Line between happiness, devastation explored in art exhibit in Hamtramck

Erica Hobbs
Special to The Detroit News

When painter Caitlin Cartwright taught English in Namibia while in the Peace Corps, she was drawn to a particular student. Kaino was a joyful young girl who loved to laugh, usually covering her nose and mouth with her hands as she did so. She always wore a red beanie cap that covered her forehead, leaving only her eyes visible when she laughed. 

One day, Kaino was playing and swimming in one of the deep ponds that formed after a heavy rainstorm and drowned. Cartwright was distraught when she heard the news, shocked at how quickly an afternoon of joy turned into devastation, ending the life of one so young. That night, she dreamed of Kaino, a vision of the girl’s face beneath the water with just her eyes showing beneath her hat. 

"Flooded," by Caitlin Cartwright

A year after Cartwright returned to the United States, the image continued to haunt her, prompting the first in a series of paintings based on this traumatic experience.

“It was just kind of my way of trying to find peace for her and express love and support,” she said. “But since then, I use that image a lot, because it’s so striking and stuck with me.”

More than a decade later, a new series based on this experience will open Saturday at Hamtramck’s Disco Walls, a gallery and event space that opened in May. “Under Water” will feature more than a dozen works, showcasing the common motif of eyes and water, painted with bright colors and silhouettes.

Disco Walls owner Julie Sailus said when she met Cartwright, who moved to Detroit from Dayton, Ohio, a year ago, she was immediately drawn to her work and the artist herself. 

“The eyes in her work are always very captivating,” she said. “The body, the scenes — they’re so beautiful and lush.”

"Under Water," by Caitlin Cartwright

Cartwright said the theme is more than a representation of one event. For her, specific stories form the basis for larger concepts that she hopes will connect people from different walks of life based on shared experiences. In the case of her Hamtramck exhibition, water is used as a symbol to explore the fluidity between happiness and tragedy, inviting viewers to question whether those depicted in the image are enjoying a moment of fun and leisure or one of struggle.

“Water is life-giving, oceans can provide solace and relaxation, time spent at pools and lakes often leave us with formative happy memories,” she said. “Conversely, water can bring destruction in floods, drownings and harrowing journeys across oceans.” 

Cartwright said “Under Water” is also meant to draw parallels to modern day’s struggle with COVID-19 and trying to find joy while navigating devastation.

“Through the pandemic, social injustice and the deep reflecting that many of us have done, we are seeing the innate fragility of our dreams, and of life itself,” she said. “We have seen how quickly things can be lost and turn from happiness to tragedy.”

Cartwright aims to re-create that in-between feeling at Saturday’s opening with an immersive experience. In addition to her art and refreshments, the event will feature a stop-animation projection that brings a painting to life, as well as coordinating music and light. Pieces will be available for sale between $150 and $2,500. Unvaccinated visitors are asked to wear masks to enter.

In addition to Saturday, the exhibition will also be available to view Nov. 20 as well as at the space’s upcoming public events in November, including a painting class Nov. 18 (enrollment in the class is not required) and a holiday shopping event Nov. 21. Sailus said she’s excited to share Cartwright’s art and would also make the exhibition available by private appointment.

“I think it’s a lot different than a lot of the work that I see in Detroit,” she said. “I really want people to come in and see the color and movement in her work.”

"Reflect," by Caitlin Cartwright

Cartwright said she enjoys sharing Kaino’s story and hopes her art evokes something in viewers.

“That’s what I hope to do with my work in general,” she said, “start with a story and give people an access point to see a reflection of themselves.” 

'Under Water' by Caitlin Cartwright

Saturday through Nov. 30 at Disco Walls

2600 Belmont, Hamtramck

Visit for more information.