Over the course of several weeks I had the pleasure of working with Karen Halt as she went through the process of putting together her first book. I got the chance to speak with her about her inspirations, her history, and what draws her to the animals that have found their way so concretely into her works.
After spending just a few moments at her home outside of Mukwonago the link between her world inside and outside of her paintings became clearer than ever. To put it simply, she is surrounded by nature and its beauty. She lives in what could be considered suburbia, but once you’re through the trees, and descend into the sanctuary, you would never know. Her garden is tucked in the kettles of Eastern Wisconsin, a land formation that dips down like a giant pot surrounded by trees. Halt surrounds herself with birds, statuary and flora; including a display of blooming lily pads on the pond, all of which frequent as subjects in her painting.
The representation of wildlife is nothing new to Karen. Early in her career as a painter she worked exclusively painting animals accurately and without distractions. She worked with animals as a strict reference, focusing on the details of feathers, fur, and color patterns. After working in the field for a number of years her work was picked up by a wildlife agent. He did an excellent job of marketing her work, and in no time her studio was empty. Painting after painting sold, and she began getting requests for birds with three white feathers for every one gray one. It quickly got to the point where painting lost its purpose. It was no longer for the sake of the animals, and certainly not for her own. She felt as though her work had become a product to be manufactured, and just like that the joy had dissipated.
For a time that was it; she didn’t paint. Throughout our conversations I had to constantly remind myself that Karen had an entire career before art. She worked for years as a nurse practitioner, then began exploring acrylics first as an outsider, then hobbyist, and eventually a professional. In that time, she had considered what it would be like to make a living painting but what she found left her disillusioned and heartbroken. As is sometimes the case, it took another artist to get her back to her work. A poet friend of hers asked if she’d like to do some paintings in tandem with her writing. She agreed, but had no expectations of what they would entail, and no idea of what this little project would lead to.
In combining painting with poetic metaphor she found the life she had sought out in her pursuit of wildlife all those years ago. Narrative and personality made their way into her restrained style, and suddenly blue jays weren’t just about the number of feathers in their crest. Halt took her ability to recreate with specificity and did so in foreign settings. Penguins in bathtubs, elephants emerging from the wallpaper, and owls at the dinner table became as natural as their worldly habitats. In these new conversations she uncovered the meaning she had been searching for, and it’s what drives her to this day.
I would love for Karen to have told you these things herself, and maybe one day she will. I shot our conversation on video, but unfortunately I lost the SD card in the process of moving to a new apartment. For those of you who had the chance to speak with Karen during the opening I’m sure you can attest to what a treat it is to hear what she has to say. While I hope that’s still a possibility I wanted to get this into writing while the memory is still fresh. Her show is up until October 30th, and I hope everyone reading this has the opportunity to see the work in person. The paintings are extraordinary, as is the book that accompanies the show. It’s a collection not only of recent work, but pieces going back years. Several paintings are paired with writings by Karen that highlight the narrative qualities of the pieces, and bring unexpected clarity. It is pleasure to read, and if you can’t make it to Paoli it’s available for purchase on our website (wink wink, nudge nudge).