Monday, April 13, 2015

Another Visit with Artiist/Painter Karen Owsley Nease

Karen Owsley Nease caught her first vision of Lake Superior during a visit to Duluth in 1994. She knew instinctively that one day she would return. Moving here within the last three years she has become a welcome addition to the Northland arts scene.

Beginning April 30 her show Found Horizons will be on display at the Duluth Art Institute in the Morrison Gallery. The opening reception is slated for May 14, but on the 30th (just over two weeks) she will be giving an Artist's Talk at 5:30. I encourage anyone interested in modern painting to attend.

EN: Your upcoming show is titled Found Horizons featuring our Great Lake Superior. What are some things you learned while preparing for this show, either about yourself or our Northland?

Break in the Clouds (Nease)
KN: The abstract painter Jonathon Lasker was visiting Kansas City several years ago and memorably told a group of art students that to become successful as an artist “you need to become a more extreme version of yourself.” I feel like painting the lake’s horizon is allowing me to do that. We moved here to be near the big lake and every day since I find myself awestruck by it. I wondered how long that awe would last - and a year and a half hasn’t lessened it. As a painter working with color fields, the ever changing lake probably gives me 10 new ideas for paintings a day.

Duluth and the Northland are a very comfortable fit. Everyone has been kind and welcoming.

EN: You’ve cited 19th-century Transcendentalist landscape painting and Abstract Expressionism as major influences in your work. Who in particular of the landscape painters really interests you and why?

KN: My childhood influences were Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran; I saw their work a lot at a local art museum. They both painted the grandeur the Eastern U.S. and the American west of Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. Later influences were George Inness, Fitz Hugh Lane and other Hudson River School artists. These painters were interested in the sublime, something I am working towards in my paintings of the horizon.

EN: As for the Abstract Expressionists, same question.

Blood Moon (Nease)
KN: More than any individual, it is the philosophy of the early Abstract Expressionists that is interesting to me - the notion of the paint itself as content. Later abstract painters such as Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, and Richard Diebenkorn showed me that an idea I was struggling with could actually work. Respective examples are: strong horizontality of the composition; sculpturally applied paint and the optical aspects of colors at their edges.

EN: You mention being accepted into an upcoming plein air competition this summer, which dovetails nicely with your landscape interests. How does plein air differ from other kinds of painting?

KN: Unlike the controlled studio environment, plein air painting can feel like a very athletic event. It is an intellectual and physical race against the light. Plein air is painted outdoors The painter has to find the ideal location, schlep all of his/her materials to the spot and work in whatever weather presents itself. One has to capture the color and form of the important elements of the composition before the clouds come in or the sun moves too far and it all changes. That can be very challenging. Painting quickly from observation, especially outdoors forces one to learn how to edit to capture the essence of the scene. It is also develops the skill of quickly mixing colors. Plein air is a really good way to get into “good painting shape.”

EN: You and your husband Joe are considering the opening of a gallery here in the Twin Ports. What kind of gallery are the two of you envisioning at this point?

KN: We are discussing a lot of ideas right now and starting to think about the layout and required building improvements of our building in the Lincoln Park area of the west end of Duluth. Our gallery would provide contemporary art exhibitions in a “white box” style of space. It would be a place where one could explore in depth the work of one or a few artists in curated exhibits. We would work with professional regional and national artists. As a painter, I am particularly interested in having some exhibitions of paintings, especially where the term painting is broadly defined.

The west end of Duluth is undergoing revitalization and we want our gallery to be a part of that. Duluth is unique in its juxtaposition of industry and culture pushed up against the wilderness. It also has a history of craft, artisan and “maker” cultures and our gallery could reinforce those ideas with some exhibitions. We also would like to see some type of residency programs established that would bring in artists from elsewhere to work and exhibit in Duluth. There is much to consider.

EN: I enjoyed the digital pattern collage work you were doing. Now you will be returning to that style in the fall in some collaborative explorations with Alison Aune. How did that project come about? Have you done collaborative work in the past and if so, what’s the draw in collaboration?

Mr. and Mrs. Paisley (Nease)
KN: I think Alison is one of the strongest painters working in Duluth. Her work is original in its authenticity and sincerity. I see her as the Nordic-American equivalent of Christopher Ofili or Kerry James Marshall. She takes the patterns of her ancestry and pulls them forward into the present with contemporary frontal portraits and symbols. I vividly remember seeing her show at the DAI around 2007 and was so impressed. That was when we were on vacation before we moved to Duluth. I told Joe then that someday I hoped to work with her. Last year, I had her visit my studio and I brought up the idea of doing something together with our respective patterns, and she said yes. A few weeks later we ran into each other and got to talking more about the collaboration. The idea isn’t fully formed yet, but we are talking about riffing on one another’s patterns in a series of paintings and digital collages.

This will be my first collaboration. I am not interested in collaborating unless I feel that the results will provide a greater insight into what both artists are doing. There are similarities and differences in how patterns function in our artwork. I’m interested to see how/if the response to one another’s patterns will affect our work.

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Thank you for sharing.


Milissa Brooks-Ojibway said...

I'm usually more a fan of realism, but in her own way, Karen has blended the perfect melange of realism and abstract. She can henceforth call me a fan.

Karen said...


Thank you for your kind and insightful words. Your take on my art is exactly what I intend. After this show, I am going to start a body of more realistic landscape paintings.


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