Kari Feuer is a lovely artist who creates luscious, abstract expressionist works on canvas.  Her paintings http://www.karifeuer.com/ are very fluid and organic and so is she.  We had a great chat about her work and how she manages to be an artist while heading up an all-volunteer arts organization.  I’m already tired.  Here’s our cool chat…

MICHAEL: Hello Kari, when I first looked at your paintings on your website, the first thing I thought was, "Organic Color Blocking."  To me, it looks like you're celebrating colors and blocking them in a very natural as opposed to a geometric-type way.  No?

KARI: People always notice the color first, and color is a place that I often start with.  I do very little sketching.  I generally go right to the canvas with a knife full of pigment.  And you're right, "geometry" is not in my visual vocabulary!  All my shapes and lines are very organic, so instead of color blocking, I would say that color-mapping might be a little more accurate. 

MICHAEL: Color mapping.  I like that.  And so, given that, would you say your work is about color or are you using color to express some narrative?

KARI: My landscape paintings, when I first started some years ago, were very much about color.  I felt that was the most direct way to express the excitement that I felt being outdoors and in nature.  At that time, I was working mostly in soft pastels, using a huge range of individual colors that are applied directly and mixed only on the paper.

Now that I'm working in paint, I have a slightly different approach to using color, but I guess it's still a vehicle for a kind of expressionism, for emotion. Years ago, I had a great, hard-ass teacher who taught color-mixing (in oils) so that I can mix anything on the palette, but I actually prefer to give up that control much of the time, to let my colors mix on the canvas as I work. I like the surprises.

Actually, my narrative is more closely tied to values, which I consider more important and interesting.  When I teach landscape painting, I tell my pupils that they can use any color they want (so they don't get enmeshed in trying to be super-representational), IF they get the values (the darks and lights) down correctly.

My feelings about nature and the landscape are that it's fragile, ephemeral, and sometimes scary.  I'm crazy about darks, and often paint on a black canvas so that the shadows and undertones come up right away.  All my work has a wide light and dark range.

MICHAEL: What dominates your creation of these works?  Is it emotion, intellect or spirit?

KARI: I'm going to rule out intellect except in my acrylic and collage "GPS" series, which is where I express my frustration with our over-developed land use and throw-away culture in a more direct way.  But my oil paintings, both representational and abstract, come down in the middle of emotional and spiritual, I guess because when I was very young, nature and the outdoors were very accessible to me, while my family and school seemed more remote.

We have a better visual arts description in this culture for describing the poignancy and poetry of nature than, say, written poetry.  While pondering this question, I happened across a line from Arabian poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab describing, “The sea stroked by the hand of nightfall…”  It's that kind of compelling, visual observation that prompts me to paint.  I just breathe harder when I see dark branches criss-crossing the sky, than I do around an elegant, math theorem or an exemplary personage.

MICHAEL: Your abstracts also have a very organic, living quality.  It's as if something is evolving or growing in the paintings themselves.  Does that sound weird? 

KARI: Yeah it does, but I like it!  I think of my abstract oils as sort of “breathing,” much like the breeze or flowing water - the less concrete aspects of representing nature.  The palette knife can be very gestural, so there is a lot of physicality.

My acrylics, which are painted mainly with a brush instead of a knife, purposely have a map-like quality, and sometimes I think of the rivers of paint as conduits inside my body - synapses, arteries, and so on.  And I'm painting from the inside out instead of the outside in.  Whatever that means, but it touches on your observation.

MICHAEL: Does it matter which type of lighting you have while painting?  Is natural light better than well-placed lamps and overhead lighting?

KARI: I like natural light all the time, augmented by cool incandescent lamping, coming from several directions.  I don't paint very much after dark, because of no light from the window.  My home studio is on the second floor, overlooking the pond, and I have the easel in a big windowed dormer.

MICHAEL: What does the process of painting do for you?  Why do you do it? You could be doing something else like ... whatever.

