Karena A Karras

by Kay Fontana, 'Fantasyart'

October 28, 2007


What started you out as an artist at an early age?


I do not remember any particular instance that inspired me to do art per se, but I did have an intense love of color, especially the color red. Even as a child life without art seemed empty and lackluster, yet frightening compared to a world of my own that I could create where mice had wings and beautifully embellished gowns were everyday attire. I was brought up in a physically abusive environment so, even when quite young, I had a strong desire to leave it and tgo to a place where I had some control over my own life.


How did your family and upbringing influence your development as an artist?


When I was young there was an abundance of turmoil in my home so I retreated into my own world. When I was doing art I was in a sense living in another reality far from the one that I lived in almost constant fear. I left home at sixteen and had a number of strange and very interesting learning experiences which led me to the study of metaphysics and a number o fspiritual pursuits. These studies eventually gave me a sort of springboard from which to work. When it came to painting I found the concepts and ideologies that I had studied for years became an intimate vehicle that helped me to express visually what I had realize earlier on through experiences, study and intense family relations.


What were your most important influences?


At a young age I would catch the bus downtown and go to the Art Institute of Chicago. There I would go to the section where the surrealist paintings were hung and also the early Italian and Flemish paintings. I spent long periods of time studying Paul Delvoix, Dali and artists like Peter Blume. I think the surrealists were my most important influence when it came to art, but the study of psychology, and the occult and spiritual had the most powerful influence on all of my works.


What artist from art history did you study and admire as a young artist?


As I mentioned earlier, Paul Delvoix, Peter Blume and Salvadore Dali ,were strong influences when it came to how I saw and understood art, and of course the surrealist in general. Then, of course, Hieronymous Bosch and Bruegal influence me while I was still quite young. I also had a book on early Alchemical drawings and paintings that fasinated and inspired me. While I was still a student at the Art Institute of Chicago I focused mostly on the painting techniques of the early Flemish, Sinese painters Renaisance. I also did a number of studies using the techniques of painters like Leonardo Da Vinci.


Were the influences and changes late in life from your relationships?


I think every artist is influenced to some degree by other artists, especially ones whose work they most admire. There is a very important, internal, and deeply psychological process of growth one goes through as an artist, which is why you see so many changes in certain artists work as they mature and grow as human beings and change their human relationships not only the changes that happen in one single relationship but changes that take place as one goes from one relationship to another through the course of their life. Oddly, relationships with other artists, except for Leonora Carrington, did little or nothing in the way of having an influence on my work. In fact, what I found I learned most from some of the other artists that I had close relationships with was what had most to do in my own work. Recently however, Chicago artist James Mesple, who is a wonderful painter, has had a strong influence on how I work my underpaintings. We recently worked together on an eight foot long tryptich for a two person show we had together called “Alchemical Transformation”, at the Vanderpoul Museum , changed the way I do the underpaintings in my work now, making my painting move much faster and adding a lovely brilliance to the appearance of the finished piece. As a result of working in collaboration with James Mesple we have become close friends.


Are there other working artists today who interest you?


Yes, quite a few actually. A gew years ago I stood in front of a large painting by Od Nerdrum and was taken aback with the power of the piece. I consider Leonora Carrington’s work pure genius. Her imagination will never cease to amaze me. I will never forget when she told me that a Tibetan monk (she is a Tibetan Buddist) once told her that she must stop painting because she was painting demons. Of course, she did not let what he said stop her from continuing to produce beautiful work. I learned a lot from tis one story of hes since once when I was about fifteen years old I was sitting at the table drawing when my Aunt came into the room I was drawing a large head with a ladder coming out of the forehead and little people were running up and down the ladder. My aunt, who was an occulist, told me to stop what I was doing and that I was calling on the “dark forces” through my drawing. For years after her statement effected me. Also, the artist John Wilde, who recently passed away, was the one Wisconsin artist whose work I thought was genius.


What do you think of the trends in art today?


Not much, since so many of these so called trends were considers Avant Garde a good forty to fifty years ago. The redundancy so prevalent in the art world today is something I prefer to look away from. I feel quite sad when two or three lines, dots, or splaches on a canvas surface can stir anyones interest, yet alone cause excitement, unless they are in some way visually impared or otherwise challenged. First and foremost I admire true skill in rendering, then and only then I admire fantastic, the truly marvelous, that when it is brought forth in a work of art it makes one go “ahhh!” And, I want to stay with that piece and spend time studying it and feel sorrow at having to leave it behind and somehow it has changed me forever for the better. Any child can make pleasing and/or disturbing blobs, lines and splatters on a canvas and call it conceptual or expressionist. It is time for a change.



What are you working on today?


Aside from this interview I have a commissioned painting to finish for one of my collectors. It is a painting of her daughter’s beautiful head and face on the body of a Mourning Dove. I am also working on some sketches for a large painting called “The Dinner Party”, where I will be using some of the images from my series of one hundred surreal miniature portraits sitting around a dinner table, of course, it will

not be your run of the mill party.


What would you say are the major themes that run like currents in your art?


I almost exclusively paint women in a state of transformation, or metamorphosis, part growing wings or animal, part of the earth, or a tree, or sprouting leaves and roots somewhere on their body. The hair is usually something besides hair, such as the branches of a tree, or flowers. I use certain symbols over and over, such as eggs, birds, bugs and salamanders, red skies and tall cliffs. The hair is the part of a painting that I really love to have fun with though. In some cultures our hair is seen as what connects us to the Divine, as the branches of a tree do in nature, or birds do in flight. The interconnectedness of all things is the most prevalent theme behind most of what I paint.


How does politics enter into your artistic life or not at all?


When I do art I prefer to keep politics far removed from what my painting is about. Politics define and my work must remain open to subjective interpretation that stems from the psychological, emotional and spiritual aspects of the psyche of the viewer.



An Interview with Karena Karras

by Pam Grossman, 'Phantasmaphile'

January 6, 2007




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 ones own psyche. Before I had encountered Jungs 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 but never in Venetian red which some artists swear by as it tends to make the flesh tones rather flat. 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 Germany knocked 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: 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: 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?



January 06, 2007 in Interview | Permalink





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