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Illustrator Carissa Potter Casts Visual Love Spells


The creator of honest and relatable handwritten typography and iconic visuals talks about magic and human connections

Illustration: Yarin Ben Hamo

Carissa Potter’s work feels like receiving a long, big bear hug from a friend who really gets you. Her multidisciplinary creations, ranging from illustration to performances, are cozy, comforting, and evoke a smile every time you approach them. With an MFA in Printmaking from the San Francisco Art Institute, Carissa is the founder of People I’ve Loved, a stationary and printmaking workshop, and the author of two books, It’s OK to Feel Things Deeply and I Like You, I Love You (both by Chronicle Books). Based in Oakland, California, Carissa is an artist in residence at Kala Art Institute in Berkeley, where she also teaches letterpress.

In her illustrations, Carissa paints simple imagery with a thick brush, accompanied by large typography carrying highly relatable messages. One piece shows a hand with crossed fingers captioned, “things will work out,” or a baseball cap that reads, “failure is an option.” In her installations and performances, she encourages people to interact with each other. She once invited gallery-goers to sing a capella with her to songs such as Whitney Huston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” Last year at the San Francisco Color Factory, she painted a room in bright yellow and filled it with a huge pit of bright yellow balls for visitors to dive into and play around in. We chatted with her in the hopes that some of her magic dust and earnest spirit would rub off on us, too.

Carissa Potter and Mie Mogensen, Home is Where the House is
Exhibition view of ‘Home is Where the House is’, by Carissa Potter and Mie Mogensen

We need more words for love

Carissa keeps thinking up new activities that can bring people together. “I have been fantasizing about a group back rub for sometime now. Or a blanket that sleeps a village,” she tells. “I think there is a deep human longing to connect, to feel less alone in the world. Having new and unique experiences together fosters this feeling of belonging, and in part, it’s also cathartic. Currently, I am of the mindset that we are not as different from each other as we have been taught to feel as truth.” It might be this mindset of oneness that makes Carissa’s work so compelling. Her art has the power to make you feel so much better, without resorting to viewing the world through rose-colored glasses. Instead, she confronts the world straight in the eyes, and with her innate honesty and empathy, everything starts to feel okay, really and truly okay.

One recurring theme in Carissa’s work is relationships of all kinds. “It’s a shame that we only have one English word, ‘love,’ to describe a super wide gamut of feelings,” Carissa notes. In line with this notion, her works differentiate between the small nuances of human connections, from friendships to romance and parent-child relationships. She once charted out a timeline of female relationships with moms, for example, which starts with the ‘mom as superhero period’ at birth, hits rock bottom at adolescence, and rises to eventually becoming the same person around the age of forty. “I feel like love and understanding are the binding energies that hold all of us together,” Carissa says. “As a person with a fair amount of sadness and general anxiety, often times I get stuck in these thought patterns of pointlessness. I keep coming back to love, as cheesy as it sounds, as a point, a soft needle in the haystack of life, to grab onto. And go from there.”

Carissa Potter, It's OK to Feel Things Deeply
A spread from Carissa Potter’s book ‘It’s OK to Feel Things Deeply’, published by Chronicle Books

Carissa Potter paintings

Bonds and creative collaborations

Her strong love of people leads Carissa to frequently work in collaboration with other artists. “I think I trust other people’s ideas more than my own,” she says. For her, teaming up with new partners who work and create differently, is an opportunity for new inspiration to strike. “Expertise is all well and good, but I think that fresh perspectives are golden too,” she explains. She recently collaborated with Danish artist Mie Mogensen on the exhibition With a Little Bit of Luck, in which the two explored their close relationships, both as friends and as artists. “Honestly, I think part of me wants to be her, part wants to hang out with her, and part of me just loves her work. I find her endlessly entertaining,” Carissa says of Mie. “It’s also exciting for me to push notions of bonding to new, different and weird places. I feel really lucky to be surrounded by people who I find so inspiring and wonderful. I just want to be in the same room with them to soak them up.”

Carissa Potter, We Can Go There Together
Carissa Potter’s painting from her exhibition, ‘We Can Go There Together’

Carissa Potter, Hang in There

A mixture of unrelated ideas

Carissa fosters a unique view of the creative process. “Creativity – I feel like is not really creative,” she muses. “It is really just a natural progression of thoughts. It’s non-linear thinking. An ebbing and flowing of context, experience, and a touch of magic.” This perspective allows Carissa to let her ideas have a life of their own. “Sometimes, on dog walks, I let my dog lead the way. And we visit some great things that I never would have stumbled on,” she shares with us.

Creativity, according to Carissa, is a loose process, and she tries to value the fun of it more than the end result. “I want to enjoy creating things, and sometimes things don’t turn out like I intended. I like people, I like to draw, I like to have ideas and follow them.” Her personal path to creativity is typically composed of long showers, swimming and lots of napping. “I think that the more open space you give yourself, the more things will come,” Carissa comments.

Self love, self promotion

Carissa's new online portfolio, built on Wix, radiates with her personality in the smallest of details, such as the wording choices in the site’s menu (she calls her projects “Experiments” and her Instagram account “Diary”). Her “About” section on her new site, fittingly titled “Connect,” closes by stating that she’s currently working on being a better listener. “I feel like being a good person includes being a good listener,” she clarifies in our conversation, “listening is a common decency that I forget to do at times.”

Carissa acknowledges that curating our own projects, let alone promoting them, isn’t always easy. But she’s insistent that there’s no way around it, if you want to get ahead. “We are so conditioned culturally to not want to talk about ourselves, and end up sitting around waiting for someone to want to work with us,” she explains. “But I just don’t think that happens all the time. People have to be their own advocates. Get over the fear of self-promotion, and just do it.

And apply for everything – something will happen.”

Practice some self-care and head onto Carissa’s Wix website.

Carissa Potter, Relative Distance
Carissa Potter’s painting from her exhibition, ‘Relative Distance’


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