Talk with an Art Head: Exclusive Interview with Karen James

Karen James_Back to Back_Earthenware with Underglaze Pigment & Wax_11Karen James_Stretch_Earthenware with Underglaze Pigment & Wax_8Karen James_Dancer_Earthenware with Underglaze Pigment & Wax_12

Eduardo Alessandro Studios, the contemporary art gallery in Broughty Ferry, has been invaded.

Invaded by dancing nymphs.

Dancing, swaying, stretching, and whispering, Karen James’ delightful range of ladies has taken up residence in the centre of the upstairs gallery. Sitting back-to-back, doing the can can, and posing as the illustrious Marilyn Monroe, these little nymphs are having a ball. And their joy and mirth is contagious.

So who is responsible for these lovely ladies and what was the inspiration for them?

It must be the Venus figurines, I thought, those mysterious and ancient sculptures found all over Europe dating back to the Palaeolithic era. As some of the oldest artefacts in human history, the Venus figurines have captivated the imaginations of archaeologists and historians of prehistory alike, the debate raging on as to their original meaning. Perhaps it was these figurines that inspired Karen James.

Or maybe I was looking too far back in time and needed look no further than the 20th century with the likes of world famous Columbian artist Fernando Botero or Britain’s very own Beryl Cook whose oversized, voluptuous figures continue to delight viewers all over the world.

When I asked my boss where Karen gets her inspiration from, he told me to ask her.

So I did.

And would you know it, but she’s also American.

Not just American, she’s from Texas, that wonderful Texas drawl taking on a Scottish lilt after decades of living on this side of the pond.

Karen is amused to find herself speaking with another American who has left the states for a British fella. We speak about adjusting to the Scottish climate and the best times to visit the U.S. when flights are cheapest (fly via Florida in February and March).

Finally we get around to the purpose of my call. Taking a breath, I ask her the question that has been preoccupying me for days.

Is it the ancient Venus figurines? Or artistic influences Botero or Beryl Cook?

“No,” she says, “They’re not really related at all.”

Here’s the story.

Karen left school in an era when women went into secretarial work or teaching. “I always thought I had an art thing about me that was never brought out,” she says in her Texan drawl. Although she worked as a secretary, she followed her passion, taking night classes in clay and pottery, which led to her moving to Florida and pursing an art degree. Then she took a trip to Europe to do a museum and gallery tour and see the works she had spent two years studying. That’s when something unexpected happened.

“I ended up in Amsterdam where I met some Americans who owned a Texan bar.” Rather than return to the states, she stayed on as a bar tender and it was there that she met her future husband and moved with him back to his native Scotland. They started a family and her art career was put on hold. But only temporarily.

Karen returned to study pottery and ceramics at Cardonald College but decided not to follow her younger classmates to art school. “I had waited long enough to get stuck-in,” she explains.

The dancing nymphs were born from a brief in Karen’s final year of her higher diploma. It asked students to create a seated figure in a stylised way, showing emotion. “I really struggled with it,” Karen admits, “My original figure I tried to do was quite slender.”

Inspired by Matisse’ Cut-Outs, Karen continued experimenting until she came upon the figure and shape that has become characteristic of her dancing nymphs. Her tutor encouraged her to show them in a gallery and from there she was commissioned to create an almost human sized figure.

Despite this success, Karen says that “in my early days I didn’t have any direction as to what poses to make.” Then one day Karen saw a few pieces of driftwood lying in her yard and realised that she could use them to create standing figures, which she had wanted to make. “The driftwood was the perfect solution,” she says.

Since then Karen’s work has taken on a momentum of its own. “Now I feel like what’s driving me is the exuberance in the ladies and I’m just working to impart that in my work.” Although Karen has tried making mournful and scornful pieces she says, “I just don’t get the feeling I get when I do ladies who are really happy being free and active, dancing and singing.”

So what’s up next for Karen? She’s actually pursuing functional art, working away on a collection of vessels. “I’m working on pots that are functional but wonky and textured, bringing the male and female with them.” She’s also looking into exhibiting in galleries in the U.S.

And considering that she already has one American fan over here delighting in the joy and exuberance of Karen’s ladies, I won’t be surprised if Karen’s work begins cropping up all over the states as well. But for the moment, they’re enjoying themselves in bonnie Scotland so come on down to the gallery and join in the fun!