Karen Blair

Home Before Dark

Home Before Dark

A Visit To An Artist’s Studio

by Jennifer Ackerman

Jennifer Ackerman’s latest book is The Genius of Birds. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in Nonfiction, a Bunting Fellowship, and a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan foundation, she has been writing about science, nature and human biology for almost three decades. She is a contributor to Scientific American, National Geographic, The New York Times and many other publications. Home Before Dark is her interview with Karen Blair.

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It was late afternoon when I drove out to interview Karen Blair at her home in Crozet, Virginia, on a Martin Johnson Heade sort of day, with that angled October light and a sky scudded with low purple clouds. The mountains were tinged gold and auburn from the turning leaves of birch and oak trees. It brought to mind that Aldo Leopold rumination on landscape: “The physics of beauty is one department of natural science still in the Dark Ages. Not even the manipulators of bent space have tried to solve its equations.”

Karen’s studio occupies the bright second floor of a modest farmhouse set back from the road. Light floods the spacious room from all sides, but especially from the south and west, where the windows offer a full view of the big blue mountains of the Blue Ridge. Over the course of the day, the light continually shifts—just the “opposite of what French and Dutch studios desire,” says Karen, “northern light, which stays more constant.” She recently painted the floor white to create an even cleaner, brighter slate for sunbeams and loves to watch the shafts of light migrate across it.

On all four walls of the studio are paintings bursting with light, energy, and color. These are paintings that ask you to experience them on a sensory level that goes well beyond seeing. Some explode with the exuberant colors of spring, the shimmery trees and grasses glistening with light after a spring rain, the rapture of birdsong and fresh air. The composition and colors in these paintings—applied with strokes sometimes bold, sometimes delicate—are so bright and active they seem to smash through the world of sight and migrate into the world of touch, sound, even smell.

In others you can almost feel the heat and the moisture on your face, almost taste the dew. The paintings capture a moment, but that moment is transient. Some feature a white raiment of swirling clouds and leaves shaking loose in windy drifts, all infused with shifting light, there’s a dynamic, almost ephemeral quality. Look away and then look back, and the painting is different, like the very sky it depicts.These are paintings that make you glad to be a sensing creature, glad to be alive.

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Karen has had a “crescendo of a day, ” she says, “when it all comes together, and the doubt—for the moment, anyway—fades.” She cleans up some remnants of brown craft paper from the floor and beneath her palettes. The craft paper is a constant in her life. She remembers having rolls of it to paint on as a child. She liked how cheap and plentiful it was. She didn’t have to worry or skimp. There was always more. “It’s about abundance, about feeling free,” she says.

Now when she plans a painting, she likes having at least two canvases of the same size. “I’ve got piles and piles of paint and cans of brushes and canvases stacked up in the corner. This allows me to go at it at full speed. It’s like the ‘gimme putt’ in golf; it takes the pressure off.” It also allows her to take risks, which she does. On the north wall of her studio are two enormous abstract canvases, six feet by six feet each.

Inspiration is everywhere for these large paintings. “On the drive over Afton Mountain there are places where the valley just drops away,” she says. “And if you go there in late in the afternoon, and it has been cloudy, and the sun is dropping below the clouds and illuminating the valley, it just knocks your socks off.” It’s the piercing, poignant beauty of that end-of-day moment that one feels in this painting, the bright before the dark. There’s no muse quite like place.

Ackerman: What is it about the Piedmont that draws you to its landscape?

Blair: Weather. There is always weather. It’s misty or the sun is breaking out. We live hard by the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Appalachian Trail is only a mile from our house as the crow flies. In that western view, there’s always something going on. And because we live in that magic zone on planet Earth that has four seasons, it’s always different.

Ackerman: Do you have a favorite season to paint?

Blair: That’s a little like asking who your favorite child is. Every season is my favorite season. Whatever it is right now. And I think with such definitive certainty, this is my favorite season to paint. And then it will snow, and I’ll say, “Oh no. What was I thinking? It’s really all that reflective light off the snow that makes my heart sing!”

