Caroline M. Sun started drawing the same way most kids do. “They give you a crayon and you start doing it,” she said. But it would be decades before the Jamaica resident would rediscover her love of art as an adult.
While an undergrad at Queens College, Sun’s realization that she did not want to be a doctor spurred her to go to law school. A damages case against Kodak, in what was supposed to be the pinnacle of her career, turned out to be “not much fun,” so Sun, now 46, started painting.
“Sure enough, I just kept doing it, and then it took over my life,” said Sun, who returned to Queens College to get her MA, but, before she could complete her dissertation on animal breeding in the 18th century, decided that she “preferred the process of creating to commentating.”
It was already clear that Sun was not like “most painters.” She was mostly self-taught, like her hero, 19th century French painter Henri Rousseau. And she only painted animals.
Her boldly effusive, sparingly detailed creations recall not only the colorful paintings of Gauguin, van Gogh and Matisse, but art of the early Americas, which she encountered as a researcher at Queensborough Community College preparing 1,000 to 2,000-year-old Pre-Columbian art for exhibit.
“I feel an ancient impulse in my genes to depict animals the way ancient people depicted animals,” she said. “I thought, ‘it’s wonderful that I am holding something that a person created hundreds of years ago, but I can understand it and recognize its beauty.’ ”
A big fan of animal stories, everything from Watership Down to “March of the Penguins,” has inspired the animal narratives in Sun’s work. Although most of her animals only reveal these stories to her once she has painted them, one recurring character always remains the same.
When she and her husband rescued their cat, Enoki, from where he lay on the side of the road, he was sick, sneezing and had a bad eye. The vet was not sure he would live. At the time, the couple had three cats and planned to bring Enoki to a shelter, but “the minute he started eating, I fell in love with him.” She painted “Enoki Dreams” during those first weeks, while the cat was recovering.
Her other animals, though fictional, “have their own lives and own names that I don’t know.” A pack of snarling wolves in “The Conflict” allegorizes the most vicious standoffs between humans. “Whatever I’m feeling works into the painting, but they’re general situations that we, as humans, find ourselves in, translated into animals in those same situations,” explained Sun.
Her animals are totally imagined and always exude a sense of calm, whether an elephant, zebra or killer whale. She starts with a single gesture, like the framing of a polar bear’s body around her cub, and ends with a background that reflects the mood conveyed by her main subject.
“I feel the animals inherently,” she said. “I have an intuitive sense of the animal’s shape. It starts with any sort of feeling. I see a shadow or a shape on the canvas. Then I paint a rough image of the shape. I carve into it like it’s a sculpture and the animal starts to appear.”
In that case, her animals’ lives, driven by gradual discovery, resemble her own. While a Premed contemplating the MCAT, she never could have imagined the course her narrative would take.
“One thing leads to another. You can’t plan ahead of time, and you’re influenced as you go…Life’s an adventure. You might as well have an interesting trip.”