2017 Accelerator Fellow
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Oregon, but moved around a lot, from Michigan, Arizona, North Carolina, and Massachusetts, to the Virgin Islands, Georgia, Virginia, and now Maryland, where I plan to stay.
When/how did you first know that you wanted to be an artist?
I started out studying physics and wanting to become a professor. After teaching high-school math and science in a slum outside Nairobi, Kenya, I returned to the States in 2001 knowing that the knowledge I was sharing in my classes had very little to do with the aspects of my students’ lives that I cared about most–poverty, health, general quality of life. So I finished my degree in writing, believing it the best means of making a difference. But words, like formulas and equations, didn’t help me understand these things any better or participate in the kind of meaningful conversations I craved. While I made art of all kinds growing up, it became much more than play when I started working with recycled materials. What does our stuff say about us and the ways we move around in the world? How do we decide what, even who (i.e., my African students), is important and gets our attention? While I took many years and wrong turns, I’m an artist because I found my means of creating a dialogue that connects us all.
Where do you currently live/work, and how would you describe the arts community there?
Half the time, I work at home in Charlotte Hall, Maryland, a pastoral Amish community that’s about an hour south of DC. Otherwise, I’m in an open studio at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia. It’s a fantastic arts center where people of all kinds walk through our studios and watch us work, ask questions, buy gifts, and find their favorite artists to collect. After talking to hundreds of people throughout the day, I go back home to the country. Ahhhhhh…
How would you describe your art to someone who’s never seen it?
I “make paint” by taking materials that others throw away and breaking them down into color and shape to create vibrant, textural compositions that are designed to spark conversation about the elements we most cherish and wish to preserve in ourselves, each other, and the world around us.
What do you hope to communicate to your audience?
Both critical and celebratory, my pieces explore meaning through the context of material. For instance, I created What Else They Are from a photographer friend’s expired solo exhibition cards as a celebration of his art and the themes behind his work. Motivated by a growing collection of mail-order catalogs, I dismantled their pages into string and crocheted We Never Even Know We Have the Key, a collection of colorful woven chains of things to be desired. A Charge to Keep I Have was commissioned by a couple who wanted to remember and cherish a home they’d built and loved before moving out of state; the piece is made from sticks, stones, and other natural objects that they compiled over many years. My work is an invitation to explore what we value and why it matters. [To see a photo of Karen’s A Charge to Keep I Have, check out Elizabeth Hulings’ recent column on defining visual art.]
What’s been your biggest business challenge?
I find it hard to be patient while building a healthy, thriving career as an artist. my goals and expectations grow bigger every year, it’s easy to overlook the progress I’ve already made.
Tell us about a business success and what you did to achieve it.
Becoming a leaseholder for my studio. It took me two years to find the right space, partner, and wherewithal to go after it.
How do you feel about today’s technology (tools for your business, for creating your art, or both), and has it altered your way of doing business?
Technology and its efficiencies are invaluable. Square, for example, came along and made a mobile business owner of us all. On the flip side, as our world continues to speed up and increasingly value all things fast and simple, my art intentionally pushes against this trend. My larger pieces take anywhere from three to six months to make and don’t lend themselves to quick and easy conversation. In short, technology is a great tool but it is not a shortcut to substance, which is where we could all spend more time, energy, and money.
What do you think about the state of today’s art market?
Many artists are making important art and finding collectors to invest in their work. There’s plenty more at play, but that’s where I put my energy and attention.
Give us an example of how you balance studio time with business time.
Balance? Mine is more a dance with deadlines. I set goals and run at full speed to reach them. This applies to finishing new work and getting it out into the world.
How have you evolved as an artist?
Art/life makes us bigger and better people, if we’re willing to let it, and this leads to bigger and better art. Beyond gaining confidence, resilience, know-how, and skill, I’m increasingly addressing issues of political and cultural significance in my work.
How have you evolved as an entrepreneur?
I’m better at falling down and getting back up. And repeat.
What role do artists play in our society? What role SHOULD they play?
Artists shake people awake, expand their perspectives, and, ideally, become more aware of and curious about the legitimacy of others’ experiences.