Karen, you characterized your early work as “very idyllic and beauty oriented.” How did your current style develop?
In the space of 15 months, I lost four important persons in my life: my mother, husband, brother-in-law and an extended-family member who was also a close friend and fellow artist.
The most difficult of these, of course, was the death of my husband of 46 years. He died suddenly at the age of 65 in a very public place. I needed to process this loss and used my creative abilities to do so.
You talked about your book, Between Two Worlds, as a visual representation between grief and trauma. What were the events that made this book necessary for you to produce?
The loss of my husband left me with severe brain disfunction and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. My brain simply could not make sense of my new reality. It was coming up on a year after he died when our dear family member, a 46-year-old wife and mother, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and died within three months. Our family had lost my mother, my husband, his brother and now my son-in-law’s sister. I felt I now needed to be the one to offer support. I had to find a way to heal my brain and my heart. I began intensive research and discovered the reason for my mental and physical issues, which led to recovery. I wanted to offer for others what I needed most when I was experiencing intense grief.
How has the book helped you heal?
The process of writing the book helped in several ways. Making the images helped me to visualize emotions that were just too hard to describe. Things I found difficult to express in words or hard for others to hear could be expressed visually. Also, it was important and helpful to document the research, trials and successes that helped me heal emotionally and physically. I collaborated with several others in my close circle to contribute poetry and model for the images. This helped us work through things collectively.
Where did you grow up? Did you grow up with visual influences?
I grew up in central Connecticut with a large wooded area behind my house. I spent endless hours there as a child, letting my imagination run wild. We were a middle-class suburban family with no interest in the arts, therefore, I did not have any visual influences or mentoring as a child. I married young and did not attend college or art school. I am self-taught and studied art theory, color theory, art history and a variety of artistic mediums on my own. I am a life-long learner and haven’t stopped learning, making or creating since I was in my early 20s. In the last 10 years, I studied photography, editing applications and graphic design by means of online and local classes. I have also made an extensive study of creativity and have a strong interest in neuropsychology.
Are you driven to create?
Yes, but I actually believe everyone is. We are all given the capacity to create. It’s part of our DNA. The more you feed that innate ability, the more you realize how important it is. It is a gift that relatively few take advantage of. I believe learning how to tap into that ability, to open up those brain waves and think creatively, can and should be taught.
How do you begin to form/conceptualize a new series?
It begins as an abstract concept, usually quite personal. I have come to find that the more personal the work is, the more universal it is, touching the life experience of many. I start reading everything that seems relevant to the question I am asking or issue I am considering. This helps me hone in on a more specific topic. I then begin to imagine how it might be expressed visually. A series can take six to 12 months or more to complete.
Please describe your creative process.
After a concept is clear in my head, I begin planning multiple shoots. I source locations and contract models. I also need to source or make clothing or costumes. Photo shoots where I only shoot images for composite layers are planned as well. In the studio, I think in layers. I apply composites of texture or light to alter or add to the mood of the image. I also use methods of construction and deconstruction, applying elements then removing some, blending, intertwining, softening the edges. I do this with editing software, a process I developed and continue to hone.
Most importantly, I leave room for surprise and discovery both in the field and in the studio. I try not to hold too tightly to a preconceived outcome, letting go and allowing creative flow to take the lead.
“Letting go” is a fascinating process. What happens when you let go?
First, we need a measure of skill in our particular medium. For instance, I need to know how to set the camera settings, change them as the light changes, tweak them to set a particular tone. Having done the work of learning how to do that particular thing we want to do, we can craft an environment for innovation, discovery and exploration. For me, it is a certain time of day when the light is just right, environment, atmosphere and music that assist me in letting go. A certain part of the brain lights up when these two things are at play, brain waves are at the Alpha-Theta border, from 7Hz to 8Hz. This is the optimal range for visualization and creativity. It is the state at which we consciously create our reality. We are aware of our surroundings but are deeply relaxed. No longer self-conscious, time melts away. We are performing at a higher state of consciousness.
What do you ask of the women who model for your photographs?
I am always very clear about the nature of the project. They understand the broad concept and are willing to find those emotions within their own life experience. I ask that they respond to the environment or the music in a natural way. I try not to direct too much and just keep clicking the shutter. It is a true collaboration between the model, the camera and the photographer.
How did you find solace in the woods?
