Austine Wood Comarrow
Innovative Polage Artist
There are very few people in this world that can say they’ve invented an entirely new artistic medium all their own. Austine Comarow is one of these people. Austine has been creating exhibitions and collections for 50 years using a very distinct form of art she has dubbed Polage® art. A description on her personal website lists Polage art as, “colorful artwork created with no pigment of any kind.”
She uses cellulose and polarizing filters to create pieces of artwork that are transformed solely by the presence of a lightbox or polarizing viewer, making them come to life in awe-inspiring color. The effort that goes into one of these pieces is immense, like building a puzzle with your imagination, but Austine’s effort has led to major commissions in establishments ranging from The Boston Museum of Science to Disney World’s EPCOT Center.
Maui Jim has been lucky to have been in partnership with Austine for twenty years now, with her art being commissioned for and shown at many of our retail centers. She sat down with us to talk about her process, her passion for life, and her love of (polarized, to be precise) sunglasses.
After the exchange of greetings and a few laughs, we asked our first question: “We were wondering if you could tell us the story of how you discovered that certain transparent materials produce color when introduced to polarized light.”
“When I was growing up, my mother was an art teacher without a big budget so she was used to using whatever materials she could find. I came up with the idea that you don’t have to make art out of things that you buy at the art store–you can make art out of anything. That was my initial impetus so when I decided I wanted to make art, I started looking around asking, “well, what can I do?” You have to remember this was the sixties, fifty years ago this year. I’m sure this dates me, but I had small toddlers and I was trying to do oil painting and it was just messy and smelly and I was trying to find something non toxic and I just started playing around with papers and other things like that. A friend who was a physicist showed me that if you put clear cellophane, which I was already playing with, between two polarizing filters (which were new to me), you can get color, and I was like, “wow!” I immediately thought, “well, I want to control all that color so I can create imagery that is meaningful and representational,” so… that’s how I started!”
From Education to Expression
It’s hard not to be charmed by Austine when you talk to her. Every other word is punctuated by a sweet, self-deprecating chuckle and, especially when she talks about her art, her voice takes on an undeniably passionate tone. Every time we asked another question, the answer added a new level to the depth to her interesting history.
We know that you have a lot of schooling behind you and that, in fact, you have a degree in Russian language and literature. That’s a lot different from where you are now and we couldn’t help but wonder what happened that caused you to pivot from language to art?
She makes another one of those aforementioned laughs before answering, “I married very young, had my first daughter when I was nineteen, I was still in school, and it would have been very challenging to keep up with the art classes that would take me away from home for hours and hours. I found that, since I grew up in Europe and had gone to school in German and French, I already had a pretty good background in those. I was taking Russian because my father, who worked with the United Nations, thought I should be a translator! Nevertheless, I found that I could get through college a little faster taking literature and language classes instead of art. I later got a masters degree in illustration from Syracuse and that was all about art and representational art and it’s helped me a lot.”
Do you have a favorite piece or collection and if so, could you explain what makes it special to you?
“It’s always the latest one! I’m working right now on a drawing, and the drawing part of the process is my favorite part of designing a piece. You have to have a good composition and a good drawing and a lot of interesting things in it for it to be successful. Right now I’m designing a piece for the Maui Jim lobby in Peoria. That’s gonna be my favorite, I know, but it’s not finished yet.”
She pauses a moment here, likely stopping to think about her portfolio of dynamic work that spans over the last few decades: “I think one of my most recent finished ones that I love is a long, tall piece in a brand new office in China. It’s quite large and it’s an image of the Hawaiian islands with whales and dolphins and fish underwater. It’s decorated with a rainbow and hibiscus and other Hawaiian flowers. “
Speaking of pieces that are long, one of your pieces, the Labyrinthe de Lumiere in Paris, I have to ask about… it’s sixty-four feet long! How long does it take to complete a piece like that?
“Oh wow, that was back in the days when my studio was in Solana Beach, California. I had six assistants working with me. I no longer have that big of a staff, but at that time it took me over a year to do that piece. The most challenging part of it was doing the research on the accomplishments of science since the French Revolution. That’s what they wanted to emphasize. They wanted to tell the story of the development of science and technology since the French Revolution, 200 years earlier. I had to focus on French imagery, and the stories of scientists from the time. One of the images is of the first hot air balloon to be launched from the ground in Paris in 1789 and then through polarized lenses you see an image of the Space shuttle. What an amazing advance in just 200 years! You walk through this installation and through your polarized sunglasses you can see the story of many other changes over that period of time. During the middle ages and Renaissance when people weren’t all literate, the cathedrals and churches of Europe were filled with beautiful paintings to tell them Bible stories without words. I wanted to create something like that to tell the story of science.”
