She spent the afternoon lying in the grass, staring out at the Tennessee river, a thread of blue that nestled her family’s rural farm. From where she sat, the water - ephemeral and always on the move - appeared still and solid. It might trick you into thinking you could walk across to the other side, just like that. How did Jesus walk on water? She had a sudden urge to be out there, in the middle of the blue. A few large tree trunks bobbed up and down in a small alcove at the river’s edge, collected by the waves one by one. She watched them intently. An idea came.
A surge of energy bubbled up from somewhere deep within her and she leaped up to wrap her arms around her horse’s neck in excitement. “Sugar, I’m going to build a raft!” She fumbled in a delightful sprint toward her father’s tool shop.
She spent the next week in her father’s shop, sorting through scrap lumber, rummaging through the nails and screws. It was summer and there was no school. She enjoyed sifting her fingers through the pool of nails, the metal cool against her skin in the humid heat of the southern summer.
“Karen!” She could hear her mother call her for supper but she couldn’t be bothered. Inspiration quenched her appetite. Creativity was her food. “I’m building a raft!” she called back.
Her older brother chuckled from the kitchen table. Inside, her father exchanged a playful look with her mother, as if to say, “you did this.” Her mother had enrolled her in numerous private art and music lessons, further influencing her creative sprints.
Finally, the day came. The raft was finished. Today she would surmount the water. She grabbed the front of the raft and attempted to drag it toward the river, quickly discovering it wouldn’t budge. It was too heavy. She moved to the back of it and pushed. Nothing. She backed away and stared at it for several minutes, breathing heavily. Suddenly, she sprinted to the stables. “Sugar, I need your help,” she whispered in the horse’s ear, arms wrapped around her solid neck.
The horse helped her pull the raft to the river. When she approached the bank, her heart began to beat in anticipation. Adrenaline gave her the strength to push the raft so that it’s nose was floating on top of the water. With one last ounce of strength, she pushed it the rest of the way, and quickly jumped on top. It stayed there, afloat, perhaps for just a few seconds before she realized she was immersed in the water. She swam back to the shore and watched the waves, her raft now on the river’s floor.
Like the raft, her heart sank in disappointment. She thought about the huge fallen trees, effortlessly floating in the water, thought maybe they knew more about miracles than she ever would.
For Karen Chandler, creating has always been about wonder, adventure, and taking chances.
“My family always thought I was strange,” laugh’s Karen, “because I was an artsy type.”
Soft-spoken and unassuming, she talks with my friend Ally and I from her home studio, demonstrating the process of clay-printing in between our story-telling, laughter, and playing with her beloved dog Mylee. There is a subtle humor interlaced in everything she says.
From poured acrylics to stone carving, artist Karen Chandler has tried it all. But she has forged for herself a sweet spot in the unique medium of creating mono-prints using a clay bed.
What inspired you to begin clay-printing?
“Having explored many types of art with private classes, I found an artist who most inspired me with his non-traditional print-making using clay. I studied with Mitch Lyons of London, PA. A really outstanding individual. He’s a potter in Philadelphia. He had a Master’s in clay pottery and ceramics. You name it, he was good at it all. When I met him, he was doing a demonstration on clay-printing. He actually pioneered it himself. I was just fascinated with it. He said he was doing some workshops, so I signed up for one. I drove down both days and I came home excited. I just loved it, absolutely loved it. The basic idea with clay-printing is simply to be free and have fun. Mitch always told us it was like a kid playing, and it kind of is because you do a lot of stuff that’s just really fun. To hear him talk about how he was excited every day to work with clay in his studio made me want to do that too. I felt I had found my medium and thus, identify myself as a clay-printer. Although I still enjoy working in all types of medium, art-making, and teaching. If he left me with anything, I hope I became a little like him.”
Who or what inspires you now?
“I am happy to have the opportunity and purpose of teaching at the Friendship Heart Gallery, an extension of Friendship Community. Friendship Community is a faith-based organization providing home care and life enhancement for people with autism, physical and intellectual disabilities. The Friendship Heart Gallery is a part of that organization, which has provided a working studio and art outlet for these folks who are able to make art with the help of employed instructors, and market their work in the gallery.
