painter Karena Karras shared her thoughts with Phantasmaphile on myriad topics
such as dreams, influences, and becoming a swan.
When did you begin painting, and more specifically when did you feel that you
finally had your own voice or vision?
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?
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?
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.
Generally speaking, where do your ideas come from?
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.
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?
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?
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.
Who are your favorite artists?
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.
What inspires you?
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?
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.
Are you superstitious?
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 Leonoraâ ™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?
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?
06, 2007 in Interview