Something new under the sun

Artist and UF instructor Chelsea Cantrell loves working in the elements and the element of surprise.

Home » Arts & Entertainment
Posted May 4, 2023 | By Julie Garisto

Chelsea Cantrell is an educator, illustrator, animator, photographer and printmaker whose works blend elements and themes, and bridge art with science, history and technology. [Supplied]

Chelsea Cantrell’s imagination has transported her into cartoon universes, but recently she has created abstract works with the help of the sun—to both manipulate and surrender control of her abstract prints. 

The accomplished artist’s creative process started by working with cyanotype, what she calls the original blueprint. Widely used in photography in the 1800s, cyanotype yields “fun and surprising results depending on the conditions you give it,” she said. 

For “Solis: Works on Paper,” Cantrell’s solo exhibition of new works at 8th Ave. Gallery, the 31-year-old multimedia/mixed media artist let the whims of nature have their way with her works, combined with just a few substances such as sodium carbonate and vinegar, plus cyanotype and water (sparingly) to affect the outcome of her pieces.

“There’s no paint, no watercolor,” she said. “Maybe, there’s a brushstroke here or there, and some of the pieces have a paste medium to create a texture on the paper. So, that’s it. And that was also what really thrilled me about this process was just the range of color that you can control just by understanding chemistry and creating these looks that look like oil paint, that looked like watercolor, but you’re not using a brush at all. You’re just letting it naturally expose.” 

A lecturer and animator with the University of Florida’s (UF) Digital Worlds Institute, Cantrell specializes in character animation and digital illustration. Originally from Melbourne, Florida she joined the production team UF in November 2015 as a motion graphics animator.

Her mother, Karin Cantrell, is an artist and runs an embroidery company. Her services include graphic design and the embroidery of uniforms, hats, T-shirts and polos.

“They’ll bring her the concepts at times, and she’ll help them develop a logo that translates really well through thread,” Cantrell said, “and when she goes home, she knits.”

One of Cantrell’s Phoenix pair that emerged as a result of a failed large format print; rewashed with sodium carbonate to develop a reprint. The sanded paper texture mixed with the pre-moistened surface developed a flame appearance, resulting in the name; 21”x24”

Born in Germany, Karin imparted a strong work ethic, and both Cantrell’s mom and American dad are do-it-yourselfers—positive influences who motivated young Chelsea to work on her art and earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts in animation and a Master of Fine Arts in illustration, both from the Savannah College of Art and Design.

The multitalented artist and instructor now lives in Gainesville with her partner, Aaron Karlson, also an artist, who helped frame her works.

Along with teaching six courses at UF this semester, Cantrell freelances as an art director for print publications and for illustrated and animated projects. Her cartoon characters have appeared on “Rooster Teeth” and Netflix. She also hosts and organizes workshop sessions to give her students an opportunity to work with industry professionals and learn industry tips.

Cantrell’s recent work in “Solis” offered no end of surprises, she said.

“I felt like I was controlling the chemicals that I was using, but every single one was controlling me, essentially,” she explained.

In her large print, “Solar Flare,” a “big blue strike through the middle” emerged in the shape of a flame.

“That piece constantly surprised me, constantly shocked me,” Cantrell said.  “It did not turn out at all how I planned.”

Indeed, a certain vulnerability comes with such risk-taking while on deadline.

“The biggest takeaway that I have while making a career from art is that you’re not going to please everyone,” she said. “You’re not gonna make everybody love the work that you do, but you can connect with everyone through process. Because no matter what someone creates, there’s a process to it.”

The exhibition project started serendipitously, too, when 8th Ave. Gallery owner Seth Benzel suggested Cantrell’s approach to the works in “Solis.” An avid gardener, she showed him sun-exposed cyanotypes of pressed leaves.

His response was not what she expected.

“It’s really funny, the interaction I had with him,” Cantrell recounted. “Seth didn’t even look at any of the plants. He just looked at this one little corner that had a wine stain on it because I washed it with a bleaching agent, and toned it with some natural tones, like wine and tea. He said, ‘Hey, why don’t you just do a bunch of those?’ I was like, ‘Okay.’”

So, for the entire time between January and the exhibition opening day, Cantrell experimented with solar exposure, baking soda, vinegar and other substances.

“Every single piece in the exhibition is an experiment of light movement, chemical reactions, and just me trying to push those agitations as far as they can go,” she said.

They’re not all developed the same; they’re all individuals in their own right.”

Some pieces were a rebirth, such as the two pieces titled “Phoenix 1” and “Phoenix 2.”

“It’s a two-parter,” she explained. “They don’t line up. They’re not the same size, and they don’t even look alike, but I named them together because they were cut from the same sheet of paper that was a failed print. … So, I rewashed it and I re-exposed it, and what came from the rewash and the re-exposure was just absolutely beautiful. One of them ended up looking like a bird and the other had the shape of a bird with wings outstretched. So, I was like, okay, rising from the ashes of something that failed. Here, you’re going to become perfect.”

Chelsea Cantrell’s “Solis” is on view through May 21 at 8th Ave. Gallery, 1531 NE 8th Ave., Ocala. To learn more, go to and

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