They say art imitates life. Mimesis, brilliant minds the likes of Plato and Aristotle, called it. Novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, best known for his work “Crime and Punishment,” expounded on the topic years later saying, “At first, art imitates life. Then, life will imitate art. Then, life will find its very existence from the arts.”
This intersection of life and art is where I met local artist and sculptor Kara Nicole Carter, for whom the two are inextricably linked.
Carter is a rarity in the area, a native Floridian born at Eglin Air Force Base in 1984. She grew up with her feet in the sand, wading in the water, playing Barbies on the shoreline. At the age of five, her family relocated to Dallas, as much an ideological shift as a physical one.
“I went from the beach to cowgirl hats and boots,” recalled Carter, who is now back in the area she called home all those years ago. “I thank the Lord for putting me in a more urban setting because I had all types of different people around me, which was beautiful.”
Her journey took her from Dallas to Memphis, moves she said changed the trajectory of her life. It was during her high school years in Memphis that Carter — who grew up in a creative family — discovered her gift for art, thanks to a teacher who saw something in her she didn’t even recognize in herself.
“It was nothing new to me to build things and paint walls and make something from nothing and scavenge and create,” Carter said. “I grew up with a mother who gave me endless possibilities, which was such a gift. She did not contain me. My core is to adventure and see what’s possible.”
Carter’s art teacher began submitting her work for shows and contests and the awards and accolades began rolling in. Her connection to that teacher deepened when her son was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a disorder of the lungs and digestive system that Carter herself was also battling.
“You know, it’s not as if life’s just beautiful all the time. I’m constantly battling this illness and art has been almost my escape from that,” she explained. “Art is my beautiful space that is just dreaming and the sickness doesn’t have any place in it.”
Carter transitioned from high school to a scholarship program, based on her art portfolio, at the Memphis College of Art. But, life — and her illness — would eventually pull her away from campus life. Like many of us, she spent some years trying to piece everything together: Work, bills, relationships, health and wellness, her passion for creating. Necessity forced her into a more profitable business as a personal trainer, but life — as it often does — had other plans for her.
“I broke my foot training and so I couldn’t be at the gym for six to eight weeks, and I wasn’t just going to sit at home and do nothing,” she remembered. “I took that opportunity to start putting together my first solo art show. That was the birth of Kara Nicole Design.”
It would be easy to say that things were smooth sailing from that point, but they weren’t. Carter’s first show netted no sales, but she persevered, working as a personal trainer by day and artist by night.
“I was so determined to be successful at what I was trying to accomplish,” she said. “I loved being a trainer, helping people, connecting to people, getting them see the best in themselves, and my art was turning into that as well.”
It wasn’t until Carter moved to Atlanta, that she said her emotions and her designs truly became aligned, but not before her life was turned upside-down once again.
“I was building things I had no idea I could build or make or create,” said Carter, who also had one foot in the Memphis art world. “It was really a pivotal moment for me to really open my soul up to my tears, my fears, my joys, my worries, my goals, my relationship with God.”
But, while her art was thriving, other aspects of her life were not: Health troubles, a failed engagement, thoughts of taking her own life, another move, difficult family relationships, and the numbing that a handful of prescriptions provided.
“I’ve never been addicted to pills and I didn’t want to be on these, but it kept me alive,” she said.
Despite feeling drained, Carter joined some girlfriends for a weekend getaway to WaterColor. It was there, during a breakfast at the now-defunct Fonville Press, that a friend talked to her about creating art that would be more accessible to the everyday person.
“I don’t know where it came from, except to say that God is so good, that I get this thought of sculpture in candle and vases and planters and small pieces like that,” Carter said.
As she ventured into the world of small art, Carter found herself once again at “home,” after being uncertain whether she belonged in Memphis, Atlanta or somewhere else entirely.
“Our family always vacations here in Destin the first week of June, so I came back down. I’m still very numb, dealing with everything going on, but it’s the first time I start feeling like myself again. I’m on the beach. I’m taking photos with my new camera and I’m feeling powerful and beautiful and alive again,” she said.
A chance encounter with a stranger on a paddleboard was the moment, she said, where she let go of the past and said “yes” to the future. It was during that time on the beach that she gained clarity about what to do next.
“I decide this is what I’m doing. This is what I want. I want to go to my studio and go to the ocean on my studio break. I want to be on my paddleboard. I want to go for walks on the beach. This is where I’m coming to,” Carter offered.
In December 2019, Carter started Krystallos, derived from the word “crystal.” It was a fitting name for Carter’s new project, birthed on the quartz crystal sands of the Emerald Coast.
But, no one ever said going home would be easy. Carter moved back to Florida with basically just the clothes on her back and a Jeep stuffed with all her earthly possessions. Her lungs started to fail. Her weight plummeted below a hundred pounds and she could barely walk from the bedroom to the kitchen. She had no money, no family and no friends nearby. She was ready to give up.
“I had already accepted death. I stopped taking my medicine. My doctor called and he was like, ‘Kara, please do not give up. Please do not give up.’ I felt Jesus come to me, giving me light, giving me fuel, saying, ‘It’s not time.’ But, how in the world am I going to do this?”, she remembered.
Carter turned to total strangers to help her through, documenting her health struggles and generating a few thousand dollars from a GoFundMe campaign. It was just enough to pay her rent and get her to the hospital in Pensacola. Her miracle, as she said, was just around the corner.
Thanks to a new treatment plan, she began the road to recovery. Her lung function went up. Her strength came back. Her pain diminished. She was finally able to officially launch her one-of-a-kind candles, fused with life, color, texture and sand from the gulf. By all accounts, she said they’ve been a huge success. In addition to the candle line, she has resumed accepting commissioned pieces for homeowners and businesses and is in the midst of numerous other projects including a film and a book.
Art, Carter might say, is a series of experiences, of sculpting and molding, creating and recreating from the materials you have, the canvas you’ve been given. Maybe that’s a good analogy for life. Or, perhaps the two are so intertwined that you can’t see where one stops and the other begins.
“If you ever came into my hospital room, you’d see art all over the walls and flowers and a diffuser and my tea kettle, and I make it my home,” Carter said. “And, it’s just this beautiful expression of, you know what, it can look and seem as if this is a terrible situation, but guess what? It doesn’t have to be.”
To see more of Carter’s designs or to purchase pieces, visit karanicoledesign.com.