Karen Hollingsworth is a great figurative realist painter who resides in Atlanta, Georgia. I saw her work online www.karenhollingsworth.com, was moved by it and decided that I had to try to do an interview with her. I'm glad we chatted. Karen is open and warm and great to talk with. She used to be a nurse! Check out our chat. I promise, you'll enjoy it.
MICHAEL: Hi Karen. Your work is so lovely and serene. I immediately feel relaxed while looking at it. I feel like I want to live in that space. Can I assume that this elegance and serenity comes from within you?
KAREN: Hi Michael, I think that the concept for my "windowscape" compositions comes from a place in me that wants to feel safe and serene. I've had some challenges in my life and I carry around some emotional turmoil. But when I start to paint these gentle rooms and beautiful scenes, I start to relax and feel joy. My hope was to share that feeling through my paintings. Yet every once in a while, I feel the need to throw in a tornado outside the window. So I guess turmoil wins out sometimes.
MICHAEL: I see the turmoil as you describe it, as a touch of humor. Elephants on the beach outside that fantastic window? Nice. I also get a strong sense of order and cleanliness from your work and I love the way you create light. It's as if light is flowing from the white linen drapes as opposed to shining on them. I love beach houses and your work makes me want to live on the beach even more.
KAREN: Thanks Michael, I really have always wanted to live on the beach too. So painting the beach is the next best thing. I think my biggest challenge with compositions is to try new ideas. I have huge lists of ideas, many more animals in the paintings, and toy airplanes flying around rooms. But the windowscape compositions, with the fruit and tables, seem to be what my buyers most want. My galleries will tell me they have buyers waiting for a kind of painting and I do like having money to live on, so I will repeat themes. But sometimes during the repetition, I'll find another creative path that takes me into wonderful ideas. So it really is all good.
MICHAEL: I also love your paper bag still lifes. The lights, shadows and folds and crinkles in the bags are fantastic. Paper bags are so mundane and ordinary, but you've really elevated them. How did you get the idea to paint them?
KAREN: It's funny that you brought up the paper bags. I just started a new painting that has many paper bags in it along with boxes and chairs. It's an old subject matter for me, but I'm adding into it a beautiful bluebird. That brings it into my more recent work. I'm excited to get started on those bags again. The idea to paint paper bags came from several sources, but originally, I took a drawing class many years ago and the teacher would set up very ordinary objects in the center of the room, and adjust the lights on them to allow you to see all the wonderful planes and shapes. We were working in charcoal at the time, but I always thought that their color looked amazing in that light. Years later, when I was painting mostly still life, one day when I was emptying my groceries and I put the empty paper bags on the floor, I happened to see them illuminated from the sunshine from a window, and I thought, "Why not?" Just like sheets on a bed. When the morning light hits wrinkled bed sheets just right, they look so beautiful. They just scream, "Paint me!"
MICHAEL: Writing works the same way for me. Something will scream, "Write me!" and I must start writing immediately so that I'm writing from an authentic, inspired place. However, when you're painting, are you always inspired? Can you start painting first and then the inspiration follows?
KAREN: For me, the inspiration comes before I start painting. I'll start with a cool idea for a painting, then usually I'll do some photography and work with the photos to come up with a composition that makes me happy. Then the drawing and by that time, most of my choices have been made. When I start the painting, it's lots of problem solving, trying to create the color and the likeness of the subject matter. But there are periods of joy all through the process. When a color or a brush stroke brings the subject to life, it's like wonderful little moments. I'm sure it's very similar to writing. The painters I know who work in abstract or looser styles seem to get their inspiration through the process of creating the painting spontaneously.
MICHAEL: When did you first come to the realization that you were an artist? In other words, do you recall when you first said, "I'm an artist!" ?
