I come from a family of makers. In my childhood home tools and materials were readily available and experimentation with them was natural and encouraged. At university I gravitated to a wide range of art classes and loved them all. Required by my academic program to choose one area of in-depth study, I chose ceramics because of its tactility, directness, and ability to be transformed into an endless variety of forms. Subsequently I had a productive career teaching art at the university level, primarily ceramics and design, and I have had the good fortune to exhibit my work all over the world. Recently I have shifted focus somewhat and am working exclusively as a painter. The tactility, texture and layering in my paintings echo my history as a sculptor and I now am fully immersed in exploring new possibilities with paint and color.
Given my history with a range of tools and materials, I seem to approach my paintings as objects that are constructed layer by layer, with shapes and forms emerging slowly through an extended process of formation. I use acrylic paint on rigid cradled wood panels. This preference allows me to work very physically with the paint and layering process. I enjoy both building up and then excavating back into the surface revealing a process history and often providing tactility to the surface. I begin every painting with a self-challenge. This might have something to do with a combination of colors or a shape or texture I happened upon on a morning walk. It could be a moment of light and wind change I observed briefly as I went about my daily tasks. Many of my paintings embed a recognizable image in contrast with abstract shapes resulting in somewhat mysterious contexts. While a goal to capture an often-ineffable experience forms the foundation of a painting, I always try to remain open to unexpected occurrences presented throughout the process. This is essential for me and keeps the work fresh and challenging leading to new discoveries and a foundation for future work.
Throughout my career my work has been a response to my immediate environment and the world of nature that surrounds me. Over time the work has taken form through diverse media, but always has roots in natural phenomena and my relationship with the environment. Ultimately it is the ebb and flow of human participation with the complexities of nature that continues to thread through the work.
1.What are 1-3 books that have influenced your life?
I am an inveterate reader. At any given moment I have two books going: one print and one audio. My guilty pleasure is listening to audio books as I take long morning walks or as I work in my studio. These are times when the spoken word and the physical activity of walking or making creates a freeing and imaginative space in my life. I often can look at a finished painting completed, even several years before, and remember the book I was listening to as I worked on it. My reading interests are quite broad although I seem to shy away from science fiction and self-help genres. I do love foreign writers. I’ve just finished reading This Is Happiness, by the amazing Irish writer, Niall Williams. I find his use of language and unusual, but apt descriptions in this tale to be totally absorbing. By next month I may be totally smitten with an as yet undiscovered book, although I suspect that This Is Happiness will end up on my all-time top ten list. Superb writing, usually fiction, is where I gravitate in the world of books.
2. What are you currently working on?
Boring as this sounds, I am currently working on moving my studio from where I have been in Milwaukee for the past six years to another building three miles away. What a task, but cathartic in many ways, too. This move will be a (hopefully brief) interruption in an ongoing series of paintings based on walking and weather. Daily walks and the mentally freeing space these hours give me is what I try to capture and convey in my most recent work.
3. How has failure set you up for later success? What was your favorite failure?
I considered the issue of “failure” often during my career in teaching. It was very common to find that a student would want to give up on either ceramics or the entire enterprise of learning artistic practice out of frustration with their inability to “catch on” right away. Some of my best teaching outcomes were with those students who were convinced to keep on trying until they inevitably improved to the point of being able to express their ideas through visual means. More importantly were those times when they were to be able to see that what at first looked like a “failure” contained powerful qualities that surpassed their original intentions. While it is difficult for me to point to a favorite failure of mine, collectively my failures have taught me the lesson of reevaluating my initial reactions to something I’ve done (and often despise) but which afterwards proves to be a steppingstone to something new surpassing my intentions all together. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, paying attention to ‘the crack that lets the light shine in’.
4. What is your most unusual habit?
I’m not sure how I could determine if any of my habits are unusual since they are my habits and for me none of them are unusual, although they could possibly be considered unusual by others whose habits are different from mine.
5. If you could have any painter, living or dead paint your portrait who would it be and why?
It would be fantastic to have my portrait painted by the Belgian artist, Michaël Borrëmans. He would undoubtedly create an unsettling and ambiguous image of me, perhaps involved in performing an inscrutable task. Ever since I happened upon a large solo exhibition of his work in Budapest, Hungary in 2011 when I was an artist-in-residence in nearby Kecskemét, Borrëmans has been my absolute favorite contemporary figurative painter. The dense introspection of his work and curious, otherworldly interactions of the characters he creates thoroughly penetrate my imagination. What costume might he have me wear? Would he just use my face, my hands, the back of my head? Would he have me holding a duck?
