Karen Karnes

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Karen Karnes  1925 -2016



Karen Karnes’ remarkable career has stretched over more than a half century. She is identified as a traditionalist because of her adherence to the functional traditions of pottery and her use of salt-glazing and wood-firing. However, in many ways she is an example of the development of modern art ceramics, from her involvement with the innovative communities at Black Mountain College and Gatehill College in Stony Brook, NY, to the continuing evolution of her work today as she continues to explore news forms and figurative work. ARTIST’S STATEMENT – KAREN KARNES “I think the thing, when we see the work together or having the showroom, going in and out and seeing it, what I find really interesting is that I’ve really made so many different periods of work over the years. The casserole was – that same casserole for 40 years. But all the other things that I’ve made, I just – and it was a self-limiting thing that I had. I worked and I was finished with it, strangely, when I went on to something else.” 1 “Clay is a totally expressive material, making permanent the most immediate, the most profound, or the most trivial image of the maker.” 2 1. Interview with Karen Karnes conducted by Mark Shapiro, August 9 and 10, 2005, in Morgan, VT. Taken from a transcript from: http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/oralhistories/transcripts/karnes05.htm. 2. Quoted in Susan Peterson. The Craft and Art of Clay, 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996. p. 290. RESUME – KAREN KARNES 1925 Born, Brooklyn, New York High School of Music and Art, New York, NY 1946 B.A., Brooklyn College, NY 1948 New Jersey College of Industrial Art, Newark, NJ Married David Weinrib 1949-1950 Scuola Richard Ginori, Seston Fiorentino, Italy 1952 New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, Alfred, NY 1952-1954 Black Mountain College, Ashville, NC 1954-1979 Stony Point, NY, Artists’ Cooperative 1956 Son Abel is born 1959 Karnes and Weinrib divorce 1964 Silver Medal, Trienale de Milano 1967 Penland School of Arts and Crafts, Penland, NC 1976 National Endowment for the Arts, Craftsmen’s Fellowship American Craft Council Fellow 1980 National Council on Education in Ceramic Arts Fellowship 1988 National Endowment for the Arts, Visual Artists Fellowship 1990 Medal of Excellence, Society of Arts & Crafts, Boston, MA 1997 Regis Master, Northern Clay Center, Minneapolis, MN Vermont Arts Council Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts 1998 Gold Medal, American Crafts Council Present Studio Artist in Morgan, VT BIOGRAPHY – KAREN KARNES Born in 1925 in Brooklyn, New York, Karen Karnes grew up in a cooperative colony in the Bronx. Her parents were immigrants from Russia and Poland and worked in the garment industry. The cooperative colony was one of the first of its kind, a housing project where the houses were specifically designed by the garment workers for the working–class people. The colony was socially and politically very progressive and had a library, school, and other enhancements, all designed to keep the European culture alive. Karnes attended the local public schools but for high school, chose to attend the High School of Music and Art, making the long trek each day on the subway. There, in addition to traditional subjects, she studied painting and drawing. Following high school, she continued her education at nearby Brooklyn College where she studied design under Serge Chermayoff. She attended the New Jersey College of Industrial Art in Newark, NJ, in 1948 where she entered the ceramics department and met David Weinrib whom she would later marry. When Weinrib left to attend Alfred University and then to work in Pennsylvania, she followed him. Her first pieces were lamp bases which she hand-built and were then used to make models. In 1949 they went to Italy where Karnes had her first experience with throwing clay although she continued to work with molded forms as well. She sent two of the pots she made during this time to the “16th Ceramic National” in Syracuse, NY, and won the Lord & Taylor Purchase Prize. When they returned to the United States in 1962, Karnes had a fellowship to work with Charles Harder at Alfred University but did not stay long, leaving to go to Black Mountain College in