I have learned so much about teaching and making art by working with these wonderful students. With the challenges that come with having a disability, how could you not be inspired by their efforts to paint? They make me a more creative teacher because of their disabilities. They look to you for guidance and are sensitive to making a mistake. I tell them every mistake is fixable with paint. Now that sounds a bit like our lives with God. We should look to Him for guidance and forgiveness to fix mistakes.”
How does your faith prompt you to create?
“I was a member of a wonderful artist outreach group that eventually dissolved after three years. I really, really liked that. It was a really nice program, and every year they had this awesome show at Easter. It was nice to work toward it. We had meetings and we kept a journal every day for plans for our work, long before we actually started doing our work. I was journaling most every day with prayer. It was a long process with months of developing. That journaling and devotion time was a process that gave me ideas of what to try and achieve. So I guess you could say there was divine guidance with the artwork. It was amazing that when you take that time to do that, your work is much more worthy.”
How do you express your faith in your art?
“I have worked on paintings, sculpture and stone carvings from Biblical scripture as a part of that art group. Each show was filled with Christian artists’ works and music and presented at Easter. The last show was held in Lancaster City at The Trust Performing Arts Center.
When I was journaling, the idea came to me to work at carving an alabaster stone. Some years before, I was fortunate to meet and study under Ramon Lago, master sculptor, who now lives in Miami, Florida. Even though years had gone by since I worked with Ramon, he totally inspired me to try something over the top for the Easter Show. I chose to work abstractly and was inspired by the stone of the tomb.
I worked on three separate stones entitled “The Tomb, The Light, and The Spirit”. They were exhibited in several churches after the initial show. It was the most challenging project I ever did. The stones were carved in the old style without many power tools so it took me months to complete.
My ultimate art experiences have come from working with God’s creative presence of the Holy Spirit. These three stones were the evolution of a project for the Lord. His direction and power was needed to accomplish the task, after much prayer. Working with stone is a slow and challenging task. I would never have attempted this without His purpose at hand. With God all things are possible when we go forward in Faith. “
For you, in what ways do creating and humanity go together?
The type of art I do is more of an experience. I like to experiment and do new things, try new stuff. I love going for a special discovery, a refreshing style, a certain pop of color. It’s about having an experience and enjoying it. At the end of my experience I always want that rewarding, pleasing result - a divine touch of serendipity. Sometimes, you kind of just get a surprise and that’s what it is. A lot of it is just not considered worthy to be kept.
I think experimental or non-traditional art is at greater risk for aesthetic critique because art principles have not established a recognizable sense of value or appreciation for their results or for just the creative experience. How could it, really? It sounds like I’m talking from the 60’s, which I can of course.
The thing is, when you get something and it starts to look cool, you know it may not come out that way. If the art piece is not pleasing, I try to make it so, and if it gets worse, I know it is time to break. As I always tell my students when they get a little timid, go for it! You can always paint over it again. Taking my own advice, I have been painting over old artworks lately.
I’m one to keep a lot to myself, but life experiences, often messy, serve as powerful opportunities to learn and to build foundations for how we live our lives with God’s grace. In a nutshell, without God’s grace, I would not be on earth. He has blessed me with healing and graced me with each new day I wake and I am so thankful for the opportunity to be here.
But best outcomes are those that are driven by purpose, with a planned process. When I have a worthy mission, my work has better results for success. Then, the experience is greatest.
For Karen Chandler, art is a lifetime of learning, experimenting, trying, and putting that knowledge to use for a worthy purpose. Her life has been enriched and inspired by the opportunities, collaborations, and meaningful relationships the world of art has given her. “There is such reward creating with like-minded individuals in the arts.”
Today a mentor in her own right, she feels fulfilled by being able to guide others in the creative process through laughter, experimenting and play. She hosts poured-acrylic workshops for the public in her home studio.
If you’re interested in participating in one of Karen’s workshops in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, you can sign up here.