KAREN: I know that as a small child, like five or six, if someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, the answer was, an artist. I'm not even sure where I learned that someone could be an "artist". But after I grew up, I gave up the idea of becoming an artist. I married young and realized early that I would have to get an education in order to keep from living in poverty my whole life. I was working as a nursing assistant at the time, so it wasn't too big a jump to see that I could become a nurse. I graduated from nursing school at the age of 25. I spent the next few years working evenings and night shifts and then going through a much needed divorce. It wasn't till I was 30 that I began to draw again. I was living with my now husband, Neil (a.k.a James Hollingsworth, also an artist), who was an amazing artist and my inspiration. He encouraged me to pursue art and was very supportive of my work. I started taking art classes and then ended up pursuing portraiture as my goal. I joined art groups and took part in shows and competitions and stayed busy doing portrait commissions for very little money. I still didn't feel like I could call myself an "artist". It wasn't till I was able to quit my job as a nurse and began living on my income made through art that I felt like I could legitimately call myself an "artist". I felt very strange in the beginning to say "artist" instead of "nurse" as an occupation. But it felt really great too! But I realize now that this is more than an occupation. It's a way of seeing. And if you have that, you are an artist even if you have never made a penny.
MICHAEL: Does your experience as a nurse aid your work as an artist? I would think there's a unique sense of empathy and insight.
KAREN: I've thought about that question before. I think working as a nurse taught me how to be more organized and focused. I tend to be a bit on the lazy side. I could easily spend a day in bed watching tv if I did what I wanted. But after years of getting up at 5am and also working nightshifts, and being short staffed and working so hard your legs feel like they are going to die, I found that I became less lazy. Now I wake up, check my email and have a cup of coffee. And maybe watch a little tv while I eat some breakfast and then do a little yoga. Then I start work. Sometimes I talk to artists who have never had jobs that required them to work as hard as nurses. And they don't seem to get as much done. I work hard as an artist, but compared to my life as a nurse, I feel like I'm on vacation. About the empathy, I think that I have a need to help people. Now that I don't work directly with people, I still feel like I'm reaching out through my subject matter and trying to ease them. I want to try and help people see that there is still beauty in this world, even when you are suffering. I'm also trying to ease my own suffering.
MICHAEL: Speaking of empathy and suffering ... what do you think about the art world and the art market today?
KAREN: I feel pretty good about the art world today. It seems like realism is back in popularity and that's good for me. And with the internet, art has so much exposure, so that's exciting. I can spend lots of time looking through all the wonderful artwork without having to leave my house, although nothing beats seeing art in person. And artists are much more in control of their business than before. You can sell directly to buyers through internet sites. And I think artists have more control with galleries than in the past. With websites, you can see what is available and how things are selling in different parts of the country. The art market is more transparent. I feel pretty lucky that my paintings are still selling in this economy. And I'm hopeful for the future. I think when we look back on this time we will find it to be one of the most creative periods in art. So call me Pollyanna.
MICHAEL: The fact that your art is selling in this economy is great. However, I still think that the secondary market and the art media are SO focused on Picasso, Monet and Warhol. It's as if super-talented, LIVING artists don't even exist.
KAREN: Honestly Michael, I really don't follow that market. That seems more like investors and a world that I don't know much about. My paintings aren't cheap, but they don't even have a baby toe in that world. I wouldn't know how to comment on that subject. I follow the market for present day artists whose work moves me.
MICHAEL: I think that MOST people don't follow that market, which is certainly the point. I think that the art market and the way it's portrayed in the media really reinforces the notion to the public that art is beyond their reach. Of course, this is great for Picasso and Warhol who command top dollar. Still, this makes it more difficult for emerging artists because
people think they have to be rich to collect their work as well. You might not agree.
KAREN: That's true and that's why it's wonderful that through the internet, artists and art lovers can connect without a gallery or dealer. For many years, I sold my paintings on ebay. I was able to sell enough to live on and people were able to buy my paintings at affordable prices. And there are many influential buyers there. I sold several paintings to Elizabeth Edwards when her husband John Edwards was running for President. It's a wonderful outlet for emerging artists. I took advantage of lots of different venues to get my artwork out there. I sat in malls with craft shows, I joined art clubs and co-op galleries and entered competitions. If I saw an opening, I took it. When other artists seemed put off by me selling my work on ebay, I'd say, "It's not sexy, but it's a fantastic way to sell and keep building your skills." You find out really fast if you're painting something interesting or not. No hits, no bids. More people can see your work in a 10-day auction than will see it in a gallery in a year. Being a painter doesn't come with any guarantees, even if you're good. There are dues to pay, but if you love it and you try to keep your ego out of it, you can have a great life.
