Art on wheels

The Barter Van

Halifax artist Angela Carlsen hits the road in the Barter Van.
When Angela Carlsen decided to quit her job and travel in order to create art and barter for basic necessities, there was no turning back. For many years she had grappled with choosing a career path, yet always came back to one simple answer: she wanted to be an artist.

Angela Carlsen and travelling pal Okie. Photo: Peggy Guice

So, Carlsen set a deadline for herself and took one year to prepare. The plan was to outfit a sleeper van to work as a full-time living space and raise money and supplies for the journey by selling her art, along with all the things she no longer needed. Carlsen and The Barter Van hit the road in September.
Before this, however, she went through a period without creativity. In 2011, she took a solo road trip to Arizona with the intention of rediscovering her passion. It resulted in a reignited love of creating art and one of her most successful exhibits, which was shown at Argyle Fine Art. Soon after, Carlsen made the life-changing decision.
“After returning home from that trip with newfound inspiration, I found myself at my doctor’s office waiting room,” she says. “I was joined by an elderly couple, and as I watched them my decision was made. I didn’t want to grow old and regret not doing the things I have thought about doing my whole life. I made the decision to leave a year from that day.”
Carlsen told her boss of her plan and started planning ahead. She took on a second job, launched her blog and searched for the perfect van. Through auctions and yard sales, she prepared for her departure and was surprised by the support she received along the way. One of the most memorable gifts came from an anonymous donor; at her final yard sale, Carlsen spoke to a man who refused to give his name and gave her an envelope. He told her to open it after he left. Later, she peeked inside to find a vintage postcard and a large sum of money for her adventure.
Argyle Fine Art director Adriana Afford knows firsthand of Carlsen’s talents. The gallery hosted Carlsen’s exhibit, portraying the haunted landscapes and vintage motels of Route 66 in Arizona.
“Angela’s work was all photo based as it always is, however she used a very unique photo transfer process to create large images on board,” says Afford. “She wanted to create works that were larger than normal, and have the grains of the board show through. The process also created a weathered appearance that enhanced the images of the vintage signs along Route 66. It was a widely successful show. People are drawn to the history and mystery of that place,” she says.
Since hitting the road this fall, Carlsen has had her share of enlightening experiences. The first few weeks brought a rocky border crossing, a hike in New Hampshire that she wasn’t quite prepared for, learning the fine art of slowing down and, most traumatically, a concussion.
While passing through Highland Park, New York, Carlsen stopped at All Computer Services when her laptop had a virus. After meeting the store’s owner, Paul, and his friend Chris, she joined them for a beer. A random fainting spell ended up with Carlsen suffering a concussion and a broken nose. Her new friend took her to the hospital and cared for her afterward.
“That was a very scary experience and Paul really came to my rescue,” she says. “He would leave me at his home in the beginning to rest, checking up on me throughout the day. The thing about that experience, and all of my encounters with random kindness, is it takes trust on both sides.”
Carlsen’s travels have been eye opening, making some remarkable new friends along the way. In October, she adopted Okie, a chihuahua, from a woman selling vegetables on the side of the road. And so a travelling companion was added to the mix.

Salt flat land in the middle of Death Valley.

October also brought other highs and lows, from stumbling upon stray dogs in New Mexico in an abandoned gas station to cruising the Turquoise Trail from Santa Fe to Albuquerque. Carlsen has photographed her share of amazing sights. Memorable stops include Sky City, which is an ancient pueblo village atop a sandstone bluff, a petrified forest in Arizona and hiking in Death Valley.
Meanwhile, the artist has realized bartering may not be as easy as she had hoped. While she has gifted new friends with her postcards, it’s more challenging to trade for accommodations and goods in today’s economy.
“I was a tad naive to think people would care about receiving art instead of getting money to feed their families,” says Carlsen. “The bartering has turned out to be more of a thank-you gift for things offered. I have given postcards, artwork and buttons as gifts for food, showers and places to park for the night.”
Back in Halifax, Afford is anticipating the artwork that will come from Carlsen’s travels. The possibility of a future exhibit has been discussed, but the details haven’t been confirmed. “I suspect that she’ll be inspired by many things, especially the feeling of freedom and isolation,” says Afford. “The people she meets along the way play a big part in everything she experiences.”
Carlsen plans to travel for about six months and then head home to Halifax. She’s hoping that another successful exhibit will allow her to return back to the United States for more travelling adventures. Though she doesn’t know exactly what the future holds, she’s open to wherever the road will take her.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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