written by Anna Bird
The most intriguing aspect of Karen O’Brien’s paintings are her characters’ eyes. They are haunting and innocent, unnerving and comforting at the same time. Some seem melancholy or concerned, others are pensive or aloof. Upon closer inspection, the broad-faced, fantastical creatures in her paintings relay a gentle and nurturing message.
“I like to think of [them] as empathetic,” O’Brien said of these mythical-looking characters. “They look like they would be kind and listen to you, and I don’t know where that comes from.”
O’Brien is a self-taught mixed-media artist living in the idyllic Applegate Valley near Grants Pass. About seven years ago, she and her husband moved from San Diego after retiring. They sought a rural setting and less traffic, and they found a fixer-upper on six-and-a-half acres with about ten wineries nearby.
It was near the end of O’Brien’s nursing career that she started dabbling in art. Eventually, her interest in collage and paint led to the imaginative mixed-media pieces she now creates. The colorful, whimsical pieces are multi-layered, drawing on the illustrative styles of children’s books, fairytales and mythology. O’Brien thinks of her style as a blend of urban contemporary and primitive folk—using vibrant colors while incorporating shapes and patterns from nature.
Karen O’Brien“I’m one of those weird people who sees faces in everything,” O’Brien said, speculating that it has something to do with her thirty-year career as a nurse. “I make a lot of marks with tools in my hands and I drip paint and I turn the canvas until I see something that looks like a figure, and then I start painting it out.”
From her process emerge characters with mermaid tails and hair the shape of tree branches, or collars of leaves, elaborate fairy wings and pointed ears. Others take more complex, abstract form.
O’Brien’s inspiration from the natural world works at a micro level. “The majority of mark making I do is influenced by the plants and trees,” said O’Brien. “I might look at the shape of a tree, but I like go up close and see how the needles are arranged.”
For a small town, Grants Pass has an active arts community, along with their own art museum—the Grants Pass Museum of Art. O’Brien has displayed her art at local galleries and teaches workshops at the museum, in her home studio and in various other locales around the country. In November this past year, she released her first book, Imaginary Characters: Mixed Media Painting Techniques for Faces and Figures. The book combines a lot of what she teaches in her classes about different ways to approach mixed media, using characters. Not your average how-to, Imaginary Characters is designed like a storybook and incorporates the story of a girl with red shoes embarking on a creative quest. (Available at Powell’s City of Books)