When creativity can strike at any moment, how do you capture it? According to Warren Criswell, you build an easel on your steering wheel.
WORDS / SUMMER EL-SHAHAWY
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
Warren Criswell has been in the art community since he was a young child and has been told he could draw even before he could walk. Though he started his art career in West Palm Beach, Florida, he left the art world in pursuit of writing only to find himself returning to art in Arkansas in 1976.
“Florida was being ruined by tourists and the sugar industry, so in 1972 I quit my job as a land surveyor, sold our home and we left,” Criswell said. “We transformed a bus into a camper which we named Toad, where I spent five years on the road, trying to write the great American novel.”
While on the road, Criswell built an easel on the steering wheel of the bus and taught himself watercolor. After settling in Arkansas in 1976, Criswell began selling those watercolors at what is now Cantrell Gallery in Little Rock and, soon after, quit his day job to become a full-time artist.
Criswell describes his passion to create as a necessity.
“My creativity is like an addiction or an innate urge that I call the muse,” Criswell said, “but my inspiration for a particular work can come from anywhere, I never know where, which is why I call it an ambush. I am ambushed by images.”
In his art, Criswell said his most important objective is conveying the truth, which he accomplishes by staying true to the images and portraying them authentically. He said while all themes are important to him, his work usually addresses opposing ideas.
“I think there is a dichotomy in my work,” Criswell said, “between our physical or emotional desires and our intellectual knowledge of our mortality, and between our creativity and our destructivity.”
While Criswell is primarily an oil painter, he also loves drawing, watercolor, printmaking, sculpture, and animation.
“I like to move around, exploring new means of expression,” Criswell said. “My work has always depended on discoveries, of both subjects and media. I approach each painting with fear and trembling, pretending it’s my first and hoping it’s not my last.”
Over the years, Criswell’s talents have not gone unrecognized. He has received 19 awards in his career as an artist, most recently the Arkansas Governor’s Individual Artist Award for the spring of 2021 for his piece, “Devices.” He said he is honored and grateful for this and all the awards he has received throughout his life.
Regarding the future, Criswell is in a state of waiting. In August 2018, Criswell suffered a stroke that rendered his left arm and hand useless.
“I am, or was, left-handed,” Criswell said. “And worse than that, the muse has apparently dumped me or is lost in my scrambled neurons. But I am still hoping to recover, doing therapy at home every day, trying to learn to draw and paint with my right hand, and hoping my creativity will come back.”
As far as recovery goes, Criswell is both optimistic and grateful, and he remains a stellar creator.
He said right now, in his state of waiting, he can picture what waiting will look like in an art form, though he is working up the nerve to attempt it.
“I have a canvas on my easel right now and sort of an image in my head of me on my cane, waiting for a sunset, my left hand and the muse, and a crow as usual waiting for me to die. It’s called Waiting,” Criswell said. “But let me drop the poor, ‘poor pitiful me’ rant, to say that I am thankful to be alive, thanks to the genius doctor at UAMS who removed the clot from my brain, and to my loving wife and primary caregiver, Janet.”
Warren is one of our cover artists for The Legacy Issue.