Creating on the Road with Kelly Laughlin

KL: Walking through Arches National Park. (Photo: Dave Eassa)

After living in Arizona for a few years and after various road trips across Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah over the years, my spirit has fallen hard for the simplicity, vastness, and solitude of the Southwest. I fondly remember conversations with a woman I knew in Arizona; she told me stories about escaping the Midwest for California when she was eighteen, and about how she eventually settled in Arizona—a magical place that called to her whenever she was away.

A few weeks ago, artist Kelly Laughlin of Odette Press in Maryland began a road trip across the Southwest, and her posts reminded me of my love for this place and of the creativity and connection to be found amidst a landscape that can often be perceived as barren. To me, this place is anything but, and the whimsical marbled paper and dusty-colored minimalist paintings Kelly has created along the way are evidence of that.

A nomad at heart, I was also intrigued by her ambition to organize a portable studio and create on the road. This being something I hope to encourage through Goodall Creative, I reached out to Kelly to see if she might share her creative adventure with us.

Here are her words of bliss and wisdom:

Goodall Creative: What is the evolution of your creative journey in a nutshell?

Kelly Laughlin: In college, I studied printmaking and book arts at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. I learned about marbled paper and was so fascinated—the designs were so mesmerizing and the process seemed like a foreign language, like magic. After graduating, I had very little creative outlet and felt resigned to being an office zombie. I questioned my decision to attend art school, wondered how I’d ever make money, and figured working at a museum would be enough to sustain my creative practice.

A few months after graduating, I took a road trip with a friend. We drove from Baltimore to Los Angeles in four days. I saw parts of the country I’d never seen before—skies so big and vast, mountains so much taller than anything I’d seen or hiked in Baltimore. It reminded me why I love to make—because I am so in love with the natural world and everything in it.

When I got back from that trip, I made it my life’s task to return—to return to my creative core, to return to my physical body, to return to what brings me the most joy and expansiveness in my life. I took up a rigorous yoga practice, started running again, and established a community of creative and supportive friends and family members. I noticed that with the increased body awareness through my yoga practice that my creativity and desire to make increased. As a result, I taught myself to marble, started painting again, and started making marbled books. Learning to marble was the reminder I needed during that time—and times since—to just let go. Working with paint on water is a process that asks you, like meditation, to relinquish control. Marbling is a process that helped return me to my creative self, to the creative waters, literally refreshing and reviving my creative life. That was about five years ago, and I see no sight ahead of stopping.

KL: Marbled paper from Utah (left), a handmade sketchbook I made for the journey (top), and rock-study watercolors from the Rocky Mountains (right).

GC: Tell us about your recent adventure to the Southwest + how it has inspired your creative musings.

KL: I have always loved traveling on the road, but I especially have a fondness for the Southwest. The colors and shapes out here are incredible—have you seen the pink rocks of Arizona and Utah, the dusty gray-greens of sunworn plants on the mountainsides? The sloping of a mountain reminds me of a strong backbend, and the winding hiking trails remind me of a marbled line moving across the water. I love the surprises in shapes, the openness of the sloping and winding road ahead. The openness, vastness, and silence of the desert give me so much life, and they have inspired me to paint, draw, write, and make nearly every day on this road trip.

GC: What all do you carry in your portable art studio?

KL: My portable art studio is comprised of paper marbling supplies (trays, brushes, inks, water, and a binder clip drying system) that I keep in a suitcase; painting supplies (gesso boards, paint brushes, and acrylic paints) that I store in an overnight bag; and three notebooks that I made for the purposes of my journey (a blank marbled notebook for intentions and to-dos, a lined journal for written reflections, and a sketchbook for quick captures of colors and symbols of the trip). I have my guillotine paper cutter stashed behind the passenger’s seat, and the finished products for Odette Press in a plastic container in my trunk.

KL: Marbling on the beach on my birthday in Moab, UT, along the Colorado River. (Photo: Dave Eassa)

GC: What were some of the challenges in preparing your portable art studio + how did you resolve them?

KL: In Denver, I decided to incorporate acrylic painting into my practice on top of suminagashi marbling and watercolor—I wanted the texture and flatness of acrylic. For the sake of space, I picked up a small wooden box, but wasn’t sure how to navigate paint and brushes to fit in that space. I ended up cutting the brushes down and limiting my palette so everything would fit. In that way, I think setting boundaries and limitations can be an interesting way to work.

