The works, rimmed in gold, silver or copper halos, glitter like celestial coins as Karen, a petite presence who possesses a profound, positive energy, rocks rhythmically in a chair below.
Their roundness, their wholeness, is a reminder that we are all connected, we are all part of the circle and cycle of life in the cosmos.
Karen's cycle/circle of discovery started on a 240-acre dairy farm in America’s heartland.
The youngest of four, she was born and raised in the tiny town of Emmet smack in the center of Wisconsin among cows, horses, pigs and cats and orchards and woods.
“I grew up doing farm chores,” she says, adding that one of them was digging up 500 pounds of potatoes with her siblings. “I had unusual, intense experiences in nature.”
She made her first drawing - of an apple - when she was four.
“I colored it red and green,” she says. “Everyone made fun of it because it wasn’t all red, which is the color everyone thinks apples should be, but I drew what I saw.”
By six, Karen had created her first still life: She artfully arranged fruit and flowers in a bridal basket, not realizing that her effort was ephemeral.
It was in high school that she set her mind – and her career path - on art.
“I was the first person in my family to go to college,” she says, adding that her older sister enrolled later.
She worked her way through the University of Wisconsin. Her parents had the means only to offer her moral, not financial support.
In the beginning, Karen lived at home and rode her bicycle to the university’s Stevens Point campus, which was ten miles away, and worked as a nanny at a golf course.
After two years, she transferred to the Milwaukee campus for more challenging coursework.
“It took me five years instead of four to get my degree because I was almost working full time,” she says.
When she graduated, Karen took a part-time job delivering newspapers to kids who had paper routes.
In the early 1980s, she and several of her artist friends settled in Queens.
“We all lived in a loft by the Queensboro Bridge,” she says. “My studio was across the hall. It was tough in the winter because there was no heat on the weekends. I got weird jobs and began driving a cab.”
While she was creating art and working, she earned a master of fine arts degree from Hunter College and a master’s in education from Teachers College, Columbia University.
In 1984, she got married – her husband had been a mechanic at the cab company she drove for – and settled in Astoria.
“I’ve never held a full-time job,” she says, adding that she and her husband staggered their work hours to accommodate the schedules of their three children, who are now grown. “I was part of the gig economy before it was even a thing.”
One of her major gigs was working as a teaching artist, which she still does at LIU Post and the Queens Public Library system.
“I integrate academics with the arts,” she says.
These days, Karen bicycles to her studio, where she works from about 7 a.m. to about 4 p.m. on Mondays through Fridays, interrupting her schedule only to hold Zoom classes for LIU and the libraries.
She’s been concentrating on the tondo form for three decades, and she’s been working out of her present studio, which declares its presence with large, colorful circles she painted on its exterior, for 17 years.
Some of the latest versions of her work are on synthetic yupo paper mounted on medium-density fibreboard.
A special collection of her smaller circles, $250 each, is available through Instagram’s Fair Share Art project.
Once she draws the circle on the paper, she applies a layer of Venetian plaster, which she tints in a variety of colors, with a trowel to create what she calls a “smear of energy” that establishes a baseline.
Then she adds layers of oil paint or a special solution of ground mica suspended in gelatin that she prepares.
The gilding – silver, copper or gold – is added around the rim of the circle, which is mounted on the fibreboard.
The circular forms allow her to explore "the edge of things- where does one thing begin and another end,” she says, and to endeavor to illustrate the nature of energy, making the invisible visible.
Poetry is one of Karen’s main sources of inspiration.
The words, she says, “grab me by the neck and shoulders and shake me to the bottom of my feet physically and metaphorically. Something happens with my interior. I make a connection with color, texture or an abstract idea and the poem works on me, and it comes out in my work.”
She adds that she can’t really explain the strong, deep bond the words work on her or how sometimes her paintings seem, as if my magic, to make themselves.
“If I could, it probably would stop happening,” she says.
Her home garden, which she likes to grow wild – this year, she says, it’s almost as tall as she is – is another connection to creative ideas.
She marvels at the way the red beebalm, suffocating in shade, replants itself in the sun.
A couple of decades ago, Karen’s life, like her paintings, started to come full circle.
She bought 80 acres of the land that was part of her parents’ dairy farm and erected an off-the-grid home she affectionately calls The Shed.
“There’s no water, there’s no electricity,” she says. “It allows me to live close to the natural world and the land I grew up on. The tie is very profound.”
Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @nancyruhling and visit astoriacharacters.com.