KARI: Why do we have that push-feeling for creative expression?  Many artists of all genres seem to say that this was in them from when they were kids.  As a kid, I put on shows, wrote stories and designed houses and dresses, as play.  But for my generation (I'm over sixty), being a career-painter was considered an impossible indulgence, so I worked in the design fields and built up my savings account until I reached an age where I could make a choice between my successful business or my developing painting practice (they weren't co-existing very well).  It didn't even occur to me at that point to give up painting.  I just retired the business!

So I guess I paint because I can - and it's not from lack of doing lots of other "whatevers" that were wonderful - making a home for my husband and son, exploring music, and at present, heading up an all-volunteer arts organization in my town.

MICHAEL: Wow.  Nice.

KARI: Painting gives back a little bit like a child does - surprises, growth, struggle, maybe eventually, a good outcome.  And then when that piece of art goes out into the world, it's so interesting to see how people interact with it.  I love it when I can guide people into a memory or toward seeing something that they hadn't noticed before.

MICHAEL: Running an all-volunteer arts organization ... Trust me, I do a lot of art volunteering, but what's THAT like? It sounds like a blast, but also limiting in terms of budget.

KARI: It's exhausting!  This was an initiative that some fellow artists and I founded about five years ago, in order to make our town an arts destination. Being only a couple of hours out of the city, we have a number of arts practitioners who make their permanent or weekend homes here.

There are financial challenges, but we're making it work on a shoestring. We have a year-round gallery in a storefront, with several small studio spaces in the back (that mainly carry the rent load).  Our hanging and jury fees make up much of the difference.  While we support all the arts, the visual artists seemed to be most in need of a physical place, and while we hate to impose fees, we keep it very reasonable.  The most onerous chore is staffing the gallery during open hours - all the artists have to commit to a few hours of gallery sitting and keeping that on course is like herding cats.

We consider the gallery a partial success, in that we're able to manage it financially, but marshalling volunteers, stimulating higher-quality exhibiting, and actually selling art are still things that we're wrestling with.  Adding outreach, fundraising, membership, publicity and yearly events like our outdoor sculpture show and film festival - it really stretches the small number of volunteers we have.  But we have made a difference in the number of vacant storefronts and the quality of the businesses moving into the village.  And we do a certain amount of partying.

MICHAEL: Have you been able to figure out why art always seems to be this overwhelming struggle?  I often ask myself, "Is this a function of art or life itself?"  To me, not everything seems as difficult as art on all levels.

KARI: I totally agree.  I've worked in lots of different business frameworks - imports, corporate, consulting - as a designer, and it's not nearly as much of a struggle.  Maybe because:

As artists we're extra hard on ourselves.  It's not cut-and-dried, so we always think the “product” could be better, or everyone else is better.  We're often blessed with introspective, intuitive personalities, but the flip side is that we have a hard time moving on and asking for the money and being hard-boiled.

The “art world” itself is such a whacky construct that, not only do artists find it difficult to function, but the rest of the world, the potential enjoyers of our art, are totally intimidated.  That makes the selling part even more difficult than it should be.  I feel like there is a much larger market out there for a fourth television in the house than there is for spending the same amount on a painting.  People have the money, but they're afraid of making an uneducated decision, especially if they think it should be some kind of investment.  Don't even get me started on that one!

So, if we artists and the world at large are all undervaluing our art, it does become a struggle.  Additionally, a piece of original art, as opposed to a TV or a pair of jeans has a much more fluid standard of “quality.”  People think of artists as magicians or charlatans, or worse yet, fools.  So it all becomes a question of the values that we, and they, place on us and our work.

It was a revelation to me to start to hear artists talk about us valuing our own work and process:  Not giving it all away for “exposure” and not doubting ourselves, but insisting on fair payment and practices.

MICHAEL: Nicely said. Do you see any parallels between the way you paint and how you live your life?

KARI: My life is pretty well-ordered and balanced, and my painting process is much the same.  I rarely have more than a couple of pieces underway at the same time, and bring most things to completion, sometimes too soon.  I'm anxious to get on to the next thing.