6. What is the most indispensable item in your studio/workspace/office? What is your studio like? Could you share an image?
Tools are my most indispensable studio items particularly those small hand tools not originally designed to be used by painters. I have a “tower” of drawers of hundreds of tools many made for ceramic or sculpture processes, but which can be employed in unforeseen ways with paint. I prefer to work on rigid cradled panels so I can freely gouge, scrape, and layer up the panel surfaces as the painting is built. My very favorite implement is a weird one I was given in a bucket of tools along with work boots and safety glasses on my first day as resident in the Kohler Arts/Industry program many years ago. I think this tool is made of epoxy resin and is an eight-inch round but slightly curved shape about ½” in diameter. One end is pointed: the other thin and flat. I know its intended purpose is for finishing the seams on slip cast ceramic forms, but now it is my “go to” item for burnishing and mark making with paint. I would feel lost without it.
7. When you feel overwhelmed or uninspired what do you do? What do you do to get out of a funk? What questions do you ask yourself?
When feeling “uninspired” I find there is no better antidote than getting out of my studio and going to where I can see and experience art first-hand. I think it is just refreshing my experience with the power of art in human existence that revives me. One of the many negative side effects of the COVID pandemic was the long stretch where being in a gallery/museum or studio open house was impossible. It was a time of sensory and mental deprivation that was quite painful. Sometimes when I’m feeling stuck in the studio I just pull out and old piece that I’m no longer committed to and start reworking it. The ghost of the painting’s past life will still be there in the new piece, but reworking seems to lead to different paths to explore. Re-worked paintings are often my favorites as they always contain the unexpected.
8. Who/What influences your work?
A huge part of my life is looking first-hand at the work of other artists in museums and galleries and absorbing the direct physical presence of art objects. Travel is my energizer and rejuvenator and I spend a significant amount of time during my travels in museums of all sorts, contemporary and historical. Thematically, throughout my life as an artist my work has always been rooted in my interactions with nature. I think it is the breadth of sensory experience provided through being out in and exploring the natural environment that gives me a never-ending rush of inspiration.
9. Do you collect anything?
The concept of collecting is a bit painful at the moment. I’m still in the process of culling and tossing years of acquired stuff in my studio as I prepare to move. However, I admit to still being someone who always returns from a walk with some found treasure in my pocket - often an odd-shaped thing or partial remains of a cast-off from the manmade world or from nature. These finds populate my studio windowsills and many boxes, too. The shapes, textures, and colors of these oddities quietly seep into my paintings.
From the viewpoint of formal collecting, my husband and I began acquiring traditional Andean Quechua and Aymara textiles over years of traveling through Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. We live with these beautiful alpaca, vicuña and wool ponchos and mantas which contain not only beauty and amazing skilled hand work but also serve as complex social signifiers of the individual creator’s ethnic group. Sadly, in many of the remote Andean areas where the pieces in our collection were made and used, weaving traditions are no longer as vital as they were even thirty years ago as a result of the encroaching world of western commodities.
10. What words of advice would you give to your younger self?
While being an artist working within an academic environment was hugely rewarding for many decades, the downside was that the academic system in the United States fosters a kind of silo mentality. The system expects ongoing evidence of achievement in one’s academic specialty. Despite the more than full-time nature of academic life, on reflection, I realize that I should have forced myself to take time to explore new areas of investigation outside of the arena of ceramics. As an undergrad I loved almost all my varied studio experiences including printmaking, drawing, metal smithing and fibers. Giving advice to my younger self from today’s vantage point I would say, “go ahead and take time to make some prints or take a foray into painting, even if it means declining that invitation for an exhibition of your ceramic work. It will feed your spirit in profound ways”. Once I retired from teaching, it was completely natural for me to delve full time into painting, and I have loved every learning and exploring minute of this new studio life. Whether my younger self would have followed this advice is unknowable, but I am grateful for having time now to explore the possibilities of painting.
11. In the last five years what new belief, or habit has most improved your life or studio practice?
Looking back over the past five years I realize I have put into practice the advice I would have given my younger self. I have begun learning, and relearning in some cases, modes of working with materials and practices I left behind after my undergraduate years. I feel thoroughly energized by exploring painting and printmaking anew. My time in the studio now involves playing broadly with painting materials and ways of bringing my interests in the world of nature into my work through materials and processes my younger self never fully explored.
12. Share an inspiring image.
This is an object I found on my walk this morning. I will keep it and learn from it and perhaps it will enter a future painting in some way.
Karen Gunderman's Solo exhibition can be found ARTSY
James May Gallery
Dousman, WI 262-753-3130