Each year the Congressional Institute sponsors the Congressional Art Competition, which culminates in a reception in Washington, DC, for winners from across the country. At the reception, a professional artist shares his or her insights with the winners and their guests. Carole Forêt of Huntsville, Alabama, spoke at the reception for students from Alabama through Michigan. A video of the full reception follows this sketch of her presentation. For more information on the Congressional Art Competition, please click here.

Carole Forêt paints on stage at the Congressional Art Competition reception. (Image courtesy of Carole Forêt.)

People often ask artists what inspires them, and Carole Forêt of Huntsville, Alabama, can respond that she is indeed moved by a spirit—the Holy Spirit.

For Forêt, her art is an expression of her faith in God. God Himself, she pointed out, creates, and artists imitate and co-operate with Him. “We collaborate with the great Creator. Isn’t that something amazing to believe? I mean, what a calling and what a responsibility. That’s how I look at it in my art,” she told the students.

Not surprisingly, religious themes are prominent in Forêt’s work. “I do a lot of Jesus paintings,” she said, showing the audience a portrait of Christ she painted. She has even had the opportunity to create a “live performance” painting of Jesus as part of a Maundy (Holy) Thursday service. As she painted in front of a congregation, a one hundred-person choir sang in the background. “People were like, ‘Weren’t you scared to do that?’ I was lost. I was in the zone…Oh, that was just amazing.”

Depictions of Christ aside, her faith influences her art in more subtle ways. “I’m not an angry painter. You’re not going to find angry kind of subject matter in my work. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for me, that’s not what you are going to see.” Though her paintings are not dark, they are still filled with expression and emotion. “It’s easy for me to always know that God helped me get my expression out. A lot of times I pray about what to paint,” Forêt said.

Faith so completely animates Forêt’s work, but she does not limit the themes of her work to recognizably religious subjects; her paintings portray various things. Many depict places that she likes. One particular favorite is Cortona, Italy, where she and her twin sister, a fellow artist, lead groups of students. She says painting homes can be enjoyable, as well. In addition to depictions of locations, Forêt has painted her share of portraits. For a year, she was an officially licensed artist for Auburn University athletics, and painted quarterback Cam Newton a number of times. The mother of Brittany Howard, the lead singer and guitarist of the Alabama Shakes, purchased a painting of the musician, who visited Forêt’s gallery in person to pick it up.

Although Forêt has had a very successful career as an artist, she also helps others with their own talents, by teaching classes both for young people and adults. She has enjoyed teaching both groups, but instructing adults has been a unique opportunity. Plenty of children have the opportunity to create beautiful art or music, but how often do adults? How many adults even bother to foster their creativity? “When you get to be my age and older, you’ve got baggage in your background—someone maybe criticized a painting or a drawing or told you you couldn’t paint, go do something else or whatever—that really inhibits your creativity for years and decades to come,” she says. Adult art classes help restore lost confidence and are an opportunity for her students to begin again. These are “creative spirit workshops,” she says. They allow us to “revive our creative juices again.”

Forêt had the opportunity to display her own “creative juices” at the Congressional Art Competition reception, where she gave a live demonstration on stage. The audience saw her recreate a Saturn rocket from the Huntsville, Alabama, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, as it was projected live from her canvas onto the theater-sized screen in the Capitol Visitor Center auditorium. It was a unique opportunity for the audience to see how an artist’s expertise allows her to be prolific. “I love painting fast,” she told the audience as she brushed away, discussing the techniques she was using and fielding questions as she went.

Throughout the question and answer period and her speech as a whole, Forêt had plenty of practical advice on how they could market their art. “There are a lot of us who want to paint, paint, paint, and then, you know, set it out there and run…and then hope we get rave reviews,” she said. However, that is not enough: An artist must “talk confidently…yet humbly” about his or her work—which is an art form itself. Speaking about a piece of artwork brings a value to an interaction with a potential patron that transcends the merely monetary. “People love to hear about the stories behind your paintings and how they came to be. When someone buys your work, they love buying from an artist they’ve gotten to know a little bit,” she said.

The Congressional Art Competition winners already have a number of tools at their disposal to start talking about their art, Forêt pointed out. “Have a great online presence in promoting your work. There’s no excuse not to have a website these days,” she told the students. It is even more inexcusable them not to have blogs or Facebook pages to promote their work. An easy way for them to use these tools is to take a picture of their artworks and then write posts talking about them. Or an event like the Congressional Art Competition is an excellent way for a winner to promote his or her work. She suggested that each student take a photo of himself or herself with the artwork on display and then write about the event. The students could practice humility while self-promoting, she suggested, because the winners could also express their thanks to the Congressional Art Competition and their Member of Congress. It’s a way of “mixing your gratitude with your success,” she pointed out.

When is a painting finished, someone asked.

“Somebody said that a painting is never finished, but that it only stops at interesting places,” she said. She’ll take a break from a painting and then come back and add something here or there—maybe five brush strokes more. “I always reserve the right to keep painting on them—or paint over them. I do that a lot,” she said.

With time running short, Forêt soon found an “interesting place” to stop working on her rocket painting, but she left the winners with a final thought: “Be passionate about what you do. And take your passion and make it happen.”