection of intimate portraits, Reflections, takes yet another integrated turn, capturing character and mood in brilliant color and form. Carpenter builds upon existing series, synonymous with how lives grow and transform, while also working on a new series dedicated to women of color and their strength throughout these difficult times. 

Carpenter was once told by a mentor that as an artist one has an obligation to the world to educate, elevate, and challenge everyone who encounters one’s work. “I hope I live up to that challenge and help us get to a place where empathy is honored and not despised. I pray that art will help create dialogue where we talk to each other instead of at each other and practice active listening as well,” he said. Another inspiration surfaces, from Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” 

Carpenter has much in the works to exhibit broadly this year. He showed most recently in February at Macy’s Union Square in the “Black History; Black Brilliance,” exhibition in conjunction with the Art of the African Diaspora 2021 event at the Richmond Art Center. He is artist-in-residence at the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art in Novato and will exhibit that work in late 2021. 

He will be represented in nascent publication, Artists of the Bay Area Book, created by Jen Tough Gallery in Santa Fe, NM, release date pending. Carpenter is also forming a new relationship with the Artize Galleryin Palm Springs. Carpenter is also Director of the Visual & Performing Arts Department at Marin Catholic High School where he taught for fifteen years.