By Al Gord
Karen Robb is a Canadian visual artist based in Winnipeg, Canada. She studied at the University of Manitoba: School of Fine Arts with an emphasis on figurative work. Karen leads an incredibly busy life, working in the education sector, painting and acting as a co-curator at the Hub Gallery in Winnipeg.
Her collections have been in both group and solo shows across North America and abroad. These include New York, Miami, Mason City and the Hamptons in the United States to Shanghai, China, as well as Canada.
For Karen, art truly is her life. When not painting or curating there is still a focus on art in her household. Her partner is an established artist and Karen has future projects planned with her son, combining his growing notoriety as a social media figure with her art talents.
Karen, it is a pleasure being able to interview you. Many artists have found their way into art either as a second career or as a passion that became a career focus. In your case, it seems as if being an artist was always the plan. What was the motivation behind becoming an artist?
For me art is like breathing. However, it was not always in the plans. Life happens and art is put aside. This can be very frustrating. I would love it to be a career but that never seems to be in the cards. So I just enjoy every moment I have in the studio. I have hundreds of ideas and images rolling around in my head at any given time. They disturb my sleep and I walk with them during my waking day. They are my motivation. It is just finding the time to bring these ideas to fruition.
I find that one of the biggest challenges when starting out is finding your voice, your style, your identity as an artist. Do you remember that moment when it all came together for you?
I am not quite sure that moment ever happens. I think as an artist we are always evolving in style and trying to understand our place within these styles. I float from style to style as I like to flow with the times. So in answer to your question…I have an aha moment with each piece when I feel it all comes together and I know where the piece is going, but as far as my general art voice…I’m still in progress and always learning.
As creatives, we are always exploring and growing. It can be easy to place a label on one’s style, which makes it easy for the public to understand. How would you describe your style and identity as an artist?
Oh, that is very difficult for me as I described myself as coasting from style to style. I would definitely describe myself as a conceptual artist. Expressionist might also be something that may apply. I do not like to be labelled really as I think it kind of forces one to remain in a box of sorts. I have always considered myself an out of the box thinker. I am, of course, influenced by many styles of art. I adore the Pop Art, Fauvist, Modern, Street Art and Art Nouveau stylings. I am also extremely enamoured by the west coast Haida and their amazing skills as carvers and artists. I find it so inspiring.
When you were in university studying fine art, your focus was on figurative work. In viewing your gallery, many of your works have nothing to do with people at all. How do you transfer the skills initially learned with figure work over to your current creations?
The skills one learns when working on the human form are a gift. You learn about light, balance, contour, depth, colour grades and the list goes on and on. These skills can be easily transferable to other forms of art. It is like cooking – once you know the main rules of the kitchen, the basics, you can cook most anything. From there comes the hard work and your honing of the skill. As an artist, we are forever learning and getting tips and making changes and trying new things. However, the base skills you learn can cross-pollinate over a grand amount of styles.
I would like to delve into each of your series. To start can you tell us more about your “Sitting Still” series?
This was such a fun series for me. I still do not think I am finished with this one. It was born from my love of design and all things Mid Century Modern. With this series, I wanted a simple chair to tell the story. Therefore, with the help of a title and the placement of the chair or chairs in a certain setting I could help the viewer create an imaginary story. For instance in one piece, I have four sleek wooden softly padded chairs set against a pealing icy grey wall in a cold concrete floored room. The title is “The Waiting Room” and that is where the story begins. Each viewer will see a different picture that tells a different story. It is all about connections and how people view things. I find it fascinating how one painting can tell a thousand stories.
That is the power of art, the ability to create a piece, which others can interpret in so many ways. The next series is your “Poetree” collection. What was the concept behind this group of paintings?
This was a labour of love and heartbreak. We have a beloved family cottage that sits on the basin of Lake Manitoba that came very close to falling victim to a horrible flood. This manmade disaster devastated many farms, homes, cottages and the world famous Delta Marsh. I spent my summers at Delta loving the area and it flora, fauna and nature that the marsh and the lake graced us with. The flood swept it all away. Many events in my life end up on canvas. In an effort to come to terms with a very sad event, I painted “Poetree”.
Then as a healing piece, along came “Growing Together”. It was the second painting in the “Poetree” series – a series that ended up being 12 paintings. It is a metaphor for humans’ and nature’s ability to heal and move on. The events of 2011 and the flood that devastated many people, uprooting families, and destroying many natural refuges have passed. The last ten years have seen the rebuilding and re-growth of much that was lost. We can’t change what happened but the coming together of people in the time that has passed is as beautiful as the new sprigs of new green life that can been seen making their debut in the cracks of dry earth. Growing together is a tribute. The two trees in this painting are pictured, stark in a loving embrace. Stripped and peeled bare, standing together in one last dance against a strong blue prairie sky. They symbolize the strength and resilience of humans and nature to repair themselves. They stand strong in harmony. A reminder that in time a new crop of trees will dance together again.
The concept behind the “Poetree” series is incredibly powerful! Each of your series are so vastly different. For me, your “Frankly Speaking” works were the paintings that first caught my attention. They are so unique and attention grabbing. What was the inspiration behind these creations?
