Artist Carol Aust Contemplates in Hues

Oakland artist puts existential topics on canvas and wood for a soulful conversation.


A pensive woman sits at a lonely crossroads. Mysterious doorways and flying boats drift across the horizon. Friends find each other for comfort under turbulent skies. Snippets of a dream, perhaps, lost upon awakening. Artist Carol Aust captures these and other tantalizing images in her figurative acrylic paintings on canvas and wood for the viewer’s infinite contemplation.

The characters in her soulful paintings appear to be in limbo or about to embark upon a new direction down a precarious yet spiritual path filled with uncertainty and wrought bold in a palette of stunning, bright colors. The necessity of human connection is palpable in simple gestures and narrative composition, inviting the viewer into an emotional landscape of tangible, eerily familiar experience.

Aust’s most recent exhibition at the SHOH Gallery in Berkeley was defined in the exhibition notes as an exploration of “our universal desire for connection, intimacy, self-discovery and acceptance while softly paying homage to our fear and trepidation of the very things that we desire.” SHOH Gallery owner Julie McCray, who has been collecting Aust’s work personally for 12 years, said, “She has such a lovely, definitive style, and her works express an approachable and insightful perspective on the human experience.”

A self-taught artist who has exhibited her work nationally since 1990, Aust counts among her influences artists Emil Nolde, Marc Chagall, Kathe Kollwitz, and the German Expressionists — all evident in her distinct style. She grew up in the Central Valley, in Fresno and Chico. After a teaching stint in China, she moved to the Bay Area in 1987. “I was attracted to the culture here,” Aust said. “Oakland felt like a continuation of my time abroad, with so many different creative people from all over the world coming together.” 

Aust’s days are a balancing act of solitary studio time and connection with others in her community, which includes tutoring inner-city kids and going for walks with friends along the shoreline or in the East Bay hills. She begins her creative process late in the morning in her North Oakland studio in the Bushrod neighborhood, sinking into a big recliner to sketch out her feelings in a kind of a visual journal. She fills a palette with color and doesn’t leave the studio until the paint is all used up.

“My method is to have some starting point — a curve of a beach, a child on a hip, a combination of colors, for example — and then be open to surprises. I layer contrasting colors, adding and subtracting figures and clouds and trees until the work feels complete but mysterious,” Aust explained. For Aust, creating art is like raising children: “Just like sons and daughters leaving home, a painting isn’t finished when I sign the corner. Actually, its life has just begun. When a painting leaves the studio and elicits responses from viewers, the art becomes a living force in the world.”

With Aust’s paintings, the story truly begins with us. The mystery of unanswered questions falls to the viewer to sort out. In each of her pieces, figures begin on the canvas as representations of herself or someone close to her. She aims to keep the faces plain enough in order to invite us to project ourselves easily into the story. “Viewers of my work add the next chapter to the unfinished story, explaining why the woman is traveling alone, why the couple is dancing in the clouds, why the party is being held in the desert,” she said.

In a cultural climate that seems more confusing every day, a world that leaves many searching for answers, it’s nice to know we are not alone in those feelings and that mystery and continuity and connection thrive.

Aust’s work is represented by several Bay Area galleries as well as Left Bank Gallery in Wellfleet, Mass. Visit her website for more information and to view a full gallery of her work.

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