MICHAEL: Believe me, that's true for other careers too. Not just art.
KAREN: It's hard for people who love art to imagine that lots of people don't have a clue why people even buy art. My neighbor just shakes his head and says, "People really pay you good money for that?" To him, art isn't on his radar. But he gives tons of money to his church. We all see things differently. I'm not sure if I answered your question and I do realize that the big money is going to go for the Picassos and Warhols. However, I'm in the game and having a great time. So for me, every day I feel like I've won the lottery.
MICHAEL: Very cool. Something just occurred to me about your work. It's also very contemplative and cinematic given the way you bring light into the pictures. Light is actually one of your subjects or characters. It's like that moment when an object in a movie is sitting in darkness and then a door opens and the light comes flooding in and you expect something to happen (good or bad) to the person or object in the frame. Your use of light creates expectation about what might happen next, even though it's a still life.
KAREN: I think you're right. I think after a lifetime of TV and movie addiction, I do seem to frame my paintings through that kind of vision. I love what light does to everything. But I couldn't have phrased it so beautifully. Thank you for putting into words how I feel about light. It's really the main character!
MICHAEL: Cool. Oh, I know what I wanted to ask you. Do you listen to music when you paint? What kind of music do you like? When I look at your work, I think ambient music. You know, music without specific melody and with lots of breathing room between notes.
KAREN: You got that right. Lots of piano and guitar solo music. Liz Story, George Winston, Jesse Cook and so many more. I love Pandora radio too. What a wonderful invention. Music has a big affect on what I'm painting. I find that if I'm painting curtains, it helps to have powerful classical music. I loosen up, and use bigger brush strokes and larger movements. It's like the music fuels my motion. Weird, huh? But it makes for very cool curtains. If I have to paint small details and sit for long periods, I find that listening to a story works well. That would be either on audiobooks or a movie. Sometimes even years later, I can look at parts of a painting and remember what story I listened to while I painted it. My husband says he has the same memory too.
MICHAEL: If there's a message that your body of work has thus far, what would that message be? I'm asking because I definitely get a message and I'd like to see if I'm in sync.
KAREN: I don't have a sense of a specific message, so I would be very curious to hear your ideas. I think for me (for most of my paintings), it's about finding that place in myself that's blissful. I think the peaceful rooms might be about finding the peaceful place in myself. And the beauty of the scene outside the windows is my sense of wonder and pleasure from being part of this amazing planet. So maybe the message is about seeing beauty and letting it carry you to a wonderful place. I've spent a huge part of my life focusing on the things that aren't the way I want them to be. Now I'm trying to accept what is and even start to love what happens.
MICHAEL: Wow, I'm stunned. Yes. I had narrowed it down to one word; Zen. Not necessarily in an Eastern philosophy sense, but in terms of being in the here and now and enjoying the moment. I suppose creation really isn't possible without actually being in the moment and recognizing what exists NOW so that you can capture it. Finally Karen, most people who see your work probably won't ever get a chance to chat with you the way we're doing now. What would you like your work to say to them?
KAREN: I don't remember where I heard this, but it went something like this. If you find the thing that makes you happy and other people find value in that thing too, then you will be successful. As an artist, I spent many years painting what I wanted, without paying much attention to what the reaction was from other people. And I wasn't very successful. But when I found this idea for creating these peaceful rooms, I think I found that connection with others. I guess what I would like to say to others is that wonderful Gandhi quote, "Be the change that you want to see in the world." I interpret that as if you were able to create the world the way you would like it, what would it look like? Then, act accordingly. For me, it means painting images that inspire myself and other people into a sense of wonder and happiness. Also, trying to be kind to others, all living things, whenever I can. It may start out with just being kinder to yourself. Sorry to get all preachy. But I spend lots of time thinking these thoughts and so that's what I'd like to say. So call me a hippie and we'll leave it at that.
MICHAEL: Karen, your thoughts are quite apparent in your work which is great. What a pleasure this has been. I think you get the prize for answering more of my questions that any other artist! Thanks for hanging with me.
KAREN: Thanks Michael, It's been fun for me too.
Wanna see Karen's work? Check out her website at www.karenhollingsworth.com.