Neoteric Art: Why is painting important to you?
Karen Appleton: Painting makes me consider everything and helps me explore on canvas what is going on around me and within me. It is my internal dialogue, my journal. Even more specifically, painting in a representational manner is important to me because it forces me to slow down and really see. Somehow this concentrated focus calms me and exhilarates me at the same time.
NA: Who have been some of your influences?
KA: The list would just be too long if I named all the artists I’ve been inspired by or felt I have learned from, but there are a few specific light bulb moments that have had a direct influence on my work. Seeing Claudio Bravo’s unconventional paintings helped inspire me to pursue my non-traditional still life subject matter. Discovering a book on Pierre-Paul Phrud’hon’s figure drawings had a huge impact, especially seeing his unfinished drawings which show the artist’s hand in developing the form using darks and lights off of a middle toned ground – this is basically how I work and see still today. Seeing a Norman Rockwell exhibit changed my ideas of how to interpret color, specifically seeing how he handled the paint in his darks. And seeing, in person, Van Gogh’s “Peasant Woman Against a Background of Wheat” just basically changed my life.
NA: In what way did Van Gogh’s “Peasant Woman Against a Background of Wheat” change your life?
KA: Well I saw this painting two years ago. It was in a very small exhibit that featured one painting each from; Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet, Monet, Degas, Pissarro, Matisse, Warhol, Sargent, two from Picasso, and then the Van Gogh. The exhibit was in a small room which allowed you to see all the paintings together at once. At the time, I liked Van Gogh, but I wasn’t as big a fan of him as some of the other artists in the room. Of course, that all changed in an instant. Standing in that room, Van Gogh’s painting totally and utterly blew all the other paintings away. I will never be able to describe exactly how different this painting appeared from all the others, its impact certainly doesn’t come across in photos, postcards or books. I’ve been moved by many a painting, but “Peasant Woman against a Background of Wheat” was different. All the other paintings in the room were magnificent, but they were at that moment by comparison, nothing more than paint on canvas, a picture confined to its frame. This peasant woman was much more, even the wheat in the background was more. The thick paint, demanding color, and loud brushwork, which you would think might insist on all the attention, just disappeared into the whole and what remained was a soul. Literally I could feel this painting’s soul – that is the only way I know how to describe it.
How could I possibly go back to just painting, my very definition of a painting had changed. Before seeing this exhibit I was totally in love with the ideas I had about painting and I was comfortable with where I was with my own work, but without asking my head’s permission my heart just changed.
I don’t want to believe that paint can somehow lose the chemical compounds that hold it together and suddenly without warning transform into some indescribable essence. But it can, I’ve seen it with my own eyes now, and I’ve been searching for the answer since.
NA: Your current work deals with gift wrapped presents as a subject matter. Tell us about that.
KA: The present is an image that got stuck in my head and I just couldn’t get it out. I thought about this idea for probably two years before I finally painted my first present painting. For me this image totally sums up in one visual statement the idea of our seen vs. unseen world. Initially I thought about it in terms of the body vs. the soul with wrapping paper, bow, and ribbon representing all the different exterior aspects of ourselves which cover, hide, protect, or sometime prevent the discovery of our interior soul. Over the years the time I’ve spent with this same image has brought about a broadening of its meaning for me, and I now basically see the present as a metaphor for all of life’s questions, hopes, and feelings. I just keep peeling away layers, somehow continuing to find inspiration. Even lately discovering a very personal interpretation, that has probably been there all the while, like a present in a present. I actually don’t even see this image as a present any more. For me it is more of a symbol or even a mantra that represents other ideas.
NA: You recently moved to Chicago. Has the city changed the way you see painting?
KA: I try to put my daily experiences and feelings into my work, so I suppose the move to Chicago has to have changed my paintings. Every thing about my life is new and different. Certainly experiencing all four seasons has played a big part in my paintings, with several being inspired by the colors I’ve seen or feelings I’ve had during these different seasons. I suspect the biggest changes to my work though will probably come about because of the exposure I’ve had to so many other artists since the move. I feel very fortunate to rent a studio space in a building that puts me in daily contact with a community of artists where conversations and debates help to redefine or solidify ideas. The whole experience of being part of a sharing and non-competitive art community will have lasting effects.
NA: What are your short term objectives for your work?
KA: I spent this past year working primarily with smaller sized canvases which I love for their quiet, intimate appeal. This year I want to focus more attention on larger canvases, showing the present in a larger than life format, which I hope will allow a wash of color to envelop and overwhelm the viewer.
Recently I’ve completed a self-portrait using the “present” theme and may attempt a series of these. The self-portrait explores personal feelings for me, although I hope they are core human feeling that might be accepted and felt by others.