It’s Friday afternoon. The kids at Lawrence High School have gone for the day, although their exuberance can still be felt in the chalk art outside the front door. Art teacher Sean Carney, whose energy level seems more Wednesday morning than end-of-the-week, greets me at the school’s entrance.
Walking through the halls we pass a colorful mosaic mural that students produced under the tutelage of artist Kahlilah Sabree. It’s apparent that this is a place where artists are nurtured. Carney has been teaching at the school for 20 years.
A solo exhibit of his work will be on view at the Center for Collaborative History at Princeton University’s Dickinson Hall through Friday, December 13, with an opening reception on Thursday, November 7, from 3:30 to 5 p.m.
Carney has developed his own technique, painting with Minwax wood stain and a Dremel, a rotary tool he uses to carve out shapes and create texture. Since he began working this way five years ago his paintings have appeared in more than 70 exhibits, 18 of which have been solo shows. He is clearly proud that his work is now in Fortune 500 companies and the United States Embassy in Muscat, Oman.
In Carney’s classroom there are notes on the chalkboard about Mexican painter and muralist Diego Rivera. Carney teaches about the differences between non-objective and abstract art, using Jackson Pollock as an example of the former, and Picasso, who distorted the figure, as an example of abstraction. This time of year Carney is teaching his students — six classes of 25 — about the artists Sheila Grabarsky, a New Jersey-based abstract painter, and Katelyn Liepins, an artist whose work is based on geometric abstractions and who, as a student at The College of New Jersey, served as student teacher for Carney’s classroom.
“I want to show my students that they don’t have to be mini versions of me,” he says. “They don’t have to be representational.”
He also plays music and sings to his students. They drop in to visit throughout the day, and he feeds them pretzels and crackers. “First I check for food allergies,” says Carney, a pescatarian. “If they’re hungry they might not concentrate. If they feel loved they’ll work better.
“Every year I have students who paint as well as I do,” he continues. Some may go on to study biology or mathematics, but some of his students have gone on to establish studios in Brooklyn or are working as animators.
Carney has brought in a selection of his work that will be in the upcoming exhibition. While artists often open their studios to arts writers, Carney makes it known that he paints on his dining room table (“I cover it with cardboard”) while his wife, Ann Marie, is watching TV and his sons, J.P., 11, and Liam, 6, are asleep. The family lives in a town house in Robbinsville. This arrangement works well, because Carney and his wife can catch up while he is painting. (If not watching TV, she may be listening to music, and Carney sometimes uses those song titles to title his paintings.)
His subject matter is often architectural. Carney says he paints the places he loves, such as a B&B in Cape May, where he had a solo show last year. He works from photos, converted to black and white, cropped, and sometimes altered in Photoshop. He doesn’t want an exact replica of the photo. He sketches onto a wood panel, and from there creates texture with the Dremel.
His painting of the Queen Victoria B&B is titled “The Queen’s Garden,” a painted lady festooned with American and British flags whose bright yellow facade is soaking up the sun, creating an interesting pattern of dappled light in the foreground.
“Panorama of Palmer Square” shows the retail epicenter of Princeton filled with revelers watching the annual tree lighting. Santa waves from a white picket parapet on the roof.
Carney’s perspective makes it seem like viewing the world through a fish-eye lens. Many of his street scenes deploy the principles of perspective he teaches. His brick buildings with mansard roof windows, cornices and bays, fire escapes, balustrades, and fretwork form patterns and texture and convey a love for architectural ornament. He likes to paint detail, such as the fairy lights strung on a tree or the intersection of utility lines. This kind of work takes patience, and that’s even before he starts layering on the stain.
If many of his paintings are night scenes, that’s because Carney is often out at night. Until recently he worked as a doorman for Triumph Brew Pub in Princeton. Before that he worked at other bars and restaurants in Philadelphia for a total of 18 years. “When Chris Christie came into office and we got a pay freeze, I needed the extra income to keep up with rising bills.”
