The shape of an artistic life is unique to each person, and for Karen Watson of Hood River, shape is the basis of everything.
Watson, along with 29 other Gorge artists, is inviting the public into her creative space April 12-14 as part of the annual Gorge Artists Studio Tour weekend (See sidebar for details.)
Her studio on Fifth Street on the Heights is the former “shape shack” used by her husband, Tom, after his work in sailboard building brought the family to Hood River 20 years ago. Long since gutted and upgraded into a lighted, heated space, the studio stands in place of the shed where Tom ran a cord from the house to power his planer.
The “shack” is now home to very different types of shaping, and is open this for the tour, which allows the community to meet artists in their spaces and learn about their work.
“Our family moved here because of sailing,” Watson said. “Tom used to build the boards in this shack, and it transformed into my space. I love it.”
Watson, a seven-year veteran of the studio tour, said, “I love when people come in and I can share the actual process of what I do, very simply. I do love to teach, which has been a new thing for me the last couple of years.
“On the tour, and in the gallery, there’s a mystique: ‘How do they do it all?’ So for someone to come in and see our environment, and kind of the process, it’s fun to share in that experience with people and maybe get them motivated or inspired to paint or create,” she said. “And the fact that a lot of families come in, I think the tour helps keep art alive.
“It’s not just about coming in and buying artwork; it’s cultivating the whole thing. I think it’s super cool we can do that.”
Surfing has a double connection for Watson: Growing up in Orange County, she surfed with Lisa Peterson of Hood River.
“My mom called me up a few years after we moved and asked, ‘Did you know Lisa lives in Hood River too?’ I hadn’t and it was fun to reconnect with her,” Watson said.
Peterson, a multi-media artist, has since become her neighbor, and is also a Gorge Artist Studio Tour member. You can see both studios in one stop just by walking across their shared driveway.
Watson’s art career resembles the redone shape shack: The walls were pulled away and wiring added, but the foundation was always there.
“It’s always been with me,” said Watson of her art. She started painting professionally 12 years ago, and travels throughout the West giving classes and demonstrations in landscape pastels. She studied fine arts at University of California Santa Barbara for three years, dropped out, became a nurse for 20 years, and raised sons Max and Wiley, 25 and 22.
“It sounds crazy: 40 years old and I want to start painting again,” Watson said. She started with a class with Irene Fields at Community Education, and just kept learning and working. “I was kind of off to the races. It’s what I do, and I had forgotten how much I love it.”
After getting re-inspired, she took more workshops, and started participating in fine arts festivals such as Art in the Pearl. In addition to teaching on the road, she gives classes in her studio and at Columbia Center for the Arts.
“They have been great in supporting me. I’m very grateful we have that center,” Watson said. “I am blown away by the number of artists and quality of art, and I think that’s something that when the community can see that, it’s pretty cool.”
Most of her work reflects upon nature, often literally. In the Impressionist tradition that best describes her style, Watson’s pastels are studies of the fragmented play of light on water and upon textured surfaces such as tree bark, leaves and stones
“When I’m out in nature I get excited, and I see things, and when I get home I want to paint that; I want something to come of it,” said Watson, who has training as a sketch artist but primarily works from photographs.
“In my training I didn’t have much color theory, but color is what spins my beanie,” Watson said. “I am just fascinated with it.”
But that brings us back to the shape of artistic impression, as viewed by Watson.
“The color thing is what the artist can really play with, and you have to be spot-on with it, but the shape has got to be really correct, so we recognize what we’re looking at. Once you’ve got the shapes -limit with the color,” she said.
“I think when people are drawn to my work,” said Watson, “it’s like ‘wow, how would you ever imagine that color going there, or interpreting it that way?’’
When shape and color are brought together, “it’s about recognizing when I’m laying a pastel down, ‘Does it work? Does it makes sense to me? Do I recognize it?’” Watson said. “If it doesn’t, put it down and try something else until it starts making sense to me.”
She said she is often asked, of a given painting, “Do you have it all planned out?”
Watson will answer, “I have a general idea, a vision; but as I’m working (I ask) ‘Is it making sense?’ And if not, try something else until it does.”
For Watson, the sense of things comes through in the feel of the crayons in her hand and the paper itself. She enjoys painting with pastels on sandpaper specially made for artists.
The pastels, she explains, look and feel like chalk but are not, in that they have pure pigment, leaving a more colorful trail, almost moist in appearance but not “wet” like paint.
The sandpaper has “tooth to it,” and is of archival quality compared to regular sandpaper which would dry out or deteriorate.
“Because of the tooth I can keep layering pigment on top of pigment because the tooth keeps grabbing it, and depending on how hard I press will determine how much pigment goes on the paper,” she said. “As a dry medium, it allows for a lot of application of pigment without having to deal with liquid paint brushes.”
Her crayons are kept under a well-lighted window, finger-sized chunks or cylinders, in what seem random at first.
“My pastels are organized so that as I am working, I have good idea of where it’s laid out, and it goes from light value to dark value, yellow to green.”
Knowing just which pigment goes where, and to what degree, is the product of “mileage, of doing this 12-13 years,” she said. “I have the experience of doing it over and over again, and recognizing what makes sense or not. It’s training your brain, and your mind.
“People say, ‘You’re so creative.’ I think everyone is creative,” Watson said. “It’s, ‘Do you want to pursue that? Are you passionate about this venue?’ I am, because I work at it. It’s like dancing, writing or cooking. It’s like ‘Art is special from something else.’ I just don’t think it is. If you choose to foster it, you’re going to probably be successful at it.
“It helps to be passionate about it. When I’m painting, I want people to go, ‘Wow! That is so fun. I love that, I love that color, that’s exciting.’ I want to convey that. And for the most part I think I do. You won’t be seeing the ones that don’t work out so well.”