Carly Thaw is an illustrator from West Virginia. She often combines writing with her visual art practice, blending modes of creative output with her own travel experiences, to tell stories of home and identity.
This passion for the storytelling power of illustration is demonstrated beautifully by her American Tour series, in which Carly captures landscapes and people across the U.S.
The series was a way to help her artistic practice grow, and a method of self-discipline to keep herself creating while on the move.
She shared the images and words on Instagram during her travels in summer 2019, and now it serves as a capsule of what she saw, who she met, and the shapes of the clouds she roamed under while she was out there. It’s a lovely compilation.
In summer 2019, I took an 8-week solo road trip around the USA in an effort to reconnect with myself. I learned the stories of different people and landscapes and drew them all.
I was fascinated by the transitions of the natural landscapes as I made my way north from West Virginia, then west to the Pacific coast, south to LA, and then back east across the American Southwest and back up to WV.
I am curious about why people love their home, and I tried to capture that in my drawings. I chatted with locals from North Dakota to Colorado, to Oregon to West Texas. I loved learning about the different indigenous communities and how they traditionally used their land, and then about the people who call that place home now. If I learned one thing on this journey, it is that America is huge and diverse, but one thing that brings us all together (and tears us all apart) is a fierce protection of “home” — whatever that means to you.
My goals for my trip were to:
The most important part of this goal setting for me, and I can’t stress this enough, was NO SELF JUDGMENT. This was very deliberately, a confidence manufacturing project.
I brought canvas, gouache, markers, all sorts of paper, watercolor, black pen, white pen, white ink, colored pens, and the list goes on. I ended up using mostly watercolor and ballpoint pen in my work.
I kept a personal journal, writing every night, but also did a stream of consciousness blog on my Instagram as I posted the chronology of my art work. That was mainly to keep myself publicly accountable.
I am generally a jack of all trades when it comes to hand craft work, but I never have felt confident with it. I always felt like I was better than what my work showed, but I couldn’t just tell people, “Oh, just ignore my portfolio and listen to me TELL you how good I am.”
The use of primarily watercolor and pen was not fully intentional, but over time I started to develop a routine and style with those media that felt good. This was EXACTLY what I was hoping would happen. I have been making art my whole life, but I needed consistency. I needed a medium to choose me. And I needed reliable practice.
Because I kept up the consistency, and found a groove, my artwork improved significantly over the course of the trip. Almost as much as my own self confidence. Watercolor isn’t necessarily my ride or die medium, it just means that practice is my friend. And it proved to me that I was right about my “theoretical portfolio.” I just hadn’t put in the work yet.
I got used to people watching me draw over my shoulder because I did my paintings in coffee shops and bars and outside at picnic tables, in my car, in restaurants… etc. I was self conscious at first, but I could tell that feeling was holding me back, so I quickly got over it.
I like telling stories with my illustrations. Some are more successful than others, but quality only comes from quantity. This very linear journey was helpful in forcing me to tell a continuous story through illustration, and gave me a constant stream of new people and places to inspire new stories.
I chatted with a man in South Dakota who reminded me so much of the people in my home of West Virginia. His thick accent was more north-midwestern than country twang. He told me about his upcoming move from his lifelong home in rural South Dakota to rural Tennessee because he felt held back here. He explained his dilemma about possibly having to sell his beloved horse to make it work. I told him about West Virginia and the types of fish you could catch there.
I met people in Marfa, Texas who I learned were a group of friends from Odessa, TX on vacation for one of their birthdays. We were all at a proper saloon with a genuine cowboy behind the bar, un-ironic eye patch and ten gallon hat and all. We talked about education in rural America and the absolute malfeasance of the treatment of public school teachers. They convinced me to crash a wedding with them. We walked in with a handle of tequila and danced through the night.
Interactions like those with both friends and strangers reminded me how similar we all really are. We are all working hard to navigate life and all of its personalized curve-balls. I think about the Heraclitus quote a lot: “Change is the only constant in life.” It may be cliche, but I have tried to lean into that notion, be comfortable with it, and not force it.
Since this journey, I have developed my portfolio into a little collection that I am proud of; which, I have used to get a month-long creative residency in West Virginia, as well as my first ever art show and some professional illustration work lined up after that. I am still at the beginning of this journey, and I don’t know what’s next, but I am ok with that right now.
Invigorated by all things road trips? Check out our sister podcast Women on the Road!