Subjective Portraiture: A Conversation With Visual Artist Merry Jo Carter

Right On Target, Merry Jo Carter
Right On Target, inspired by @tiny.bangs.model
Merry Jo Carter painting

photo: @merryjw

“I tend to find beauty in everything I paint, even if they’re showing ugly or painful things,” Portland-based visual artist Merry Jo Carter says around a face full of steel. Sitting on a tweed sofa in the failing afternoon light, Merry Jo Carter could be a character from one of her canvasses. Surgical steel portrudes half-an-inch from freshly-pierced cheekholes. Half-shaved curls, stained chartreuse and vermillion, frame brown eyes, quickly flicking from watchful and calculating to warm and caring. Occult symbols from all faiths and walks of life adorn Carter’s forearms, legs, and belly, while neatly-folded hands sit untwitchingly in her lap.




‘Beautiful’ is not the first word that might spring to mind when viewing Carter’s menagerie of mutants, mermaids, punk rockers, and twisted visages which, at times, can almost border on the grotesque.

And yet, there’s something about them, that makes viewers take pause, take a second look. There’s a light to their eyes, the slant of their gaze, bold and defiant, seemingly saying, “I’m here, get used to it.”

Much of Merry Jo Carter’s subject matter investigates queerness, body positivity, and feminism, but not overtly or heavy-handedly. Carter comes from a conservative Mormon background in the wild desolation of Eastern Oregon’s Harney County. Carter expresses the personal motivation of her art on numerous occasions during the hour we spoke on a sun-dappled Father’s Day afternoon. She may paint for herself, but many are moved in the process.

Merry Jo Carter has been specializing in drawing and painting people for the past few years, usually up-front, direct, and personal. She likes to linger on the faces – the expressions and what they convey of that person’s essence. There’s a certain brashness to her subjects that Carter responds to. Her women (the subject of the lion’s share of her work) feature a direct gaze and an openness to their physicality that stands in stark contrast to her repressive, modest Mormon upbringing. It’s a good look for her, as her striking watercolors and ink work are growing bolder and more refined with each successive art show.

Hailey Jelaire Portrait

inspired by @hailejelaire

The artist Egon Schiele, master of the twisted portrait, says, “Bodies have their own light, which they consume to live. They burn, they are not lit from the outside.” Like Schiele, Merry Jo Carter is fascinated by the essence of things, that ineffable, unrepeatable quality, even if it reflects some unflattering aspects, at times. Carter’s portraiture speaks to the power and importance of painting and “fine arts,” in this age of the infinite digital mechanical reproductions. Merry Jo Carter is a true polymath, working in photography, modeling, writing the occasional poetry. She takes wonderful photos, raising the question, “Why paint?”

Thanks the Triple Goddess that Merry Jo Carter answered that question for herself, even if the underlying motivation is a simple one. “I’m a creator – that’s what I’m here to do,” says Carter. “When I’m not making things, I get emotionally blocked up.”

Merry Jo Carter truly finds that equilibrium between the personal and the political. She may be creating for herself, yet her art couldn’t be further from the egotistical or self-involved. Yes, you can see traces of Merry Jo Carter’s distinctive features in her portraiture. Yet some indescribable quality of the subject is also conveyed, through body language, color, and tone.

Right On Target, Merry Jo Carter

Right On Target

Merry Jo Carter’s hopes and goals for her art are both simple and profound, as well. “I draw a lot from reference photographs, from people I know on Instagram and online. I’ll tag them when I’m done, to thank them for the inspiration. I get messages all the time thanking me, telling me I’ve made their day.”



Merry Jo Carter’s fine art watercolors and ink drawings captures the beauty of the life swirling around her, transmitting the brief moments of peace and contentment that comes along with it. “I step out the front door and see a beautiful rose bush and feel a sense of peace. I try to capture it for myself, so I can revisit it whenever I want, but hope to transmit some of that feeling to the viewer, in whatever way they relate to it.” Luckily for all of us, Carter finds beauty in the most unexpected places. Asymmetrical faces, pierced-up alt-girls, cats, and young women. Her gaze penetrates the surface-level veneer, finding something more primordial and real along the way. It’s a lesson for us all, in these times of snap judgements and reactionary online posts. She reminds us that, although book covers may be beautiful, the real magick lies on the inside.

She reminds us that, although book covers may be beautiful, the real magick lies on the inside.

Merry Jo Carter’s art career is a model of ‘everybody wins’ capitalism. Carter helps herself while helping others in the process. She is exploring her own style and vision, which just so happens to be freakishly appealing at this present moment. She’s building her career from the ground up, from a personal Instagram account to a blossoming cottage industry.

Merry Jo Carter fine artist

If you’re fortunate enough to live in Portland, Or. or the Pacific Northwest, you have a few chances coming up to see Merry Jo Carter’s work in person. She’ll be showing at the 55th Annual Lake Oswego Festival Of The Arts, at the Lakewood Events Center, from June 22 – 24. 

She’s showing again at the Portland edition of the Raw Magnify series, taking place at the Roseland Theater on Wednesday June 27th.

Merry Jo Carter is available for commissions and collaborations. Hit her up on Instagram for enquiries!

ig: @merryjw

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J Simpson

J Simpson occupies the interview between creation and critique. J regularly traces the echoes of horror, supernatural, and the occult through music, media, books, comic, and film.
Operating out of Portland, Or., J makes electronic music and DJs as dessicant, hosting a weekly radio show on Freeform Portland, Morningstar: The Light In The Darkness. He also plays in the band Meta Pinnacle with his partner, the visual artist/illustrator Lily H. Valentine, with whom he co-founded Bitstar Productions, a visual arts collective/production company.
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