April Guest Artist: Karen Hollingsworth
“Time has stopped – the billow of the curtain and breaking surf make that clear – and we experience This One Moment in its complete depth and richness.”
It’s time for the next installment of my guest artist series, and I’m thrilled that Karen Hollingsworth has agreed to join me today. I’ve followed her work for about 3 years, and the new pieces continue to amaze and delight. It’s been a real pleasure to talk with Karen (well, email is the new talking) and write this feature.
I tend to look at paintings fast; probably way too fast. It’s a bad approach; it isn’t helpful for me or fair to the artist. One thing I’m really loving about this guest artist series is that it’s forcing me to slow down, and really spend good quality time with the paintings of artists I genuinely admire.
I’m so happy I’ve been able to spend that kind of time with Karen’s paintings, since her work is the absolute opposite of art-at-a-glance. Though they certainly can be appreciated on the surface as beautiful and technically accomplished pieces, like all really worthwhile art, they require thoughtful consideration. And they repay handsome dividends for the effort.
The first paintings of hers I saw were from a series of paper bags and packing boxes; simple, unassuming subjects that turn out to be artistic gold-mines. I really love paintings that explore an idea almost obsessively, that work out all the variety of a given, restricted range. By narrowing the elements to just a few similar textures, colors, and shapes, she is able to intensively explore the differences within that scope. When arranged into a classically balanced composition, the result is a thoroughly satisfying and vivid painting.
Although she has done a wide range of work (including other still life and portraits) the paintings that she is probably best-known for, and the ones that have constituted the bulk of her output recently, have been large, airy room-scapes.
These pieces resist simple categorization. Interior paintings have certainly been around for a long time, and Karen also blends elements of still life and even landscape into these works. But there’s really something else going on here; they feel more like genre paintings, where the people have been replaced by chairs. She’s found a way to talk about relationships – both between individuals and between individuals and the external world – without actually painting people. I find this indirect approach endlessly intriguing. It’s a fascinating visual language.
Sometimes the relationship reveals dramatic tension, even understated aggression, like in the above painting. At the very least, it reads like a quiet conversation suddenly interrupted… perhaps worse. The stable, orderly grid created by the window, table, and chairs at the table is broken by the abrupt angles of the chair in the foreground, which even feels like it’s in sudden motion.
There’s an emotional ambiguity in some of her paintings. I don’t quite know how to react to this painting; it makes me feel both cheered and subdued. Is it an island of warmth and comfort, as the hint of floral pattern on the seat cover suggests, or is the real center of gravity the desolate winter scene outside? This ambiguity makes for a powerful artistic expression; there doesn’t need to be only one answer… life just isn’t like that most of the time.
Even while working within the confines of particular series, Karen is also a real risk-taker. This in particular is an unusual composition. I spent a lot of time looking at this painting, trying to figure out why it works, when, well… it shouldn’t, at least according to the conventional wisdom. The choices are unorthodox; the horizon line carried (approximately) into the room by the chair rail, and occurring more or less at the center of the painting. The slant of the chair back strongly reinforced by the left-hand drape, and only slightly counteracted by the curve of the right-hand drape. The illusion of the surf about to spill over the window sill. Yet it all adds up to a fascinating, unexpected, and ultimately successful canvas.
The main emphasis of these pieces, though, seems to be to create a warm, inviting, and deeply nourishing psychological space… and what a comforting space these rooms are. If I were ever truly distraught, this is exactly where I’d like to go to be safe.
In a way they seem like metaphors for the ideal relationship between the inside and outside worlds we all experience. Although there’s a clear-cut separation between the inner and outer worlds, there’s an easy harmony between the two; the atmosphere flows back and forth, the light and presumably sound spill effortlessly across the barrier.
I wasn’t at all surprised when Karen mentioned that she is interested in meditation; her paintings are thoroughly infused with a gentle, Zen-like calm. Time has stopped – the billow of the curtain and breaking surf make that clear – and we experience This One Moment in its complete depth and richness.
As I was sitting down to write this, I realized I had actually asked fewer questions about her process than I had originally intended. That’s probably a healthy thing; I’ve been thinking about an Annie Dillard quote lately: “Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work”. Often enough, focusing too much on process misses the point, and I don’t want to miss the point with Karen’s painting. After spending time with one of them, I usually just plain feel better.
So, now on the to real point of the feature, my interview with Karen:
JH: You mentioned on your website biography that your experience working as nurse helped you become a better painter. Can you say a little more about that?
KH: Working as a nurse was the hardest job I ever had. It combines extreme physical labor, the need for meticulous organization, along with intense psychological stress. Compared with nursing, staying home, and painting is like being on vacation. As in nursing, I continue to maintain a schedule. I start my days early, and attempt to remain organized, and focused. There are times when I do just want to stop, but as in nursing, I push through it in order to meet the commitments I have made. There is a component in nursing that requires you to put yourself last. You’re devoted to your patient, and you search for creative ways to make them more comfortable, and promote healing. I believe that in some way, I’m reaching out to those people who enjoy my work. Striving to create an environment in my compositions that is also healing. My compositions are calming, and relaxing for me as well. I think the main thing working as a nurse has taught me was to be a kinder, and more giving person.
