I was first introduced to Karen Smidth’s work at a recent event at Serena & Lily’s San Francisco Design Shop. Some of her larger works were on display and I was instantly drawn to her expressionistic yet abstract paintings. And now I am thrilled to feature Karen Smidth as part of the Artist Series. I am sure you will find her interview so heartfelt, thoughtful, and interesting…
How did you become an artist?
I became more of an artist when I started working focused on oil painting. I realized that painting is part of my day and that I can not imagine my life without it. To me, the word “artist” is a very serious word and it describes a state in a person’s life that I quite frankly never thought I would reach comfortable and naturally. “Artist” sounds both utterly romantic, some what terrifying, and sometimes pretentious. It took me a long time to use that word comfortably. I am a painter. History will prove if I am an artist.
What was your training?
At 16 I decided to leave ordinary school behind. To me it seemed boring to sit still on a chair during long dark winters in Denmark, my birth country.
I was fortunate that there were many alternatives. I studied printing, bookbinding, and typography. In my second year I found an apprenticeship as a hot metal typesetter at a printing house in a small town on the westcoast of Denmark, and so I moved there. The shop had a long tradition of working with authors and artists. I saw serious artists in action. It was inspiring and that memory stayed with me. But what I had studied was at the time a dead art. Computers moved in and soon all the lead was forgotten. After that I went to designschool in Copenhagen.
During the following 25 years I worked as a designer, first in Copenhagen and later in San Francisco and internationally. I was specialized in logos/symbology which involved a lot of drawing. I also very happily did illustrations. During those years I studied at the Art Academy and later College of Marin. As the computers and the web took over large parts of what interested me as a designer I lost interest. Too much time sitting on a chair. I like to work with my hands and move around. Working with just the tips of my fingers is too boring to me.
What are you working on right now?
I went to Denmark in September, briefly, and I have some images that I want to work on. There were things happening it the landscape, colors, that we don’t have here. Memories that I don’t have here. Smells and shapes, and colors that I normally stay away from, so I don’t know how it will work out. I will also continue some large and small scale paintings of flowers. The subject matter seems to push me further away from reality possibly because the horizon line is less visible. Often if I make a plan, something else happens. I do like change. Sometimes I laugh because the more I paint the less I understand.
Where do you do your work from?
I work from both my home and my small studio in berkeley. The space is too small but I just love it anyway. The trains rattle and shake the building, the air is polluted, but the light is reflected from the bay and I have great friends around me. I can see Marin from both places. It anchors me.
Who or what is inspiring you right now?
I obviously have a need to fill the page, cover the canvas, make my mark. I love finishing paintings whereas with most other things in my life I am less inclined to see something final. The combination of going to new places, fantasizing about places, and returning to the known seem to energize me. I paint to survive and to make a living. I am feeling blessed that I am able to do it this way and I am deeply grateful for the people who support me. Conversations with fellow painters and artists are of course crucial and very inspiring. I am in debt to my friends and family. My children. Some people influence me more than they will ever know.
What are you the most proud of?
I love painting but I am not feeling pride. It might be a cultural limitation
What is your most prized piece of art in your home? What is the story behind it?
My childhood home had paintings done by an old uncle who lived until 1917. He was a “real” artist. He would travel to the distant countryside in the summers, live in the villages and paint what he saw. Early social realism. In the winters he lived and worked at my Great grandmother’s house. He also helped raise her 6 children after my Great grandfather died. I have a tiny painting of a sheep that has traveled with me since I moved away from home at 17.
This painter, Hans Smidth, was both the reason why I did not paint earlier in my life… as no one believed one could survive as an artist without extra financial backing…however he is also part of the reason why I paint and I still go to the land where he worked. Sometimes I paint in honor of him. He did some great work.
(All photos courtesy of Karen Smidth)