Another challenge is keeping work and supplies safe. I have different spaces in my car for different things, but on occasion my belongings get thrown around depending on bumpy roads and how impatient I get. The answer I’ve found most helpful is making sure to have assigned spaces for things to live and sturdy containers with hard sides so items don’t get squished by things shifting around or by the haphazard throwing of things while barrelling down the road.

GC: What is meaningful to you about creating on the road?

KL: I am inspired by the changes in landscape and love seeing the differences in color and shape in nature even between a few miles. While in Moab, I’d see a mountain on one side of the road that looked soft and sloping, as though someone had very carefully sanded it down to be perfectly cared for. I’d then look over to the other side of the road where there’d be a similarly colored mountain, only the rock face would be jagged and squared off, as if someone had taken a chisel and hacked away at it.

I love that being on the move requires a careful attention and presence. It brings me into an awareness of both the subtle and profound differences and similarities between places. It also requires me to be very focused and intentional about what I create and how I create it, as I’m often making for shorter periods of time in between driving from place to place. In this way, the work is both being made now, but also simmering or distilling, and the road becomes research for future, larger projects.

KL: Painting in a hotel in Telluride. Reflections on time in Arches and Colorado. 

GC: What good came of the material limitations of a portable art studio?

KL: The material limitations mean I get to be creative about what I make and how I make it. It shows me that I really do have what I need to be successful. For example, in Sedona I really wanted to expand my palette and give myself more pinks to play with, because the colors in the rocks were so varied and the small palette I’d purchased in Denver was too limiting. I remembered the small enamel trays I typically use for marbling and used that for color-mixing instead of purchasing individual blends.

GC: How was your creative process different on the road than at home?

KL: At home, I focused mostly on creating books, cards, and papers for the purpose of selling. I would  do my creative work before heading to my office job, which meant I had far less time and energy to make more reflective paintings and drawings. With ample time and no office job anymore, my process on the road allows me to make based on what’s presently in front of me—incredible expanses of nature—rather than having to daydream or work from pictures. I can experience the textures, the shapes, the way light dances across a place, what the experience smells like, etc. It brings me more fully into an awareness of what’s around me, which then leads to an enrichment of the work I didn’t have when I was at home.

KL: Watercoloring inside a handmade sketchbook in Rocky Mountain National Park.

GC: Do you sell your work or do pop-up shows while on the road?

KL: Yes! One of the first things I did while on the road was set up my online shop, Odette Press. This allows for the possibility of selling on the road, because I just need access to a post office and shipping supplies. But I’d also love to find in-person opportunities to sell my work. I’ve been teaching paper marbling classes along the way, which I love because they have allowed me to expand my sense of community, something that is integral to my work. My work is both about me and the shapes and colors I make, but it is also significantly rooted in my experience being an educator and bringing a sense of creativity and inspiration to others.

GC: How would you change your portable art studio next time?

KL: Bigger paper! Also, bigger surfaces and more time in a place. I actually have quite a bit more room in my car than I’d originally thought, so I’d love to work bigger, and have even less of a plan the next time I set out so I can really get to know a place and give myself the time to be present with an image.

GC: What is the most useful advice you’ve been given as a creative?

KL: My meditation teacher, Sharda Rogell, said on a retreat this past June, “I love you, keep going.” Being on the road in general is both blissful and exhausting. Sometimes you just need the loving reminder of support to continue. Creative work is like the breath—it comes and goes, comes and goes. A reminder to keep going without letting the ego override or get inflated or deflated is a huge reason why I keep Sharda’s guidance in my mind.

KL: A custom marbled book order based on the landscape at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, CA; started in Baltimore, MD, and finished on the road and delivered to a friend in Long Beach, CA.

6 comments

  1. I agree. She’s my daughter but this journey has been a such an inspiring experience for her and for me. What a joy to see her experience all the things. I am so proud!

    1. You have much to be proud of! Kelly is a beautiful artist and lovely soul. I don’t have any children, but I imagine one of the best parts of motherhood is living vicariously through and being inspired by the dreams and passions of one’s child(ren).

  2. Thank you for sharing these words! I definitely connect with her on how natural beauty inspires creativity. There is no substitute for actually getting out in nature yourself, whether it’s a day trip, weekend trip or longer.
    Also, Kelly’s marbled paper is stunning!

    1. Her work really is stunning! I hope to take a marbling class from her someday. And you know all about creative inspiration and nature with your recent hike in Arkansas. 🙂

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