Inside A Generous Kingdom V and the detailed world and masterful gouging of artist Karen Whitman

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Karen Whitman

How does your work interact with the theme of “A Generous Kingdom V: Art that Explores Story, Symbolism, and Beyond”?

My linoleum block prints express an exuberance and affection for city life. In addition to the images I draw entirely from life, there are those I invent completely, and there are those that

are a combination of the two, offering something more than the sources that inspired them. The prints, narrative in quality, invite the viewer to participate in and invent the story that is suggested to them personally by that print’s captured moment. Who, or what lurks around the next corner or behind that building? Sometimes, the buildings are the main characters, which I strive to imbue with as much personality as those of the two and four legged creatures that populate many of my images. In focusing on city dwellers living their daily lives and giving life to its architecture, I aim to portray the city as positive, accessible, and beautiful, even playful; and yet, inadvertently, I seem to convey a sense of mystery which, at times, creates a fine line between whimsy and foreboding. The city is all of these things at once, which is why it inspires me and is the primary subject of my work.

Does the idea of transformation influence your work and process?

My work transforms its subjects (usually people and architecture) by adding something to them that didn’t exist when I observed them. By adding many elements from imagination, distorting perspective, making buildings lean or dance, or creating unlikely but appealing and engaging environments, viewers can be transported to a new place they enjoy occupying while visiting the work and hopefully take with them even after they walk away. If someone is frustrated with the strife of city life and feels better about it after spending time with my work, I have done my job. If this qualifies as a transformation, then my answer is yes!

What draws you to the medium you chose? And tell us a little about your process (I don’t believe in giving it all away).  

I enjoy the graphic quality the block print medium offers, which lends itself so well to the dramatic contrasts and angular shapes so prevalent in the city, my primary focus. I especially love the challenges of creating an impactful work in black and white, using extreme light, dark and texture to bring an image to life without the dazzle of color. I also enjoy the physicality of carving, turning the block, which is actually a relief sculpture, into a

two-dimensional work of art, reminding me daily of the hard work and patience it takes to accomplish most anything meaningful. The process is very physical. I transfer a drawing, mirror image, to the block and carve from the surface the areas that should not print when I roll the ink on. Therefore, I am adding the light to a dark image by taking away the negative spaces. In the simplest terms,

I’m creating a giant home-made rubber stamp, minus the handle!

What are the strengths of the medium?  What are the challenges?

The medium is very direct: What you cut is what you don’t get! What you leave is what will print. If you blacken your block first, you have a very good idea of what it will look like when finished, so there are no harsh surprises. It’s bold and dramatic, and it’s enjoyable to feel that gouge glide through the material. The biggest challenge is the discipline it takes to resist carving away too much, because you can’t put it back. You must be patient and be willing to try what you are considering doing on a practice block to avoid that ever-looming dreaded regret, the hastily executed cut. This is not an activity for impatient people, or those whose love of their art is based on spontaneity. You have to love the process, because your result, if you work to the degree of detail that I do, will not come immediately. The instant gratification is in the moments you spend carving, not the final result. Printing can also be a challenge, to get just the right amount of ink rolled on and just the right amount of pressure on the block to get a clean impression of the block. There is some trial and error with every unique image to learn to print it, and the challenge is to keep the “throw away rate” as low as possible.

Who inspires you? And what do you do to get inspired?

I’m inspired by the relief printmakers Lynd Ward (whose work included several graphic novels), Fritz Eichenberg and Claire Leighton. They all used the block print medium to its fullest as they depicted ordinary but resilient people living their lives. Kathe Kollwitz’ work expresses strong and powerful social commentary. I find them all very moving, and all used the medium to its fullest potential with a rich vocabulary of textures with great drama and contrast and an obvious love of and respect for and insight into humanity.

If you could have coffee or tea with any artist who would you pick? What would you have coffee or tea? What would you ask that artist?

I think it would be fascinating to have tea (my preference) with Red Grooms. I’ve always enjoyed his playful, gutsy, unabashed two- and three-dimensional artworks over the years that observe and celebrate people doing what they do as they would do it if no one were watching. All with great insight and humor. In his world, anything goes, anything is possible (and probable!). I would ask him to tell me stories of his most interesting experiences in the city that directly influenced his work. I’ll bet he knows some great jokes, too, as he appears to have a great sense of humor! (And I’m willing to bet he drinks coffee!)

What do you hope your work achieves, in general, and/or specifically with this installation?

I have been told that my prints evoke a sense of the city that people have within them that cannot be captured by taking a photograph, that is difficult for them to put into words, but makes them feel good and uplifted to recall. It is touching people in this way that inspires this work. It also feels to me like an expression of love and connection with the city when I create these new environments with a fresh perspective, something I hope that viewers of my work experience as well.

What recently made you smile?