Lyrical landscapes

Animation of a gramophone horn sidling up to Carol Krauss

Her passion for music inspired CAROL KRAUSS to invent a whole new style of painting

By David Brittan

Can you paint a song? It sounds like a paradox, but that’s the challenge the New England artist Carol Krauss set for herself in her latest series of creations combining photography, encaustic (hot wax) painting, and other media. After years of grooving to rock, pop, and jazz while she worked, she says, “I became mesmerized by the possibility that I could capture a song in a painting.”

Carol began her quest by getting more intimate with the music in her life. She read up on favorite performers and songwriters — from Irving Berlin to Keith Jarrett, Motown legends to the Grateful Dead. She began to hear their music with fresh ears, noticing the blends of instruments, the interplay of melodies and harmonies, the poetry in the words. “I listened deeply, intensely, repetitively,” she says.

Turning this new awareness into art has required much back-and-forth between the sound world and the visual. For Carol, a long-time photographer, the starting point is usually one of her colorful, semi-abstract landscape photographs. She free-associates from there. “The photo will trigger an image from a song,” she says. Then she loads up the song and listens as she works, letting its mood affect the colors, textures, and forms she adds to the painting. She builds up the image layer by layer, embedding the photo in the topography of the scene.

The crowning touch — perhaps the defining feature of this series — is the addition of what looks like handwriting, but isn’t. It’s a device the artist came across by accident.

“One day,” she says, “while melting, painting, and layering wax, I was listening to some music and found myself scribbling notes about the song with my free hand. I couldn’t read a thing later, but I was struck by the graphic element of my feeble attempt to write with my nondominant hand.”

She learned that such script, devoid of symbolic meaning, is called asemic writing. Medieval scribes did it. Emily Dickinson did it. Modern artists do it.

When Carol Krauss does it, she uses oil paint to lay down a block of color, then “writes” on it with a bamboo skewer, filling the block with her enigmatic marks. Sometimes, she says, the marks are “a portion of the lyrics written backwards with my nondominant hand. In other cases, they’re simply a response to the sound of the music.” Each song seems to inspire its own graphical style — evoking tangles of DNA, perhaps, or the alphabet of some lost civilization.

The many layers — literal and figurative — come together to form works of exhilarating depth. The paintings seem to hover between dimensions: flat yet sculptural, near yet far, earthly yet alien. And with those blocks of faux text, your brain can’t quite decide if it’s looking at a document or an image. This only adds to the sense of mystery.

Some paintings resemble dreamscapes, with all the unconscious symbolism the word implies. “How Deep Is the Ocean?” — while inspired by a sweet song about love — seems to hint at the dark side of that perilous emotion. A tiny rowboat floats precariously on a patch of birch bark in the sky. In the sea below, a tidal wave looms, as the shadows of sunken vessels submit to scissorlike blades. Here there be monsters.

Do the paintings work as depictions of songs? Sure. Many musical tie-ins are clear: wavy script for “Beyond the Sea,” a phantom face for “Mystery Woman,” and so on. But these creations do so much more than depict. They do what good songs do: plunge you into a unique world — at once recognizable and strange — while offering deeper levels of meaning that are yours to discover.

Following are five of Carol Krauss’s latest mixed-media artworks, together with snippets of the songs that inspired them. Notice any musical connections? Do they affect the way you see the work or hear the song? Share your thoughts in the Comments below.

Where the Marsh Grass Dances

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From the song “Harbor Lights,” by Bruce Hornsby

Close your eyes and slip away / To the dream of your fancy / Close your eyes and float / downstream / To where the marsh grass dances.

Beyond the Sea

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Song by Charles Trenet & Jack Lawrence / Performed by Bobby Darin

Somewhere beyond the sea / Somewhere waiting for me / My lover stands on golden sands / And watches the ships that go sailing.

How Deep Is the Ocean?

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Song by Irving Berlin / Performed by Ella Fitzgerald

And if I ever lost you / How much would I cry? / How deep is the ocean? / How high is the sky?

Mystery Woman

Abstract painting with a hint of a human face
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Song by the Allman Brothers Band

And all I gotta do is open my eyes and see her — the mystery woman. / Cause I’m confused, but only sometimes. / Patiently waiting, baby, just for you. / But I’ll be leavin’, babe, I won’t go under. / All I gotta do is open my eyes and see her — a mystery woman.

Imaginary Day

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Instrumental by the Pat Metheny Group

“Jazz remains the hardest to listen to and interpret. But it is intriguing and mysterious and challenging”

Carol Krauss

About the artist

CAROL KRAUSS is a fine-art photographer based at The Umbrella Arts Center, in Concord, Massachusetts, and at AVA Gallery in Lebanon, New Hampshire. She has exhibited at galleries and in juried competitions throughout New England. She studied black-and-white fine-art photography at the New England School of Photography in Boston, where she was also an instructor. More recently, she has been moving into mixed-media abstract painting. She has an MBA from the Tuck School at Dartmouth College and previously worked as a management consultant. Currently, she consults to nonprofits through Community Consulting Teams of Boston and Social Venture Partners of Boston, as well as serving on nonprofit boards of directors. She lives on a lake in New Hampshire, where she regularly rows an antique single scull.

DAVID BRITTAN is curator & editor of The NecessaryEmail • Bio


  1. As Carol’s website reveals, this is just the latest in a series of wonderful developments in her art. It’s a joy to see this terrific description and explanation of what she is doing now. I look forward to seeing this form mature and her evolution to the next.

  2. I’m mesmerized and delighted by this blend of art forms. For me, to visualize music in these creations is evocative. I’m always in awe of the ability to create art but Carol’s blend is particularly thrilling and brings me a lot of joy. Thank you for sharing this with us!

  3. Some very engaging stuff, here. Looking forward to exploring this in more detail. Appreciate the choices in music.

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