JA: Yes… who was it who said, “What we lose in flowers, we gain in leaves”? Or as Thoreau put it: “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.” You’ve taken some risks lately, made changes in your painting and your life. You’ve moved from an urban to a rural environment. I’ve often wondered how many landscapes can fit inside the human heart. How was your art affected by your move from Richmond to Charlottesville, from an urban environment to a more rural one?

KB: In Richmond, I had a much more urban sensibility. My paintings were of light bouncing off of buildings, geometric shapes. I was an urban rat. I liked the amenities of a city, being near a university and around a lot of other artists, the restaurants, the exchange of ideas that went on all day. I didn’t think I could live in the country. But now! There’s the light and the sunsets, the garden, the horses, the guineas.

JA: You’ve also shifted your style of painting, from representational art to more abstract work. What drew you in the direction of abstraction?

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KB: I felt I had mined the representational work for all I could get out of it at this point. I found myself not as interested in the paintings as I was doing them, and I took that as a sign. If the paintings weren’t as interesting to me, I couldn’t foist them on the public and expect it to be interested. I wondered, how can there be more light in this painting? More response to a time of day? It felt organic and natural to move into a more abstractive way of painting.

With the sunsets, it starts with the golden light. This time of year we have fabulous sunsets, and this golden glow just takes over. It’s that heart-stopping moment at the end of the day when you look up and just take a deep breath because you can hardly believe how beautiful the sky is. And it’s so beautiful, so poignantly beautiful because it’s transient.

The Japanese have a word for this, “aware”. It’s the feeling or awareness brought on by ephemeral, fragile beauty, the preciousness of something because it’s fleeting. So you’re trying to capture that transient moment…

Yes, an instant, a blink. I used to take a lot of photos and paint from them. But photos never get at that transient moment. They record a scene, but they don’t record the temperature. They don’t record the birdsong or the mist. And they’re so permanent. There they sit like pictures on a wall calendar, and the image just gets deader and deader.

So now I rarely take pictures. I just stand in a place and absorb the moment, respond to what I see and then carry it with me in my head until I can get it on the canvas. It’s almost like having a pocket with too much money in it—I can’t wait to spend it.

JA: In “Home Before Dark,” you offer an image of twilight in your childhood neighborhood, that moment when the world goes from safe and familiar to strangely animated and spooky. Do any memories from childhood of nature or art influence your work?

KB: I grew up in Winston-Salem in a quiet, bucolic, postwar neighborhood with lots of trees and great hills for sledding. It was a neighborhood where all the children and all the dogs roamed. There were no fences; one backyard spilled seamlessly into another. I was a bit of a tomboy and loved to play in the woods and creeks, to climb trees. I remember that the city recreation department would bring out a big barrel and a load of firewood and dump it by the hill we used for sledding, and we would build bonfires in the barrel. When I think back, I’m sure there was some father or other there to start the fire, but it seemed like it was just us kids asking, “How high can we make the flames go?”

We were free, left to our own devices much of the day; the only admonishment would be to “come in when it gets dark.” Can you imagine saying that to a child today? It was a different time. (Remember? We all tumbled around in the back of our station wagons like clothes in a dryer.) For me, that freedom to roam, to do what I felt like all day was what developed a sense of imagination, a will to explore and take chances.

One of my earliest memories as a child was of the metal Venetian blinds in my bedroom. In the afternoon, when I’d take a nap, the blinds would be closed but let in just enough light so that each slat, even though it was white, would take on a slightly different color, pale blue, gray, green, lavender, like the tinted insides of a clamshell. I drew, I painted, I colored. My parents were very encouraging and made me feel that this was a valuable way to spend time. They urged me to apply to art school. So I went to the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, which had a good program and some very good teachers.

JA: Do you feel your move to a more abstract style was a risk?

KB: Every painting is a risk. I never know exactly how it’s going to look until it tells me. It’s probably like characters in a book. They take on a life of their own at some point. And you know that a certain characteristic is not going to apply to that character any more, so you have to edit that out. I get to know these paintings the way a writer gets to know her characters. You feel like you turn them loose, and they start talking back to you. They become something you didn’t set out to create. They start to tell you who they are and what they are.