You’ve mentioned nature a few times, and science. With your father working with refugees and the United Nations when you were a child, we’re sure that looking outward toward helping others is innate for you. Are there any charities close to your heart?
“I’ve done several pieces and projects for Children’s Hospitals all over the country, but as for specific charities, I’m involved in a group here in Las Vegas called Impact Las Vegas. It’s actually a group of women who get together and we each give a thousand dollars a year and then collaborate on deciding which charity we collectively decide to fund. It’s nice because there’s little overhead and we get to look at proposals and discuss the things important to us. We actually just gave a grant to a group called Future Smiles. They go into schools and help impoverished children gain access to dental care and teach them about proper oral hygiene.”
I want to ask you, obviously, about your work with Maui Jim and how the relationship began. You’ve been working with us for a really long time, after all.
“This is a very important year! 2017 marks twenty years working with Maui Jim! The interesting thing is that I had back then, as a fine artist, a sort of disdain for anything commercial. But when I was approached by Maui Jim, it was a whole different animal. The way it came about was that another company, a manufacturer of polarized lenses that was exhibiting at a convention in Las Vegas, that asked me if I would like to exhibit my polarized light artwork in their booth. They were telling me this big story about how if I did it, I’d get so much exposure and sales and so on. I told them that I’d be happy to rent some art to them because I had heard those promises before and they never resulted in much of anything. They agreed to it and, amazingly it worked out much to my benefit because the editor of 20/20 Magazine saw it and saw how everyone was so taken by it. He wrote an article about my work that was seen by someone at Maui Jim who then called me up.
He said, “Oh, you know, I was just wondering what kind of sunglasses you wear.” I told him that I bought my glasses at the drugstore and that they weren’t anything special. He sent me three pairs of Maui Jims to try and when those arrived… it was unbelievable. It was a whole new world and it let me see my artwork in a whole new light. It was a total game changer! Not only did the artwork look so much better, they felt better than the 10 dollar pairs I had been wearing. They were more comfortable, easier to wear. They even felt like a piece of jewelry! And the colors!
My husband David and I started to brainstorm about how I could do a project with Maui Jim that would allow me to show my work in their stores and get that exposure while supporting a product I really loved. The problem was that we didn’t think they’d agree to it because the work I do gets pricy. Not only are the products use to make this sort of art expensive, but it is very time consuming and labor intensive. Turns out we were worrying for nothing and we came to an agreement with Maui Jim fairly easily. They asked for a lot of pieces, I managed to train an apprentice to help me, and we got it done. After they got all of those small pieces they asked for some of the larger ones and it has just grown from there. Now my two daughters help me as well as a small studio staff. Since then I’ve done everything from big trade show displays to giant lobby Polage art like the one I’m working on now. It’s been a wonderful partnership with Maui Jim because they are so great to work with. I just love what I do for them! I couldn’t be more grateful.”
The last question I have for you is about the large Polage art piece you are creating for Peoria. Can you explain to us a little bit about what that is going to be?
“I’m working on a large piece for the lobby of the Maui Jim office in Peoria since the lobby has been recently turned into a retail store. The request was for a focal point in that space and so I’m trying to make this the very best that I have ever done and am really enjoying the creative process. It will have a lot of detail. The piece will depict the beauty of Maui with its lush twin volcanos, tropical flowers and foliage as well as the surrounding watery world of whales, dolphins and myriads of colorful fish. Working on it has been a lot of fun, but I just don’t know when it’ll be done and on display. It probably won’t be up for viewing until the Fall.
When we’re done with our questions, we continue talking to Austine for a while about her artwork, make a few promises to not reveal any trade secrets, and end the call on just as positive a note as it started. It’s easy to see why we chose to take a look at her for our Ambassador Spotlight series: her passion for life and her work is infectious. Maui Jim is all about being someone who lives their best life and feels great doing it, and that’s exactly the sort of person Austine Comarow is.
If you plan on taking a look at some of her artwork or just going outside to enjoy the summer sun, don’t forget to take a look at the wide variety of polarized sunglasses available on the Maui Jim website. Aloha!