Interview with Artist: Connie Karleta Sales

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Connie Karleta Sales is an artist, poet, and advocate living with a rare illness, Neuromyelitis Optica, affecting her optic nerves and spinal cord. She paints using eye gaze technology and her mouth to hold brushes. Her artworks caught our eyes when she first applied to become a Rebelle Featured Artist. Read the interview to hear about her story, the technology she uses to stay creative, and see if it is true that her art is going to the moon.

Hello Connie, thank you for taking time to answer our questions. Could you please describe your artistic work?

I am inspired by how art holds space to receive, absorb, and uncover suffering, joy, and community, while discovering capacity for safety and grace. Line quality is created out of experience and composition emerges as the woven motions of my heart’s beat.

Emotional, Intuitive, and  Searching; based on my life experiences through the lens of my spiritual practices. Even though it starts with my own experiences, I know a piece is complete when it is no longer familiar to me. At that point it doesn’t belong to me anymore or even my story but instead ready to relate and join with others in their life experiences, their stories.

In truth, I believe I am a storyteller more than a visual artist. My art is a safe place for conversation and connection.
On becoming resilient and flowers

Who led you to art and who do you think influenced your work the most?

It started when I was very young. Writing and drawing were my confidantes. I would write letters to myself with all my dreams and my fears and secrets. I didn’t have words like drawing and poetry but that is what it was. I would tape them underneath my clothes to my chest and discard them in dumpsters. My safety and survival.

In college, I realized art was home when I took a photography class and the professor asked if I was an art major and if not had I thought about it. I never looked back after that. Then in 2004 when asked to give my first art talk, I simply asked for questions and the conversations that ensued showed me this was my best communication tool. All my shyness and anxiety left when sharing through art.

It is difficult to pinpoint specific influences. One of my greatest mentors, artist, Tracy Hicks, would probably be my greatest influence.  He encouraged me to always keep following my path and never apologize.Love is the freedom to play

Do you like to try new things or techniques or are you content with focusing on the style you have developed?

Good question. I like to try new things. I like experimenting and mixing mediums. Although, I obviously have some sort of prevailing visual loves.

I love very earthy mediums. And lots of very thin layers. I used to make my own inks out of things like coffee. Especially meaningful moments. Such as a particular day with a friend. I would save the coffee grounds to then make ink and paint with it. Ash from campfires, dirt from road trips. Graphite and pastels, charcoals. Those were my favorites. Truly Love going into every drawing. I also used things like water-soluble oils.

In 2018, I started transitioning into digital media becoming a quadriplegic due to my illness. I honestly had no idea I would fall in love with it as I did.
I still work almost exclusively on paper. I have been experimenting with mixing digital painting with traditional media.  

As far as “style”. I still go by what a professor said many moons ago; style comes about by simply the practice; just keep practicing. There is no need to even think about the word “style”.

A couple of years ago, you were diagnosed with a lifechanging disease. How did it impact your life, thinking, or artistic work?

I live with a rare illness called Neuromyelitis Optica (NMO). I have probably had it my whole life. In my young adulthood, I suffered with a variety of seemingly random symptoms that were simply treated as such. It wasn’t until 2015, when I was first diagnosed with Optic Neuritis that the possibility of Multiple Sclerosis was proposed.

A Few months later, I was paralyzed with my first serious attack, and that’s when NMO was proposed. I rehabbed and relearned how to walk etc. If you want to hear more, you can listen to the story here when I was invited to tell my story at Story Story Night in Boise, Idaho.

In 2018, I had another serious attack which brought me where I am today. The more attacks you have the harder it is for your body to heal. It is a major change being quadriplegic and needing a lot of assistance; almost 24 hour a day. It effects not only me but also my family. It is not easy. Attitude is huge. The good thing is there is so much help. What my illness tries to take away, technology gives back.
Love is front-facing to the suffering of others

At first, I really didn’t know if I would live, if so, for how long. Truly, I still don’t, but my illness, has stabilized a lot. I am thankful. I wasn’t sure how I would create. With a ton of support from my friends, family, and community, slowly I began adapting and finding my way.

My work was always very line oriented, and I worked on paper as if it were a copper plate (I originally was a traditional intaglio printermaker). I sanded, scraped, and erased heavily on paper. I have even attached a sandpaper block to the side of my wheelchair and moved back and forth to sand across the work. It honestly did not go the way I thought it might. Lol.

I just can’t work the same way anymore. Most recently I see my work becoming more painterly and gentler. Also, digital painting has brought more color into my work. This fascinates me. Another season of life, and who knows where it will take me. It is exciting this kind of unknown.
Based on Becoming and Flying

It is incredible and very admirable that you are constantly on a lookout to find technologies that are helping you to stay creative. What technology do you use?

Thank you. I say this a lot, and I will say it again, it is a great age to be living with a serious illness. What my illness tries to take away, technology gives back.