JH: It looks like you’ve always (or at least recently) focused on doing paintings in series. What kind of advantages have you found to working that way? Are there disadvantages to working in series?
KH: There are definite advantages to working in a series. One painting tends to lead you into the next. Along the way you discover little things that improve the next composition. In this way you can expand, and improve on your original theme. Occasionally you’ll reach a point where you’ll feel like you’ve really nailed it. I’ve read a lot of books where the authors earlier work has lead them to that one book that tells a story perfectly. Like John Irving building up to The World According to Garp, and the early works of Marilyn French’s that lead to The Woman’s Room. Another example would be the early movies of Quentin Tarantino leading to Pulp Fiction. One of the disadvantages of painting in a series is that the galleries, and collector’s tend to only want the paintings that fit into that series. If you come up with a great idea to paint something different, they will try to discourage you from moving in that direction. This can leave you with the difficult task of finding buyers for the odd painting in the bunch. I think it’s human nature to collect similar, familiar items.
JH: I understand you use a very fixed and structured palette. Can you tell me something about it? Has it evolved over time or did you find a palette that worked and stayed with it?
KH: When I first began to paint in oils, I studied under portrait artist Nancy Honea. She taught me to arrange the colors on my palette in a specific way. It worked for me then, and I still follow her method most of the time now. Darks, to blue, to green, to red, and to yellow. I pretty much use all brands of oils, with no particular favorite. I’m frequently change the way I mix my colors. It’s very intuitive. I think most people would find it difficult to follow my mixing technique. It’s all in my head, but not in the language center!
JH: What kind of lighting do you use while painting?
KH: I found, after much trial and error, that the best lighting set up so far, is two photographic reflector lights, with 300 watt clear bulbs. I direct the lights toward our white ceiling reflecting it back onto my canvas. This creates an even light with little or no glare. I tend to paint into the night, so I do need artificial light. When I used to paint with direct light, I found that the painting, when moved to a gallery or a home, appeared dark and desaturated. With my new lighting I find the finished painting stands up to the dim lighting of a normal home, and the direct lighting of the gallery.
JH: Is there a work from a non-visual artistic field (like a play or a piece of music) that has had some impact on your painting?
KH: Yes there is, but my most valuable creative source comes from meditation. I’ve started meditation about a year ago, and I think my friends are tired of hearing me talk about it, but it’s an amazing way to unleash creative visual ideas.
JH: If you could go back to the beginning of your painting career and give yourself one piece of good advice, what would it be?
KH: I think the advice I’d give to my previous self from my present self would be, “don’t worry”. Your perceived mistakes are as important as your successes. Art is a subtle accumulation of knowledge, that reveals itself when you try not to anticipate what’s going to happen next. Enjoy the ride, and appreciate your level of skill at whatever point you are at at that moment. When the time is right for you to see your next inspiration, it will magically present itself. It’s kind of strange, but very joyful. Pay attention to the beauty in everything, and keep your eye’s, and heart open, ready for that next adventure.
JH: And just for fun, what do you listen to while painting?
KH: I tend to listen to movies, tv, audiobooks, and music. Various parts of the painting lend themselves to different types of background entertainment. When I’m painting curtains, oceans and mountains, I like music. Classical, jazz, and latin feels like the movements of my brush. It’s like a kind of dance. It can be very exhilarating. When I’m doing very tight work, like the molding around windows, chairs or any area with straight lines, I put on a movie. It’s funny but, when I look at one of my paintings, even after a long period of time, I can still remember what I was listening to while I painted it.
JH: Finally, can you pick one painting of yours that you like in particular?
KH: I recently completed a painting titled Annie’s Place that I love (see above). When it was finished it filled me with so much joy. I just couldn’t stop looking at it. It’s an interior room, with a long table, and four chairs, in front of an open window. The curtains move to a gentle breeze, and through the window you see soft mountains fading off to the horizon. A cup of tea, and fresh cut oranges sit on the table, and on one of the chairs an inquisitive bird sits to check out my breakfast. In this narrative I have gone to visit my fictitious friend Annie. She has a wonderful life living in the mountains. Annie is a loving person who dotes on her friends, and always makes them feel welcome. This painting represents the first day of my visit with Annie. I think a psychiatrist would have a field day with me. Nevertheless, I want to share a bit of the mental medicine I use to ease the pain, and fear in my own brain.
Well that wraps it up for this month’s guest artist feature. I want to thank Karen over and over for agreeing to participate, and taking the time to write her thoughtful responses. Please have a look at Karen’s work at her website. If you live in or are visiting Arizona, Massachusetts, Texas, Florida, or Georgia, you can see her work in person at her galleries. She also offers prints at her website.
Naturally I wanted to keep this feature all about Karen, but of course she is married to Neil Hollingsworth, who was a guest here recently. I spent a great afternoon with them when they were in Boston a few years ago. You just couldn’t ask to meet two nicer people, and it’s a scary amount of talent living under one roof.