Surrealist painter Karena Karras shared her thoughts with Phantasmaphile on myriad topics such as dreams, influences, and becoming a swan.
Phantasmaphile: When did you begin painting, and more specifically when did you feel that you finally had your own voice or vision?
Karena Karras: I began painting and drawing around the age of four. My mother sat down with me and showed me how to draw a face so I just took it from there. My drawings were mostly of anthropomorphized mice and other animals, some with wings and dressed in Victorian bustle back gowns. In a way I think my own voice or vision began back then. Once in grade school the teacher asked the class what we wanted to be when we grew up. My answer was “ a swan”. Reality seemed so pliable and unfixed and that feeling or sensibility, this seeming reality of appearances as being intertwined, inseparable and interconnected, remained with me throughout my life. It does not feel right to me unless this sense of “as above, so below” and this interconnectedness of all things is somehow expressed or depicted in my work. Hence the women who are sprouting roots from their ankles and growing leafy branches or flowers instead of hair, or being part animal and part human.
Ph: Being an avid fan of Jung's ideas myself, I am curious to know: When did you first encounter his writings, and how has he influenced your work?
KK: Carl Jung's writing began to have an impact on my work from the time that I first read “Symbols of Transformation”. It is hard for me to say exactly how Jung's writing informed my work and influenced my perceptions, since there are so many different ideologies that Jung wrote about that have been influential not only in my work but also in my daily life. In reading Jung I began to pay more attention to my dreams and at times parts of these dreams would work their way into a painting. Jung knew that dreams had a definite purpose that helped to reveal to the conscious mind ideologies or concepts that would otherwise have remained hidden deep within our psyche. So, I began to analyze my dreams and kept a dream journal. Leonora Carrington and I would go to meetings together where we would practice a technique called “focusing”. The technique was developed by Eugene Gendlin, Ph.D., and is a form of self therapy that helps to guide you and awaken you to what lies deep within your subconscious, bringing feelings to the surface where they can be analyzed and resolved. We would sit and tell each other our dreams. One person would talk while another would just listen and then repeat what the dreamer was saying until a point was reached at which the dreamer felt an actual physical release through the telling of this dream. This seemed to me to be a very Jungian approach to getting in touch with the collective unconscious and one’s own psyche. Before I had encountered Jung’s writings I was reading books by Sri Aurobindo, Wilhelm Reich, Annie Besant, Krishnamurti, to name a few and also books on Alchemy and the occult. Anything dealing with the occult, in the classical Greek meaning of the word as “hidden” knowledge always fascinated me, and so I read whatever I could get my hands on. All of these teachings and relative experiences I had in meditation eventually worked their way into my paintings in one form or another. I feel that everything that we encounter in life that we accept as a part of our conditioned state of existence is in some way informs our work whether we are an artist or not.
Ph: Your paintings play with different visual cues toward mythology. Are there any myths in particular which have a strong resonance with you?
KK: There are certain types of myths that have perhaps affected my way of thinking and so would in turn affect my painting. Creation myths from different cultures are to me some of the most fascinating myths of all, along with myths dealing with different aspects of the goddess. I can't really say that there is any one myth in particular though that I feel more of a connection with than I do others. Although some of my work is influenced by mythology, there are never any literal interpretations that could be construed as illustrative. When I use a myth in my work it simply serves as the point of departure and the final piece might be so removed from the original myth that inspired the painting that it would be hard for anyone to see any connection to the myth that spawned the vision.
Ph: Generally speaking, where do your ideas come from?
KK: Mostly they come from something that I have read or from a personal experience that generates a vision such as in the piece “Reflection”. Years ago, while I was staying in an ashram, I was initiated into a certain type of Yoga. One night while I was meditating I had the experience of “seeing” my entire body become the Universe. I saw galaxies and star systems within my bodily form. The experience seemed so real that it stuck with me and came out years later in the painting "Reflection" as a woman looking into a mirror (there is a forest behind her that you cannot see in the online image) and instead of her reflection in the mirror she sees the Universe. Some of my work comes strictly out of a process I use quite a bit that was developed by Max Ernst called “decalcomania”, wherein paint is laid down onto a gessoed board and a sheet of paper or some other object such as a sea sponge or crumpled aluminum foil is place on top of the wet paint and then lifted up, leaving behind various interesting shapes. I then search the shapes for definable aspects such as a face or an animal form. When they are found I begin to further define the various shapes until I have a scene that eventually becomes the finished painting. Some of what I consider to be my best work grew out of this process. It is quite automatic as the process of blotting the paint surface already produced the basic painting. I just define and embellish. “Hieros Gamos” is an acrylic painting I did that was done in this manner almost exclusively. Also, a diptych I did entitled “Insomnia” was done using this technique.
