From KC to Big Lake Country: Spotlight on Karen Owsley Nease

Ed Newman

In late summer of 1994, Karen Nease and her husband made their first trip to the North Country.  As they crested Thomson Hill on I-35 and saw Lake Superior spread out before them in the setting sun, her life’s direction changed. She knew instantly that she had to live near the big lake.

EN: How did you become an artist? What kind of work do you do?

KN: To hear my mother tell it, I was born drawing and that need has continued to this day. Both my parents were very encouraging and kept me stocked in art supplies and provided me with painting lessons in grade school and junior high. My first two degrees were in Architectural Engineering and Environmental Design. I worked as an architect for eight years and became disappointed with how little of my creative energy was being used, so I went back to college at the Kansas City Art Institute where I earned my BFA in painting and printmaking. It was a wonderfully rigorous classical education in painting. Since then, my work and exhibitions have included painting, printmaking, drawing, and book arts. I also work with digital arts using both Photoshop and AutoCAD to create complex patterned collaged overlays. Most of my work is nature based and very process oriented. It varies from representational to abstract depending on the focus of that particular exploration. My major paintings have three threads right now. Water, trees and abstractions related to my digital work. When it warms up, I’m going to get my French easel out and start doing plein air paintings of the northland.   My printmaking and drawing usually follows whatever I’m painting, and my book arts are just very personal exercises in craftsmanship.

EN: You had an art gallery in Kansas City. What was the name of your gallery and how long did you and your husband run it?

KN: Our art gallery was called Joseph Nease Gallery. My husband, Joe (day job: civil engineer) was the director/curator and I assisted. We showed contemporary art by Kansas City and regional artists. It was a “white box” NY style gallery in the Crossroads art district of Kansas City. Most of the art we showed tended to be more abstract expressionist or minimalist than work I’ve seen here.  We had the space from 1998 - 2003. Our gallery was a critical success, but was not sustainable commercially. After we closed the gallery we both went full time into our respective day jobs of civil engineering and architecture.I continued to paint and exhibit some.  I did less art for a few years because of work demands. We have spent the past year moving our art collection and my studio along with our household. We are finally settled and are in the process of buying a building in west Duluth for my studio space and a likely exhibition space for Joe to ply his curatorial skills.

EN: You noted how process oriented some of your work seems to be. How did these processes develop over the years?

KN: I suspect it is because of my work in architecture, which is totally process oriented and I became comfortable with a particular way of working.  In architecture, there is the idea, the programming, the drawing, and the construction, etc.  Within each of those larger phases, there are preliminary through final phases, each with its own distinct considerations.  I treat my art in the same way.  I plan out what I want to accomplish with a body of work, such as the premise, the appearance, the media, the ground and so on.  I narrow the parameters enough to stay on target,  leaving enough flexibility just in case something serendipitous occurs - I can use it at the time or maybe it becomes a new direction for a later body of work.  It is important to me to really explore an idea to see how far it can be taken.  Sometimes an idea will really only support a few pieces in a series while other ideas I work on feel like they can continue to be mined for a long time.   I have always worked in this way.  I have refined my working process through the years in order to make the most efficient use of my studio time.

EN: Can you describe some of the details that have gone into your recent paisley series?

KN: The Mr. and Mrs. Paisley series are handmade digital collages.  The “template” design and geometry is developed in AutoCAD, a commonly used drafting program in architecture.   I set that aside, and then begin taking images or snippets of my own paintings, images from the internet, photos I’ve taken, fabric or things put on a scanner, whatever comes to mind.  I take these small images, manipulate and combine them into a repeating pattern in Photoshop and print that out a large sheet.  Using the templates I start cutting openings out of the patterned sheets.  After I cut the first patterned sheet, I lay it over a different one lining up things to show through the openings of the first cut sheet, and so on.  Most of these collages have 5-8 patterned sheets laid over one another.  The choice of the patterns can be based on subject matter, color, scale of the pattern.    I don’t have a preconception of what the finished piece will look like.  These works are very much influenced by various folk arts - Appalachian quilting, oriental rugs, Latin American Molas and Ukrainian Pysanky eggs.  The Mr. and Mrs. Paisley series is autobiographical because I create patterns showing what my husband and I are interested in or doing at the time I worked on them.