Karen Karnes is known around the art world as the grandmother of the studio pottery movement. Her revolutionary works helped merge crafts into fine art. Those works will make up the newest exhibition at the Currier Museum of Art.
Karnes was born in New York City in 1925, the daughter of immigrants. She had an early affinity for art, and in her 20s she went to work at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, the famed experimental art school whose alumni include Cy Twombly, Robert De Niro Sr. and Arthur Penn.
Karnes is noted for two kinds of work. Her functional objects are not only beautiful but enrich one’s personal life, according to Kurt Sundstrom, associate curator at the Currier. Karnes was one of the first to work in flame- proof clay, so that people could use her works on the stove. Sundstrum said if you drink coffee from a mug from Pier 1 Imports, it is functional but not unique. He said drinking from one of Karnes’ mugs is a different experience.
“You can feel the artist’s hand,” Sundstrum said.
To understand why Karnes worked so hard to create plates and vases that enriched one’s daily life, you need to understand the time period she lived in. When Karnes was developing her style, she became great friends with Merce Cunningham, one of the most influential figures in American dance, and the composer John Cage.
“Karen once told me about this time she was playing poker with John Cage,” Sundstrom said. “It is hard for me to comprehend these giants of art sitting around playing poker.”
This circle of friends was greatly influenced by Eastern religions and embraced communal living. They were anti-capitalist and felt that the industrialization of art was cutting out the artist and that craftspeople were no longer exploring the limitless boundaries of their imaginations but were instead working on machines.
In response, they tried to create an idyllic community in which art and life were inseparable and where people didn’t go to work but went off to make stuff all day long. Karnes’ work was a statement against the direction modern living was taking. Sundstrum said if you go to her house even today, you don’t eat off a plate from Pier 1. You eat off the work of her friends.
Karnes also made non-functional works in which she blended ceramics with fine art. She is also greatly admired because she never repeated a form. In her non-functional pieces she created a series and then another — she was always evolving.
Sundstrom said the sculptures Karnes made were as good as any in any other medium but because ceramics is from clay it doesn’t get as much attention as other materials. Yet, the challenge is perhaps greater.
“There is no other medium besides ceramics where the tactile is equally as important as the vision,” Sundstrom said.
Sundstrum said Karnes’ works elicit emotion when you look at them. But, as is special about pottery, when you hold those works, it is an entirely different experience. Sundstrum said he has seen people hold one of her pots as if they were holding a baby robin. Unfortunately, because of the delicacy of her work, visitors will not be able to hold them at the exhibit.
Karnes currently lives in Morgan, Vt., and for the past 10 years the Currier has been buying her work and establishing both a personal and a professional relationship with the artist, according to Sundstrum.
“She has come to look at the Currier as her backyard gallery,” Sundstrom said.
Sundstrom and the Currier easily recognized Karnes as a national and international artist and helped lead the charge for a retrospective of her work, writing countless letters of endorsement. So, naturally when such a retrospective came to fruition, the Currier was one of a handful of venues chosen to host it.
It also helped that New Hampshire and the Currier Museum of Art have such a long and illustrious history of supporting crafts. Sundstrom said, with no hint of exaggeration, that in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, the country looked to New Hampshire and its League of Craftsmen as a model of how to run a crafts program.