Ph: Can you describe your process, from the seed of an idea to a complete work?
KK: The process that I use tends to vary according to what I feel would be best suited to each individual painting. Generally though, I begin with a thumbnail sketch and add notes as to color and size etc. that I want to use. From the thumbnail I usually go directly to the painting itself. I usually use about 7 – 8 layers of gesso on masonite panel. I do not really care for too smooth of a finish as I don't want my work to appear more like a print than a painting, so I just do a light sanding before I start the underpainting. I work out any major elements first onto tracing paper and then transfer them onto the gessoed board. I always work lean to fat and when building a form will always start with a very loose underpainting in various hues. I once tried doing a more finished underpainting using only Venetian red but found it to be more of a waste of my time than anything else. When doing a figure I always begin with an underpainting and almost always in terra verte. This gives a much more translucent quality to the final flesh tone than Venetian red has the capability to do. I begin a painting with the basic oval shape of the head of any figure first and always start the face with the eyes. Once the head is complete I then move on down to define the rest of the body. I always finish the head and face completely before moving down to the rest of the body gradually. I usually lay down the middle tones first, then the darks and then the lights and finish with a little scumbling technique to add to the sense of depth and dimension. I also do quite a bit of glazing and at times will have a build up of about 6 – 10 layers of glaze in certain areas. I like to use a 3/0 down to an 18/0 brush for most of the detail work and a #4 pointed round for larger areas. Very large areas such as backgrounds or the ground are usually done with a size 10 -11 flat. I use a mix of dammar varnish and turpentine to varnish my oil paintings and depending on the piece will sometimes go back much later (6 months later or so) with a good high gloss finishing varnish.
Ph: I was fascinated to read on your site that you had a friendship with Leonora Carrington. How did you meet her, and did you learn anything from her which may have influenced your work?
KK: Leonora Carrington and I met outside of a gallery in the River North art district in Chicago. We began talking about how we were the only two people outside smoking (I no longer smoke) and as we talked we realized that we lived only five minutes from each other. I live in the city but am right outside of Oak Park, Illinois, and at the time she was living in Oak Park near Madison and Oak Park Ave. in an apartment building. She asked me to meet with her for lunch and also wanted to see my work. So, that is how we met. Later as we lunched together we began to see that we had many common interests. She is a Tibetan Buddhist and I was initiated into Tibetan Buddhism by the Dalai Lama himself when he was visiting the Madison Wisconsin area several years prior to my meeting Leonora. We both seemed to enjoy similar things like discussions concerning the spiritual and the occult. She told me that my painting reminded her of Remedios Varo’s work. At the time I was not really familiar with the work of Remedios Varo but looking back now I can see how she would have seen similarities. As far as learning anything from her that influenced my work I must say that I learned quite a bit. I was already painting the way that I am now, but Leonora's work and also a book that she gave me entitled “Angels Fear” by Gregory Bateson and Mary Catherine Bateson, changed my way of thinking about not only my approach to my work but about life. I cannot help but feel that there is a bit of Leonora's influence that has worked its way into my approach to painting, but I try to keep her influence at bay, so to speak. My painting comes out of my own experiences and no matter how much I might admire Leonora’s work, or the work of Remedios Varo, my approach to painting will always remain uniquely my own. A Chicago art critic named Kevin Nance who wrote a review on a show of my work said in his review that my work takes off from where Leonora and Remedios left off. In a sense I do see a direct connection to these two Surrealist painters that I so admire and cannot help but feel that my work is a continuation of that line of work. Right before Leonora left Chicago, she told me that she wanted me to have her work table that Pablo (Leonora's son) had built for her. This table is one of my prized possessions and truly makes me feel a 'connection' to her and the surrealists in general. Leonora influenced my way of thinking though more than anyone else and also helped me to resolve my fear of growing old. We had long discussions (and sometimes arguments) in coffee shops around Oak Park about things like the word “metaphysics”, that would last for hours, then go back to her apartment where she would fix me her favorite drink, Bombay Gin (she is English after all), Ginger Ale, crushed green peppercorns, and lime juice – very good! Her views concerning spirituality and the world will always have an influence on my life.
Ph: How often do you paint, and how do you make time for it?