JA: Bingo. And don’t you know you’re on the right track then, when they start talking back to you? You’ve fleshed them out enough that they tell you, “No, Jenny, I would never have that for breakfast.”

KB: I remember that you once mentioned Tolstoy’s observation that all great literature is about one of two stories—a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. That has hung with me. It’s the same for landscape painting. A landscape is sky, land, and water. You can use two or three of these elements, you can move them around, but all landscape paintings are made of these same three elements. So you choose a focus. Some are about light; some are about atmosphere; some are about capturing a particular moment in a season; some might be about referencing a specific place.

JA: That’s interesting. I would add a fourth element—weather. That seems to be what integrates this new body of work.

KB: Yes, it’s the weather I’m drawn to, the light, the movement. And the air, the way it feels. The metallic smell and taste of fog, like iron filings on the tongue. I want to put the feeling of fog on the canvas, fog and light coming through fog.

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JA: How do you convey in a painting that sense of what fog feels like? Is it something you think through or something that happens tactilely, on the canvas?

KB: Oh that’s a good question. I dig at this. How can I convey the metallic hush of fog? How can you as a writer convey an immediate sensation to the reader? That’s the trick. It’s something I think through. But it also happens on the palette. I buy massive cans of white paint at great expense, to again create that feeling of abundance, so that if I don’t like it, I can just push it to the side. So there’s fog and then there’s the light coming through the fog. What’s the color for that? It may not be gray.

JA: Maybe more like that lavender you saw on your Venetian blinds? You mention that birdsong and wind are factors in your painting. How do these sounds and movements come across with colors and lines? How do you capture that in a painting?

KB: (laughing.) It’s questionable that I have. But these things inform my work. I hope it’s in there. I think it was Pablo Casals who was asked at age 90 or so why he continued to practice every day. And he said, “because I’m starting to figure out some things.” I feel that way. You do 100 paintings, and you start to figure out some things.

JA: It’s like the Tai Chi master who always goes back to the beginning of the form to learn the steps all over again.

KB: Oh yes, absolutely. Teaching reminds me of this, too. “Use opposite colors.” “Don’t muddy your paint.” And my favorite, “Don’t use the word ‘blend’ in my class.” I’m a stickler for getting students to mix colors on their palettes. If you don’t like it on your palette, you’re not going to like it on your painting. And putting a bad color on your painting and then thinking you’ll fix it there… the next thing out of that student is, “I just keep getting these muddy colors.”

JA: Do you still think like a representational painter? What language carries over?

KB: In some ways, my shift to a more abstract style was a departure, and in some ways it was a continuation. What has continued is my way of breaking things down into shapes. And my way of making decisive marks, which has been a hallmark of my painting. The paintings evolve over a few months as I add layers of marks and obscure others while the narrative takes shape. Each mark is like a keystroke as I edit a painting to capture, record, and transform a moment.

JA: Is this move to abstraction a permanent new direction or a twist in the road?

KB: I’d be surprised if I didn’t return to representational art at some point. I’m not convinced that pure abstraction is for me. There’s a certain connection to the landscape or people or tangible things that I feel a need for. I have stories to tell, and this is my language. And pure abstraction seems to me to lose the storyline.

JA: So what is your storyline?

KB: My sense of wonder at the physical world—and the sense of renewal that I draw from it. I find in urban and rural places such beauty. When I lived in the city, it was the light coming down the alleyway illuminating the cobblestones in a silver-blue band. I find the same thing here with a mountain range. I’m after the moment of wonder and awe; the moment of standing back and knowing that you’re part of something bigger. There’s something here that needs to be told. Do you feel that in your writing?

JA: Yes, and for me it’s the same message, conveying my sense of wonder—about life, living things, whether plants or trees or birds. That’s where I find my spiritual sustenance.

KB: Oh I like that expression, spiritual sustenance. You know, my greatest achievement in life is having three children. The day that one gives birth to a child, there is no doubt about what we were put on this planet to do. And the paintings become that for me. There’s no doubt that this is what I’m supposed to be doing. There’s something going on that’s bigger than me, that will outlast me, in the same way that a good story, once it’s told, goes out into the world and becomes its own thing.

