The unbearable lightness of linoleum

Band posters are the favored genre for a Rochester artist with a mindbending method
Bartow Bear
Photos by David Ditzel
Linoleum block artist Carla Bartow created this bear with balloons for Righteous Babe Records

Ask Rochester illustrator Carla Bartow which of her pieces she likes best, and she’ll answer, “It’s usually the one I just finished.”

Right now, that would be a promotional poster for a local band called The Driftwood Sailors: a digital mixed-media print that invites the observer to look through a porthole window to see a private moment between a mermaid and a diver. Engaging and unusual, it’s just the kind of piece for which Bartow is known.

“I try to draw something you can’t take a picture of,” says Bartow, whose medium of choice is linoleum block printing. This method involves carving by hand tile-shaped blocks of linoleum to which she applies ink before pressing the image onto paper. The process is similar to woodblock printing, but linoleum is easier to carve. The end result is similar to a large and detailed rubber stamp.

Bartow’s work seeks to draw in the viewer. It could be an anatomy-based illustration—a goat with a halo or a bear with balloons—but the work is always eyecatching. She chooses subjects that people connect with, like animals or human bodies, but always one step removed.  “I don’t like to have eye contact in my pieces, so the subject is usually looking away, or eyes closed,” she says.

A Syracuse native, Bartow moved to Rochester to study illustration at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “Sticking with your art post-grad is another thing altogether,” she says. “I feel that I’ve really found my own voice and developed my own style.”

Bartow, with examples of her work in her home studio


Analog and digital

Bartow likes working with her hands, and her intricate designs become challenging mental puzzles when translated into linoleum. For example, she draws lettering on paper and then traces it onto the block backward so that the final text reads in the right direction. Once a linoleum block is ready, she inks and prints the image, then she scans these prints and continues to carve digitally by cutting out more layers in Photoshop.

Having a final digital product makes it easier to send her work to clients anywhere. “It’s always exciting when I send the client a digital image, and then I finally see it printed,” says Bartow, who caught her first glimpse of her Driftwood Sailors poster in a window while biking home.

Mermaid and diver poster designed for the local band Driftwood Sailors

Solitude and socializing

Bartow needs solitude to create her art, but she enjoys the social outlet that comes with her day job as a waitress at Orange Glory Café on East Avenue near the Eastman School of Music. It’s a popular spot among a lot of creative people where she can network and meet other artists. She shows her art at the café and often connects directly with people as they look at her pieces.

Running and yoga classes help Bartow to recharge her focus, while time spent drawing anatomical studies or plants in Highland Park Conservatory keeps her skills sharp. Bartow enjoys spending time on the Genesee River Trail, the canal, and at Mendon Ponds Park. One great thing about Rochester is that “nature is so accessible from the city,” she says.

Sharing work with fellow local artists also helps to feed her creativity. She’s observed that the art scene in Rochester has grown stronger, and galleries like The Yards and 1975 bring in a lot of shows that might not otherwise make it to the area. Attending 1975 Gallery’s National Poster Retrospecticus in April solidified Bartow’s full-time focus on concert posters and music-related art.

“I saw that show, and I said ‘I want to be in this in five years,” Bartow says. “I like posters as art. They are accessible, they don’t cost hundreds of dollars, and they’re a way to get your art seen.”
Carla has gotten her wish. A poster of hers has been accepted into the upcoming show at 1975.

Bartow demonstrates how she uses ink upon handcut linoleum to create concert posters and other works, which she then scans into her computer for reprints.

Promotion and persistence

While creating her art requires time alone, promoting it is another story. “With your art, you put yourself out there again and again,” Bartow says. That means talking to bands and club owners, going to shows, buying CDs, having a business card, always telling people you’d like to work with “this is what I want to do. Marketing and networking came naturally to me, and they were included to a degree in our education,” Bartow says.

Her persistence is paying off. Barlow has created posters for shows at Abilene Bar and Lounge and the Bug Jar, as well as local acts like Kingsley Flood, Walri, and Payton Marovich. She has had shows at SUNY Geneseo, Roc Brewing Company, Wine Sense, Orange Glory, and the Owl House. Her painted windows are on permanent display at Lento and Java’s. Beyond Rochester, Bartow has done freelance work for Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records and has begun to do promotional illustrations for her first international client, Phly Boyz, an international party band that plays all over Europe.

Work and home balance

Bartow has moved from creating her art in a separate studio space to working at home. Keeping work separate from home meant less distraction. “It’s nice to have the accessibility. Sometimes you need to take a break from your work to do something else. It’s finding the balance.” she says. “I work best with not a lot of direction and more artistic freedom. It took me awhile to gain confidence just doing something and giving it to the client, saying, ‘Here. You’re gonna like this.’”

A piece that illustrates her success with this approach is the bear with balloons she did for a Righteous Babe Records t-shirt. They supplied the song lyric, I don’t need anyone to hold me I can hold my own. She chose the bear after researching the types of solitary animals.

“There’s something happy about it,” she says of the image, which also appears on her business cards. “My stuff keeps exciting me,” Bartow says. “I’m excited with the last piece as I move on to the next.”

Janis Milliman is a Rochester-based writer and editor.


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