KK: I paint on the average of about six hours on the days that I am working in my studio. There are times when I will do an 8 – 10 hour stretch for a while when I am getting work ready for a show. I always regret the days that I do not paint, unless I spent time doing something that I felt was equally as meaningful. Sometimes life just has a way of taking one away from their work or goals, but I have had to learn to prioritize. The only way that I can get a really good amount of painting done is to make that my priority. I remember times when I was at Leonora’s and someone would call her on the phone and most of the time she did not even answer unless she was expecting a call. Leonora would always complain about certain things, as being time wasters, and I think that is something that I picked up from her. Some things, and some relationships, are important and even necessary and others are not. So, it basically is a kind of juggling act wherein I just try to make sure that most of what I am juggling has to do with my work. One day I was having tea with Leonora when a woman from a paper in Germanyknocked on the apartment door unannounced. Days earlier Leonora had told the woman on the phone that she did not care to give an interview, but the woman flew to Chicago anyway. Leonora sent the woman away in tears by refusing to let her into the apartment. At the time I thought this was quite mean but upon reflection I began to see that it was a necessary thing that had to be done in order for Leonora to be able to be the master of her own world without letting everyone else overrunning it just for the sake of being nice.
Ph: Who are your favorite artists?
KK: When I was a young girl I would go to the museum of the Art Institute of Chicago and spend most all of my time there in front of three paintings, “The Rock” by Peter Blume, “Village of the Mermaids” by Paul Delvaux and “Making of the Monsters” by Salvadore Dali. All that I wanted to do was to be able, someday, to paint such wonderful things. So, the three artists I just mentioned and of course Leonora Carrington’s work, will never cease to fascinate me. Then there are artists like Lawrence Alma-Tadem, Sandro Botticelli, Belgian Symbolist painters Jean Delville and Fernand Khnopff, Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel, Raphael, Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini, John Wilde and the Pre-Raphaelite painters, Evelyn DeMorgan, Marie Spartali Stillman and Kate Bunce, just to mention a few. There are more but these are ones whose work I admire the most.
Ph: What inspires you?
KK: What inspires me most is looking at the work of other artists whose work I admire. Watching a red/orange sunset is something that always fills me with inspiration and the desire to paint. Reading writings by other artists and reading certain books on philosophy, psychology or the occult and coming across a passage that I relate to on a deeper level will at times bring an image for a painting to mind. This last one, for me, serves as one of the most powerful forms of inspiration.
Ph: Do you have any plans to exhibit here in New York?
KK: I have no plans to show in New York at the present, though if the right opportunity presented itself I would be inclined to show there. I was treated quite badly and unethically in 2005 by a gallery director of a certain River North gallery. Since then I have turned my attention more to just doing my work and not trying to find places to show unless I feel that the person/place who wants to show my work is trustworthy with a well developed sense of ethics. Although, I have plans for several shows in 2007, I still remain a bit shy of approaching other galleries. The process of painting itself is what is most important to me, not necessarily the showing of my work.
Ph: What is your favorite a) taste, b) sound, c) sight, d) smell, and e) tactile sensation?
KK: In order, taste is marzipan, sound is the silver flute, sight is anything blood red except blood, smell is freshly ground coffee, and tactile sensation is my three lovely dogs fur coats. Odd question that.
Ph: Are you superstitious?
KK: I suppose so. I watch for omens like which direction a red robin outside my window takes flight, or sometimes when, for instance, I place an object on a table I get the strange feeling that if I place it on one spot something terrible will happen but if I place it somewhere else on the table everything will be all right. I always wear an uneven number of antique charms on a cord around my neck. Once, an incident with Leonora made me leery of even throwing a pin into the garbage. We had just come back from shopping and I was looking at a top that she had purchased and found a pin in it so I took it out and was about to throw it into the garbage and she stopped me. She told me never to throw away a pin as it will bring bad luck and since that day I have never thrown away a pin. I now have a preponderance of them in various drawers in my house. Another time we went all through Leonora’s apartment to find anything that was part of a dead animal. Someone had just given her a mummified salamander that they had found in a cave in Spain, and she wanted me to go to the park with her so that we could bury it. She then decided to have a mass burial of all animal based items (especially bones) in her apartment (excluding leather purses and shoes). She did not want any “demons” in her abode. I think though that this was more of a Tibetan Buddhist belief rather than a superstition.
Ph: Is there any news or work of yours you would like me to share with Phantasmaphile’s readers?
KK: I have new work that I can email you images of, work that is not on my website, but I need to have the pieces photographed with a digital camera first. If you like, I can let you know where my upcoming shows will be when I have the exact dates, times etc. after I sit down with the curators. One show will be at the Vanderpool Museum in October 2007, and several others are in the works but the dates and times are not finalized. If anyone would like more information on me or my work please note that I am no longer associated in any way with Gruen Galleries, and they should simply visit my website at www.karenakarras.com to e-mail me personally.
Ph: Your painted world seems to be populated entirely by women, or perhaps one woman. Would you say that you are creating a form of self portraiture?
KK: Some friends of mine who are also artists told me that they see me in the women that I paint. I fail to see this myself, but of course, is not all work, in a sense, a form of self portraiture?