In his 18 years working security, Carney has had his share of having to break up fights and remove people. His preparation: “I grew up in a tough area and got in fights when I was a kid – I didn’t like bullies, or I’d want to defend someone smaller. I was looking out for the right thing.” Besides studying art — he earned a bachelor’s degree with a focus on portraiture and figure drawing from Jersey City University — Carney also was a wrestler. “Wrestling taught me how to remove people without hurting them.” It’s hard to imagine this mild-mannered artist hurting anyone, and yet: “I only get physical if it’s absolutely necessary.”
It was when he saw the art exhibits Triumph featured that Carney realized, “I can do this.” Soon his manager gave him a show and everything fell into place.
But, wait, if he’s teaching during the day and working in restaurants at night, not to mention his responsibilities as a father, when is he painting?
“I left Triumph last winter because I decided I really want to make it at this,” he says. Six years ago, he says, he was only painting examples for his students. Then he started listening to podcasts about the business of art. In his mid 40s he set a goal of 50 paintings a year. “My goal is to outwork everyone,” he adds.
Carney puts a lot of what he teaches into practice. “I tell my students, be prepared to take a beating, there’s a lot of heartbreak and people turning you down” in marketing your artwork. “For every gallery I get into there are 10 that haven’t responded or five that said ‘no.’” He is pleased to report that he has only received invitations from galleries in the past year.
Trenton artist Mel Leipzig has had a big influence on Carney. Leipzig has been artist-in-residence in Carney’s classroom for five years, painting the art teachers and the students (he has completed eight paintings thus far). “Mel’s knowledge of art history has been great for the kids, as is watching him — it’s changed the way I paint, the way I use color. As a result of watching him I’ve re-introduced black into what I’m doing with wood stain.”
Carney buys his Minwax stains at Lowe’s or Home Depot, then out of the handful of primary colors available he mixes up 100 colors in glue containers. He has developed tricks, such as leaving the cap off so the product evaporates for a thicker, heavier body. “Or I can build up washes or create a glaze” from a thinner consistency, he says.
He works on wood panels that he gets from a former student who works as a cabinet maker in Robbinsville. “His wood is superior to what I can get in the store, and he cuts it precisely to the size I need.”
Like Andrew Wyeth with egg tempera paint, Carney builds up layer upon layer. The advantage of Minwax is that it dries quickly for additional layering. Carney has been trying to convince Minwax to market its product as an art medium (the Dremel company has featured his technique).
When working in restaurants, Carney would create portraits of customers from leftover wine, coffee, and tea. “If it stains your teeth, it stains the paper,” he says. Then, about 10 years ago, Carney was renovating a house in Ewing when he first began experimenting with Minwax on a piece of leftover wood. He created a monochromatic painting of his wife holding their new son. “There’s been no looking back,” he says. “It puts me in a subcategory, unfine artist.”
He has demonstrated the technique at the Arts Council of Princeton and was artist-in-residence at the Princeton Public Library last summer, where he taught adults and children. He won the Mercer County Purchase Prize in 2016.
Carney grew up in Lyndhurst. He never knew his father, who died a year ago. His grandparents, whom he describes as being pivotal in his upbringing, filled the home with music, playing piano, and singing. (If singing seems like a theme in his life, it’s worth mentioning that when he first saw Ann Marie in a restaurant in New York City in 1995, he approached her and sang. It apparently had the effect he desired.)
His mother remarried when he was 3, and to this day Carney calls his stepfather “Dad.” He speaks to his mother, retired from a career in corporate travel, two times a day. “She was a hippie and dropped me off to learn art,” he recounts of how she encouraged his childhood proclivities. “She loved to paint and regretted not getting into the arts.” The Manahawkin resident has recently taken up painting still lifes, under the tutelage of her son.
“Overall, life is beautiful,” says Carney. “I am so much happier now that I paint. It’s not that I was sad before, but I’ve never been so satisfied. I wake up happy every morning.”
Sean Carney, Exhibition, Center for Collaborative History, Dickinson Hall, Princeton University. Through Friday, December 13, with an opening reception on Thursday, November 7, 3:30 to 5 p.m. history.princeton.edu.