Carla Wyzgala

PINNED-UP IN CHICAGO

Watercolor artist takes a modern-day approach to vintage pin-ups.

Written by Alana Stramowski

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Carla Wyzgala in her apartment. Photo by Izzy Gut.

Sailor Moon. Spice Girls. These staples of the 1990s were more than entertainment for Carla Wyzgala, who used them for inspiration and as an outlet for creativity. “It’s kind of like playing dress-up,” she says.

What started as crafting girls in cute outfits in pencil and ink, transformed into an array of watercolor paintings, with pin-up, harlequin and ultra-fantasy muses. As she got older, Wyzgala’s work became more self-expressive and included elements of Chicago, her home city. Wyzgala’s expression is focused on the female form, in typical pin-up positions, but includes additions that make the women more modern. She incorporates elements like unique hair colors, piercings, and tattoos to make her woman standout. One might have short, blue hair with a tribal tattoo, while another has streaks of red in her long, blonde hair and a tattoo of a flower. Each woman is given a personality.

Wyzgala sits at her kitchen table in an oversized sweater and a maxi skirt, chocolate brown hair cascading over her shoulders, as she explains the perks of working from home, which include dressing comfortably while she fashions beautiful women with her paintbrush. Wyzgala explains how she gathers her influence from classic pin-up art, but when she gets stuck, fairy tales, from books and movies, help restore her inspiration. Wyzgala also finds motivation from her possessions, like books, games, original art. Even a “Game of Thrones” DVD box set lies open on her living room shelf across from a wall with tree branch decals. Wyzgala lives among what she creates.

Growing up in Wheaton, a Northwest suburb of Chicago, Wyzgala says she and her sister, an artist as well, pursued art because of their creative parents. “We would spend all of our time at home drawing so it was always a part of everyday life,” says Wyzgala. “Knowing (art) was an option from an early age, there was no other career choice.” Wyzgala credits her high school art teacher, Jacqui Daly, for helping her discover a love for watercolors.

Wyzgala continued to study art, at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, but many professors suggested she implement technology into her work. Wyzgala said, however, that she has no intentions of using any other medium than watercolor. “A lot of people are afraid to (use watercolor) because you can’t make a mistake and erase it,” she says. “I definitely always prefer looking at a piece of paper and working here at a table as opposed to crunched over a computer and burning my eyes out.”

Some of Wyzgala's framed Chicago pin-up girls.

Some of Wyzgala’s framed Chicago pin-up girls. Photo by Megan Ammer.

With her studio nestled in the basement of her apartment, Wyzgala paints with a purpose. Her original artwork covers the walls, including a skull mask or costume series, which consists of intricately painted women with various skull masks and classic dresses. A framed sketch of an open book with a fairytale quote inside is also conveniently inked on her right arm, thanks to the talent of her tattoo artist fiancé. Her two cats saunter in and out of the room, keeping her company when she paints. Reference books, including a hard cover from influential pin-up artist Gil Elvgren, are piled high around the room. A handwritten letter from one of her the first fans hangs from her corkboard next to her list of upcoming conventions.

Before Wyzgala was able to support herself full time with her art, Wyzgala had to guarantee income as a waitress. The first three years after college were challenging to prove herself as a professional artist. The main issue was charging a fixed rate for her artwork. “It’s not like you would ask your friend who’s a doctor or a lawyer ‘Hey could you just help me out?’ It becomes something that you have to force yourself to do, and I know a lot of artists struggle with it,” says Wyzgala.

To network, Wyzgala did anything she could, which included selling at comic conventions all over the country and selling her custom artwork on the Internet platforms Etsy and Society 6. More recently, Wolfbait, a local art shop in Logan Square, picked up some of Wyzgala’s work to sell among their other unique artists.

Surreality Cover. Photo courtesy of Carla Wyzgala.

Surreality Cover. Photo courtesy of Carla Wyzgala.

Additional buzz accumulated for Wyzgala when she began illustrating for “Surreality,” a web-based comic series created and written by friend Caleb King. The comic includes, “a bunch of dream sequences…through the eyes of a guy that is interested in a girl,” Wyzgala explains. She says King had a vision of the main female character that meshed with the pin-up art she created.

“(Caleb) started thinking that based off what I was doing, it would be better for me to draw the characters,” she adds. King knew Wyzgala would be an asset to her comic. “I was trying by myself for two years to get the comic going, but I think I was too close to it. I needed somebody objective. I’ve always loved Carla’s work in school and knew she could bring the characters I had in my head to life,” King says.

A published book was another achievement last year through the crowd-funding website, Kickstarter, for those interested in learning her craft. The step-by-step guide shows pictures of her work at different stages and tips for using watercolor. As a thank you to her supporters, Wyzgala created one-of-a-kind mini paintings of colorful female subjects – something she says she didn’t mind “cranking out” because the fans are responsible for making the book a reality.

A page in Wyzgala's how-to watercolor book.

A page in Wyzgala’s how-to watercolor book. Photo by Izzy Gut.

After five years of dedication, Wyzgala now keeps busy with emails for potential projects, sometimes even working on up to five pieces at once. These can range from tattoo designs to assigned pieces, which can sometime lead to strange requests.“If anyone ever tries to commission me to do a big muscley man I’m like, ‘You’ve seen my work, right?’” says Wyzgala, laughing.

She does step out of her comfort zone every so often. “I did one of the Chicago sports mascots and (another time) a whole set of different mascots,” Wyzgala recalls. “I loved the way it turned out, but it was definitely a challenge.”

Wyzgala says she can end up almost anywhere in the country and still be able to do what she loves. “I just want to have the freedom to do my own paintings and create,” says Wyzgala.

With that freedom, she hints at a desire to try her hand at something her fiancé, tattoo artist Justin Tauch, knows well. “I would love to find someone who can mimic the watercolor style in tattooing,” Wyzgala says. With Tauch working at Metamorph Studios in Wicker Park, “I do see it happening eventually,” she says. When it comes to her wedding this September, there is one thing Wyzgala refuses will happen. “I’m specifically not taking my name away when I get married because it’s important,” she says. Now that her name is attached to Internet searches of pin-up girls, Wyzgala is grateful for every click.

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