Asheville, NC, to help organize a workshop of Soetsu Yanagi, Bernard Leach, and Shoji Hamada and work. The couple received a small salary, food, and a place to stay, along with a studio, and lived on that plus the sale of some pots. Black Mountain College was struggling, losing money and students, so when the couple was offered the opportunity to move to Stony Point, NY, they were happy to accept. Initially they lived in a farmhouse on the property with five or six other artists, sharing meals and living. A kiln was constructed, a showroom built, all funded by Paul Williams who generously used his inheritance to create an artists’ community. In addition to working and selling her pieces, Karnes taught students who came there and worked. In time she established her first gallery relationship with Bonniers in New York City, primarily filling orders the gallery took for her dinnerware. During this time Karnes and Weinrib had a son, Abel, born in 1956. A school was set up on the property and the children were taught there. Several years later, in the late 1950’s, David Weinrib left and moved to New York, they subsequently divorced, and Karnes was left to raise and provide for Abel. In the mid-1960’s she taught at Penland School of Arts and Crafts in Penland, NC, using the salt kiln for the first time, and she loved the effect it produced. When she returned to New York in 1967 she made her own salt kiln. Karnes states, “…the salt kiln was the real place where I began enlarging the kind of work that I did…I think the whole idea of this new way of doing things – it freed me. I didn’t have to make something that’s really a functional thing. It was a functional thing, but something that somebody wanted.” 1 Her functional work continued to form the bulk of her sales, but the galleries were also happy to show her salt pieces. During her stay at Penland Karnes met Ann Stannard who was teaching in Britain and building and using sawdust and wood-fired kilns. Stannard would become first her friend and then her partner. For a time they tried living part-time in Wales in a home and studio that Stannard had there and part-time in New York, but it soon became obvious that the great distances were not practical and ultimately the house in Wales was sold. They returned to New York and Karnes continued doing wood firing working with Ron Bauer in Vermont. Stannard did not care for Stony Point, so they decided to move to Vermont. Again, with a group of potters, they built a cooperative kiln where the community could both work and offer workshops. In time Karnes and Stannard found some acreage with an old farmhouse in a good location and moved there and set up their studio. By this time Abel was grown and attending MIT, so Karnes could concentrate fully on her work. Karnes had ceased salt-firing and was now concentrating on wood-firing. The wood kiln they constructed was large and Karnes’ work enlarged as well. Unlike the anagama tradition which was becoming popular, Karnes and Stannard fired in a Bourry box kiln, utilizing a downdraft firebox in which the wood lies at right angles to the direction of the line of the draft. Her surfaces had rich colors, blues and purples with light speckles, unlike any other wood-fired pottery at the time. They fired approximately four times a year, and the process of getting the wood ready and the wares made filled their time. Her first exhibition of this new ware was at the Hadler/Rodriguez Gallery in New York in 1979 and was widely noted. Karnes loved the variety the wood-firing allowed and says she would have continued had not a fire struck the property in May of 1998. Both their home and studio were destroyed along with the accumulated materials of 44 years of work. The ceramics community responded immediately, contributing materials and equipment and donating pots for a sale at The Clay Place Gallery in Pennsylvania along with a batch of “kiln gods” to ensure that Karnes would have better luck. In addition, shortly after the fire she was notified that she was to receive the American Craft Council Gold Medal for highest achievement in craftsmanship, helping to ease somewhat the pain from her loss. Rebuilding of the property took over a year and during that time Karnes did not work, and she states that it was hard to return to working. The first pieces she made were tall and skinny, something she hadn’t done before. From there she evolved into exploring different forms as well as the figure. These pieces may still be vessels but the shape is no longer what is considered traditional having instead a softer, more sensuous appearance, a blend of sculpture and vessel. Over her long career Karnes has exhibited her work in a large number of shows, and in addition her pieces have been chosen by such prestigious museums as the American Craft Museum in New York, The Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, NY, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England. Among her honors are the Gold Medal from the American Crafts Council, the Vermont Arts Council Governor’s Award, the Medal of Excellence from the Society of Arts & Crafts in Boston, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Silver Medal from the Trienale de Milano, and a Tiffany Fellowship.