As the pandemic was making its way across the country to the East Coast, early spring arrived in Maine. In a climate of global pain and separation I was seeking refuge and companionship. Still very much grieving the loss of my husband, I came across the concept of forest immersion while researching solutions for my panic attacks. At the same time, I came in contact with an eco-therapist.
I began walking gently along the forest trails near my home, stopping to stand still among the trees. I looked up toward the sky at the crooked and bare branches, touched the complicated texture of the bark, breathed deeply the cool, moist atmosphere. Strong rays of light illuminated me and altered my vision. I tried to imagine what I had been reading about, how the trees communicate with each other and with us by means of chemical substances, fragrances, hormones and electrical connections.
I was amazed to find that simply connecting with trees in this intimate way was beginning to heal my anxiety disorder. I believe there is a gift here also, in the forest, and I don’t think we realize how much we need that gift. It is this multi-sensory experience and beneficial interaction that I try to capture and express with my current work.
When and why did you begin the recent sculptures?
I began working on this new process in April of 2021. I wanted to bring home and re-create the tactile sensation and feeling of being embraced by the forest. I needed a way to engage that sense of touch and materiality in my work. This was especially important to me in this time of pandemic but also because of having lost my mate.
How are the sculptures the same and/or different from your photographs?
Although the content and concept are similar, the sculptures are created with an entirely different process. The images I incorporate are given a sepia tone and printed on a very translucent Japanese Kozo paper. I sculpt Davey board (an archival book board) into curved shapes that act as a base and cover them with similar images. Silk, flax or ramie fibers are sandwiched between layers of mulberry paper. The edges of the papers are burned then sculpted into forms and applied to the base. Attention is given to the translucency of the piece, imitating Komorebi, the light filtering through the trees.
Tell us the story of these three pieces.
Not Afraid of the Dark
Grief needs to be expressed. Ignoring waves of that painful feeling doesn’t work, it will eventually find its expression whether you like it or not. I found it best to let it have its say, wail if you need to, dance it out to intense music, make angry marks on the page. You will actually heal faster and be able to show up in the world sooner if you do.
In This Together
This was a delightful collaboration. If ever there was a Wildheart, it is Rachel Cutler. A woman so connected to the land she is a tree hugger in the truest sense. On this, our first shoot together on the trails of Merry Spring Park, she took off her sandals and traipsed barefoot through untamed woods and streams without missing a step. In This Together is about collaboration and connection, both with each other and with us and the natural world. Support in times of difficulty, comfort, embrace … how important it is to nurture these relationships.
The import of forest immersion is to get close enough to take its pulse so to speak, to place ourselves in the center of this elegant design and become a part of its systems of interdependency and regeneration. It is interesting to note that the roots of trees resemble neurotransmitters in our brain. Rings of trees are almost identical to fingerprints.
Tell us about your new series “Intimate Conversations” and why it is special to you.
“Intimate Conversations” started as an interchange. I wanted to include an element of nature and a human element in each image. The concept centers around the theory that interacting with nature fosters our ability to communicate with others. (A skill we are quickly losing indeed!) The human-nature connection is beneficial in many ways but my current interest is in this particular advantage. I have completed two of five sections that will have seven images in each. It is a variation on a theme—a conversation, if you will. Each section is approached differently, similar to a continued conversation with a close friend. Each time they meet they delve into the subject they last discussed, looking to find all the angles, all the nuances of each other’s point of view.
In the second set of images, abstract forms are captured in camera. A human element is incorporated later. The process is both spontaneous and calculated. It is playful and lights up my creative brain every time I set out with my camera. I have always been drawn to abstract designs found in nature and just love the process and the product.
“I don’t sit still,” you said. So, what’s next?
I am not exactly sure. I am in a state of rest and transition creatively … collecting information, inspiration, learning new skills. My interest is in visually connecting prints with sculpture, making a collection that plays them off each other. But I am not quite sure what that looks like yet.
What do you hope to give people through your art?
I hope to give myself and others the freedom and ability to express our deepest emotions, to honor the pain we carry in our hearts. And to remind myself and others that there are gifts that the designer of these elegant systems has made available to us, both internal and external. They help us make sense of our world and deal with the difficulties, we only need to accept and employ them.
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Karen Olson’s limited-edition prints and sculptures are available through SHOP CREATIVE MAINE for our special Give-Back prices. Visit her Shop Page.