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JA: Why do you paint in oil?

KB: It’s the most satisfying. You can keep it out all day and it stays wet. And the colors are fantastic. There are some environmental issues, but I’m hugely conscious about buying the best environmentally friendly paint and using good clean-up methods, good conservation methods. Oil paint is just hard to beat.

JA: What does a typical day in the studio look like for you? Do you do anything at the start of the day for inspiration?

KB: I try to be in the studio around 9 a.m., and start winding down at 4 p.m. . I have about six good concentrated hours of painting. Once I’m here and in front of the canvas, I am just hitting it. At 5 p.m., I have a glass of wine and declare the day over. When you work at home, and you work for yourself, at some point, it’s a diminishing return. You have to impose a barrier.

I listen to music while I paint, everything from classical to country western. And I begin most days by reading a poem. Like Billy Collins’ “Dharma,” where the dog trots out the front door every morning without a hat or an umbrella, without any money or the keys to the doghouse. I mean is that not a painter or a writer? Off the cliff. “Oh I’m not going to need that parachute. I’m going to be just fine.” You have to think like that if you paint.

Or (she picks up a pile of poetry books), here’s Elizabeth Morgan’s “Painting the Blue Ridge Red”:

     Art class assignment: use opposite hues.
     So undulant mountains
     blued by the haze their humid greens give off are red as ocean rollers in a sunrise.

Or Stephen Dunn’s “The Insistence of Beauty”:

     That red gash in the hills, I told her,
     is bauxite, not clay. I saw that it was gash that made her smile. What about
     those cows the color of Irish Setters grazing in the lowland? she asked.
     Oh, just big, slow dogs.
     Thank you, she replied, like Elvis,
     thank you very much.
     It’s just all right there. Now I can get to work.

What else? Here’s “Snow Day” by Billy Collins:

     Today we woke up to a revolution
     of snow, /its white flag waving over everything.

Or Jane Hirschfield’s “In Praise of Coldness”:

     If you wish to move your reader, you must write more coldly…Scent of rocking distances, smoke of blue trees out the window.

How can you read this stuff and not go paint?

JA: Have your travels influenced your work?

KB: Not as much as most people would think. A new place is so unfamiliar and hard for me to get everything I need from in a short amount of time. I think you have to experience a place deeply in order to paint it. I have painted in Maine, where I’ve been for longer periods. I was fortunate enough to be at the Vermont Studio Center at one point. But really it’s home. It’s my familiar place where I can notice those minute changes.

Painting can be a little like raising a garden. You wouldn’t go someplace for a week and say, well I’ll just plant this little garden here. Do you find that you’re getting to be more of a homebody as you get older?

JA: No question. I find more and more that it’s the meditation on the familiar that’s the most satisfying.

KB: Oh I love that…. meditation on the familiar. That’s it in a nutshell. (She walks over to the window.) Look at those leaves in the wind. Such jittery little movement. The dances those leaves make. It’s the battle of them trying to hang on and the wind trying to wrestle them to the ground. So I could look at that all week. Watch the war. It’s all here. The sky, the leaves, the light, the shadows, the birds, the horses. The guineas (who have begun to make a racket). I raised them myself from when they were chicks. If we go out there, they’ll all run over to me. (Later we do. And they do—the plump gray birds scuttling and fussing and clucking around Karen like she’s a mother hen.) They’ll follow me around the yard all day.

When I was bringing them up, I took a stool out there twice a day, for about 30 minutes, and just sat there and talked to them. I sang to them like I did my children, literally sang lullabies. So they have definitely imprinted on me. There’s a fascinating microcosm of their little society. Have you ever had chickens?

JA: No. But I know they have a strong social hierarchy, and they’re smart, at least where predators are concerned.

KB: Well I wouldn’t go that far. The book I read had a chapter at the back, “If all else fails” … and…(she says with a twinkle) … it had some recipes.

JA: What does your teaching of painting bring to your own work?