The Frankly Speaking Series is a series about powerful women. I have chosen to pair a heavy architectural element with the female form in a whimsical way. I have always used humour to spark questions and curiosity in my work. This is where the conversations begin and the stories emerge. My love affair with the architectural designs of Frank Lloyd Wright made him a perfect fit as hat designer for this series. Careful consideration was made when pairing each icon with their particular hat/building. There had to be a special connection to either the location, subject matter, building or to Wright himself. This Series is a metaphor for all women who carry and balance the weight of their everyday busy lives with strength, humour, “style and grace”. I have written a story to hang beside every painting in the series. It helps guide the viewer through the series of paintings like a play.
From what I understand, this series received acclaimed notice. Would you be willing to share with us the success behind these works?
One of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundations (FLLW) brought me to Mason City, Iowa to open my solo show of the Frankly Speaking Series. I will never forget that experience. To have my work hang in the same square as the Historic Park Inn and the First National Bank, both designed by Wright, was both a dream and an honour. The Foundation’s Director and one of the board members bought two of the originals that depict the Inn and the Bank. Another original is in a gallery in New York right now. One sold to the author of” The Gargoyle”, Andrew Davidson, who is a dear friend of mine. Two of the girls made the covers of magazines, one on the “New York Optimist”. The other, the cover of “Prairie”, an architectural digest. Another piece was auctioned off at one of the FLLW foundations in Milwaukee. I was told Frank Lloyd Wright’s granddaughter, who looks after the David Wright house, caught wind of the series and she loved it. The David Wright house is being modelled by the stylish Grace Kelly in my series.
Karen, the story and experience is fascinating! That has to be such a special feeling for you. After all the attention of the “Frankly Speaking” series, I am curious as to where you go next. Is there a new series being planned? If so, can we get any details about the concept?
Right now, I am working on a collaborative series with my son. He’s a well know YouTuber and has a lot friends in the field of Rap. Some of them are doing really well and are laying down some pretty fantastic new sounds. Therefore, we had the idea of paying homage to some of these new and established artists. I would paint unique portraits of them and then my son would send the pieces directly to the artists as a thank you and appreciation for all their hard work. The first in the series has been painted and sent out to a fabulously talented young Rapper out of Brooklyn, New York named Nyck Caution. My son and Nyck both lost their fathers at an early age and got to know each other through social media. So his portrait has been sent and received and now I am on to the second portrait in the series.
I know that every artist creates work that is personal to him or her. With the myriad of pieces you have painted, do you have one specific painting that holds extra special meaning for you?
Of course… I have a few. I painted my grandmother, Maisie, a few years ago. That style of painting intended to give the image and feel of an older work, almost photograph like. She was born in 1899 and she died when I was nine. However, even now I still have the fondest memories of her and the last conversations I had with her. It’s funny how very intimate painting someone’s portrait can be. It allowed me to get close to her again. That painting will always mean a lot to me. I gave it to my dad. Her son. It hangs at the cottage close to the tree she is standing next to in the painting some sixty years ago.
As is evidenced through your work, art is very personal. Is there any message that you hope others take away from your art?
Yes absolutely. I hope they enjoyed our conversation. That is what my art is. It is a conversation, it is how I communicate. I am simply talking to people through my paintings. My life experiences inform my art. So if I am upset about something it will usually play out on my canvases. If I am protesting events in the world, you will see the results of that on a canvas or collage. I often personify inanimate objects. In this case, they take over the narrative and end up telling the story. I am a storyteller. I like to make people laugh. I like to evoke strong emotions in people. Art is an amazing and magical voice. It can start a war and end it.
With the advent of social media and all these instant visual gratification sites, we are gifted with a world of inspiration and wonderment from a galaxy of amazing artistic talents.
Aside from painting, you are also the co-curator of an art Gallery in Winnipeg. How did you become a curator in a gallery? Do you feel that by being in this role and seeing so many other artists works it influences your style in any way?
I help co-curate with my partner with whom I live and who is also an artist. We took over when someone left. It was a spontaneous decision. I have also helped to curate other shows as well. It is something that can be both stressful and extremely fun and rewarding. I just love being around art in any capacity. I love talking about art, walking amongst art and working with artists to help achieve an end goal. All of these experiences have influenced who I am as an artist and what direction and form my art takes.
Karen it has been a pleasure learning about you and your art. I do have one last question for you. Is there any message or advice you want to give to those who are just beginning their career as an artist?
Keep your mind open your heart full and never let anyone tell you that you are not good enough. There are no mistakes in art.
It is evident that in interviewing Karen, her love of nature, the beauty found in simple objects, architecture and personal stories are all influences that drive her creativity. Her various styles and subject matter will keep viewers guessing as to what the focus of her next series may be. The one common element in all of her works is that she wants to take people on an unexpected journey, where one can look at everyday situations in an unexpected way; where perceived space is filled with shapes, colour and interest. Karen’s entire gallery can be seen on her website and her works as well as her art journey can be viewed on her various social media pages: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.