I like to live my regular life with bouts of travel in order to shake things up a little and get a change of scenery - same with my painting.  I alternate between representational and abstract landscapes, between oils and acrylics, or mixed media. It's like a vacation to move from one discipline to another.

MICHAEL: Where do you think your talent comes from?  Do you come from a family of artists?  How much of being an artist is nature vs. nurture?

KARI: I got musical talent from my father's side, and visual talent from my mother.  But I was the only one of four siblings who went in the visual arts direction.

My mom started painting when all of us kids left home, and she was eventually able to turn out credible paintings, though they suffered from bad judgment on the schmaltz index.  She also did a lot of that amateur thing where the pupils copy someone's existing work.  When we were young, she transferred that energy to the house, which was always undergoing some decorating re-do.  The worst one was the giant flamingo on the bathroom wall (the bad taste thing again!).

I do think there's sort of an “art gene.”  The music gene definitely came out in me and my sister, even though it skipped my father, and I taught myself to play instruments, because my parents didn't want to pay for lessons, so my nature had to overcome nurture.

Maybe even a lack of nurture was a help in my case.  I think I may have gravitated toward art and music because I was introspective and shy, and while I had friends, also just loved being by myself reading or drawing.  It was a way to carve out my own space in a largish family and cultivate something in myself that was my own, while observing my mother's usage of her own visual vocabulary.  She was very vocal about color, now that I think about it.

MICHAEL: How much of the painting process would you say depends on just putting paint on the canvas and watching what happens?  Is that more of a watercolor issue?  In other words, is there any luck or serendipity involved?

KARI: That's a big thing with my abstracts.  I'm creating shapes out of my head, and unlike water-color, am able to go back and fix them if they're not working.  I prepare a palette that covers the color wheel, then knife on various combinations, with a certain amount of color mixing happening on the canvas, so that's where the serendipity comes in. 

Sometimes it's an edge or a texture that happened with the knife, that I could not have planned. Or I use a relatively uncontrollable technique like pouring or dragging, then try to make it work.  A part of this painting is deciding which accidents to keep.  My landscapes that are more representational are more reliant on planned composition, scale and values, so they involve a lower percentage of lucky accidents.

MICHAEL: This leads me to think - yet again - that people need not be afraid of art.  The process is often so experimental for artists themselves, so why wouldn't different people have different views of the same work, despite their level of art education?

KARI:  First of all, people seem to impute to artists the status of being some kind of magician.  I'm always telling people that they too, could make art, if they have a passion for it and work on it and are willing to confront multiple failures (because it is a process of experimentation.)

That magical aura somehow transmits itself to the work and takes it out of the realm of a commodity, as it should. But that puts people on shaky ground when they are called upon to trust their own judgment.  “Do I like it?” becomes “Is it good?” which then starts to call into question whether other people will lose respect for them if they put this painting on their wall, someone will think they spent too much or it won't have any resale value...so they have to defer to their decorator or investment advisor instead of just living with something that makes their heart sing, though they don't have the vocabulary to explain why.

MICHAEL: I understand completely.  That’s why I do what I do.

KARI: The art world exacerbates this, as you often point out, by its actions in making people feel that they can't speak the language or they aren't cool enough to go into a gallery or that art is not affordable.  And we are in a culture that doesn't value things that can't be commodified or that are experimental:  Everything has to boil down to a dollar value.  It's only good if it costs a lot.

MICHAEL: That’s such a shame, but that’s the way it is for many people.  Finally Kari, Long after you're gone, what do you want your body of work to say about you, your views and your life?

KARI: If I thought about what I wanted to say to other people, my work would be very different.  It doesn't connect with people in a way that I would like to be connected, not being an extroverted, empathic person.  I think I do art about a world that gave me a great deal of comfort and inspiration -nature- but almost by definition shuts out great masses of people. What I do see now and would hope is that people are inspired by something in my work that brings them closer to their own memories and experiences of being in the landscape.  But they may notice that they are missing from my paintings.

MICHAEL: Thanks Kari.  Very cool chat.

Check out Kari Feuer at http://www.karifeuer.com/.