Currently, I use a Surface Pro 6 with a Tobii 4C eye tracker, and a Mount n Mover dual arm by Blue Sky Designs that attaches my Surface Pro to my wheelchair. I use the native eye tracker accessibility within windows, and Grid 3 software to navigate and to paint on my computer. My eyes become my pen/paintbrush. Most recently I have added a Razer Tartarus v2 which I operate with my knuckle or tip of my thumb; this enables me to take advantage of shortcuts and improve my workflow.

I also have been learning, experimenting, and practicing with mouth painting (holding my pens and brushes in my mouth) and that is really enabling me to bring back traditional media.

It is really about energy conservation. My illness demyelinates my nerves and therefore it is like static and interference in the transmission of signals within my body, like a frayed electrical cord. So the movement I do have, my muscles fatigue out to the point of not functioning and then I have to rest. The more I can conserve energy, the longer is my working time.Love writes into the marrow of Being

Being a Rebelle Featured Artist you have become a great advocate of our software. How does Rebelle help in your creative work?

Since I love inks and washes, I went looking for the best digital watercolor and ink software. Rebelle popped up. I gave it a try and was instantly in love. I have been using Rebelle since Rebelle 3.

I was amazed to hear people say things like “wow, those are your marks just like your traditional media.” As I was new to digital art, Rebelle was very intuitive and therefore, the learning curve was not as steep as other programs. It provides me with the mark-making I love as well as challenges me, and makes experimenting easy. The oil knife brushes are really making a painter out of me.

Rebelle is very compatible with eye gaze technology, and not all programs are compatible. This is huge when it comes to drawing and painting with my eyes. New to Rebelle 5 is NanoPixel technology. The Surface Pro has integrated graphics versus dedicated graphics. While obviously Rebelle does run on the Surface Pro, the larger the canvas size, the more difficult it could be; buffering begins. With Nano export I can keep my working canvas size smaller and export it larger without sacrificing quality. Makes it far less taxing on the Surface Pro.

Is it true that your art will be displayed on the moon? Can you tell us more about Lunar Codex project and how did you become a part of it?

It is true! My art along with currently “12,000 Contemporary creative artists from 89 countries (plus one A.I.) in three lunar time capsules”, will be going to the moon.

The Lunar Codex is the brainchild of Samuel Peralta, physicist, entrepreneur, storyteller.
This will be the first significant placement of contemporary arts on the Moon in 50 years. While focused on visual art, the Lunar Codex also includes a substantial collection of contemporary books, stories, poetry, films, music, essays, and more.

As an arts and culture project, The Lunar Codex has been called the most expansive, international, and diverse collection of contemporary culture launched to the Moon. Significantly, it is the first project to launch the works of women artists to the lunar surface. It is also the first project, to our knowledge, to place film and music on the Moon.

"Our hope is those future travelers who find these time capsules will discover some of the richness of our world today... It speaks to the idea that, despite wars and pandemics and climate upheaval, humankind found time to dream, time to create art.” - Samuel Peralta, The Lunar Codex website

I became a part of the project through PoetsArtists, founded by curator and publisher, Didi Menendez. I have two pieces: 1. By the Skin of Her Teeth, and 2. Killing Fields a.k.a. Contemplating Humor V.  These pieces were curated into PoetsArtists issue #100. This is one of several publications chosen to be included in the Lunar Codex.
Killing Fields, art travelling to the moon

There are many firsts with this project, and I would love to add that as far as I know one of those firsts is the representation of disabled creatives like myself. I am honored and super excited to be a part of this project. Currently launch dates range from 2022 into 2023, possibly 2024. And yes, the missions will be streamed so everyone can watch!

The project sounds very exciting, we cannot wait to see your work travel to the moon! What else is there waiting for Connie? Where do you wish to move forward with your art? What dreams do you have as an artist?

I wish simply to keep going. After 3 years, I am moving back into my art studio. It is a dream come true to be healthy and stable enough to move from being predominately bedbound to being in my art studio.

Recently, I purchased my first larger format printer with the help of a grant through the North Carolina Arts Council, a division of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. I am excited by the possibilities of incorporating video into my work. And developing my YouTube channel as a content creator.
Practicing Personhood, painted in Rebelle 5 Pro, printed and framed

I am also exploring the virtual world. Currently exploring Spatial and the possibility of creating permanent and rotating virtual exhibitions where we can invite people in and have open conversations beginning with the art.

My longest running dream is to purchase an old church or building and turning it into studio space, gallery, and community space. To continue the legacy of my mentor, Tracy Hicks, who began an artist residency here in North Carolina. I want a safe place for simply connecting people through art and the creative process.

Thank you, Connie, for sharing your story, projects, dreams and visions with us. We wish you many inspirational moments in your new studio. May your artistic and personal wishes come true.

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