KB: An articulation of basic premises about painting. Don’t muddy your colors. Be sure of your tones. Be certain in your own mind of what you’re painting. The other piece of it that I didn’t expect was how much I get from the students themselves, their enthusiasm, their joy, their great leaps as they figure things out, and it infuses the studio with a certain Zen atmosphere, which feeds me.

JA: Any advice to an aspiring painter?

Go to the art store and aisle shop. Get the stuff. You’ll be hooked. Open the tube of paint and smell it. Rub the brush in it. Make a mark. Make another mark. Don’t look back.

JA: What about painterly influences on your work? Has anyone local inspired you?

KB: Fairfield Porter. Lois Dodd. Richard Diebenkorn. Joan Mitchell. Frank Hobbs. All of them resonate. Locally, there’s my friend Jessie Coles. She has a quiet presence that comes through in her work, and a meditative quality. Her paintings are like looking at the constellation Pleiades, where if you look out of the corner of your eye, it’s almost clearer than if you look at them straight on. She captures that somehow.

JA: There seems to be tremendous spirit of joy in your paintings, an ebullient love of light and landscape. They roar with good feeling. What’s your greatest pleasure in painting?

KB: Is there any pleasure? It’s torture from start to finish, agony, anguish. (Big smile.) No. There are great passages in painting, when it’s going well, where I’m unaware of time, temperature, and anything else but the act of putting the paint on the canvas. And that’s the pleasure. It’s losing myself completely. And for brief, fleeting moments, a sense of sureness brings such joy.

I imagine that’s like finding just the right turn of phrase in writing, and you think, this is what I do this for. Out of the thousands of words I’ve written, here’s this one little phrase that feels just right. But it’s enough. You live for it.

JA: That’s it. And by that same token, to come up to your desk the next day and reread it and say, oh I really did get this.

KB: Or there are other days, when I come up to a painting and think, what was I thinking? This is a bad painting. What was I doing?

JA: And then there’s the way people bring their own vision and experience to your work, which can make it rich.

KB: Or scary. People can say anything. And they do. But I’ve also had wonderful comments from people who have taken a relative or friend to a hospital such as The Couric Cancer Center in Charlottesville and seen one of my big paintings and have said that for a moment, the painting took them out of that place, transported them. And I had a letter from group of employees at Capital One in Richmond who wrote to say that they hoped I didn’t think it was odd that they were writing, but they just wanted me to know that they walked by my paintings every day and had for years and how much it meant to them. That was lovely.

But let’s counter that with my son’s comment ten years ago when he was about 14, and I was working on a river scene, and he said, “Mom, what this needs is one of those Loch Ness monsters comin’ out of the water, with the little ripples from the humps.” That was humbling. So just when I get myself all enraptured with my own amazement, my son sets me straight.

I feed off a sense of purpose and the ritual of having meaningful employment. At the end of the day, having a sense that something exists which didn’t exist at the beginning of the day. It’s like gardening in that way. A packet of seeds. A tube of paint. There’s so much promise in those two things. There’s a lot of work, too. I’m happy when I’m working. There’s a lot of manual labor in applying gesso to a canvas and wiring the back and cleaning paintbrushes that I find very soothing. There’s a ritual to it. And there’s that sense that it’s a timeless occupation: Since the cave men were putting their hands on the cave wall, there has been an innate need to record things, to say, this happened.

JA: Several of your new pieces are very large. What made you want to go so big with your work?

KB: I have painted canvases as large as 5 x 7, but I wanted to go even bigger. I found a wonderful roll of canvas I could order from Italy, half cotton, half linen, double-primed. When it arrived, I felt like it was a bolt of satin for a wedding dress. I opened the plastic and here was this massive roll of fabric. Talk about abundance! So I could just roll it out on the floor, the way you see in the movies, when they roll out the red carpet. Getting up the courage to put scissors to it took some nerve.

JA: Why so big? I wanted a painting to fill my vision, to engulf me. When I stood in front of it, I wanted it to be all that I saw. Human-size, like that diagram of Leonardo’s man with the square and the circle and the arms out. It’s a world; it comes and surrounds you.

And surrounded by art, Karen Blair turns back to the canvas on the wall to ponder her next move.