How did you first get involved in art?
My parents and those around me thought I was partially deaf as a small child because I spoke very little and, when I did speak, it was unclear. As a result, I started speech therapy and some of my earliest memories are of combing through magazines with my mother to make collage pages of particular subjects, such as a color or an animal, and so forth. Once the work was done, I had to bring the book with me to talk about the imagery to the speech therapist. I went to speech therapy for almost six years; so, in many ways the ability to not be understood in verbal terms shaped my reliance and drive towards visual communications.
Do you have an academic history or any art-training?
I initially studied graphic design in college but ultimately followed my childhood interest in photography. Throughout my undergraduate studies, I worked in a camera store selling equipment and working as a lab technician developing and printing film. By the time I completed my BFA, I had a good sense of both the "working" and "fine art" sides to the medium. I eventually became an ophthalmic photographer at an urban research institution. During my time there, I learned a lot about how pathology affects the physiology of the eye and I became interested in the conundrums of perception. This is when I began to intensively explore writings about photography and art, which inspired me to pursue grad school. I later attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for an MFA. Graduate school was where I learned the tools to nurture a healthy studio practice that relies on an inner dialogue to work through failures and creative blocks. However, learning to go out on a limb and fully trust my inner dialogue has become a stronger instinct as more time has passed.
Your intimate knowledge of ophthalmology seems to really inform your choices as an artist. When you became an ophthalmic photographer, was it solely a career choice or did you anticipate that your career would alter the way you create art?
When I started working as an ophthalmic photographer, it seemed like a job that could help me live comfortably and open up enough resources for me to continue to make artwork. Unfortunately, my artistic practice - in terms of making - slowed way down during this time because the work exhausted my eyes due to the type of camera that was used (it is essentially a variation of a microscope). After a while, I turned to primarily reading about photography and art. Like many subtle changes, this didn't occur overnight. I think it has only been through time that those experiences began to influence my studio practice at a conscious level.
Where & from whom do you draw inspiration?
As vague as it is, I draw inspiration from the world around me, often in the fleeting and unseen observations that are felt but rarely seen. In many ways, I am a visual artist who is skeptical of perception because at an early age I realized one will often hear what they want to hear; I later discovered that one will only look at what they want to see (to a varying degree). This skepticism of sight has functioned as a slow burn within my studio practice and is directly informed by my experiences working as a medical photographer. It has only been through time that I have begun to articulate in my work that sight rarely matters as a path to truth because the visual plane is an illusion or, in terms of the photograph, as a document of an elusive memory. Subjects such as blind sight, proprioception, and subjectivity inform my studio practice and how cultures articulate and investigate these themes inspires my work. I am a big fan of artists such as Tacita Dean, Roni Horn, Fiona Tan, and John Stezaker. Kazimir Malevich’s paintings and Gerhard Richter’s Atlas, are also continuous sources of inspiration for me.
How did you discover the Foundry Art Centre?
I found the call for entry for “Putting It Together: The Art of Assembling” on College Art Association's website. The title of the exhibition immediately caught my interest because it sought to combine works created through both assemblage and collage. Often in my own studio practice, I feel a close kinship with an assemblage mindset because of the way I approach image-making with the camera. I was further excited that the call for entry was at an art center because, in my experience, art centers tend to be nurturing environments and have curatorial fluidity while reaching a broadly inclusive public. Next summer I will hopefully be taking a research/road trip with my husband and two children and will be able to visit the Foundry Art Centre.
What are you currently working on?
I typically work on a couple projects at the same time; often the execution of the work is quicker than the thinking and making of the work. Lately, the work that is an extension of Color Tectonics is more structured with close attention to the framing of what’s left out in the photographic picture. Another aspect that I am playing with is how imagery is arranged using linear and/or grid-like frameworks. The way I am synthesizing the imagery is based more on an internal note much like a thought image - one in stasis instead of being action-derived. Chroma is still an important part of the work as a way to hold the vernacular photograph in tension with color fields that isolate and, at times, engulf the material of the image. However, I no longer feel that this is the dominant force in holding the work together. I am not nearly as resolved about the pieces I am working on because they come from a process of discovery or a detour of sorts from my initial departure point.
MANY OF YOUR COLLAGES INCLUDE DYNAMIC SHAPES AND BOLD COLORS. DOES YOUR SUBJECT MATTER INFORM WHAT SHAPES AND COLORS YOU CHOOSE? DOES COLOR THEORY ALSO PLAY A ROLE?
Yes, the vernacular imagery helps dictate the shapes and colors that are used. The work always starts out with selecting, examining, and ruminating on the image. Once the image is seeded internally, I begin to construct a story of sorts and the image becomes a moment within that pseudo-narrative.
It is funny that you ask about color theory. It seems to have seeped into many aspects of my work since I have been teaching it for the past five years. Chroma is intensely interesting to me because color memory is very inaccurate and the experience of color is completely subjective. It can be affected by so many subtle outside factors such as caffeine or time of day.
When you are not creating art, what do you enjoy doing?
I have two small children, so a lot of my time goes into chasing them around. Beyond that, I crochet and like to take long walks with my family.
How do you connect with people through your work? Why do you create art?
That is a tough one. I think genuine curiosity is innate. The studio is a place where curiosity can grow and conversely, when experiencing work, interpretation is a luxury that doesn’t have to be predetermined or didactic. Personally, when I am in the studio my work is not intended to change or educate people; instead, it is driven with an interest of evoking a sentiment within the viewer. The mysteriousness and constant flux of the internal world is what excites me. As an artist, making work is a way I can systematically learn and understand the way I react to the world around me. On the other hand, watching and listening to other interpretations to art compels an understanding outside of oneself, and sometimes, ones' culture - and even era - which is truly a unique gift.
View Karen's collage artwork in Gallery II through September 23 in our exhibition "Putting It Together: The Art of Assembling".
Article by Jillian Schoettle.