People to Watch
By Martin F. Curry
Published in Alpenglow Magazine - Year 2000
Vance came out to Colorado’s Fraser Valley to decorate and furnish the new condo
. . . She was on her own – with no one for financial support except
herself. "I was terrified," she recalled. "I really started panicking because I
didn’t have to make a living while I was married." She dreamed of becoming a bag
lady who wandered through the back alleys of Denver picking food out of
dumpsters. It was a pivotal moment in the life of this gutsy artist – a time for
decision: sink or swim. Not only did she stay afloat, she became a rising star
on the national art scene. "Looking back, the divorce was one of the best things
that ever happened to my career," she said. "It made me take myself very, very
So seriously that she’s now winning awards left and right.
She recently juried onto the C. M. Russell Western Art Show and her work was
included in the Rocky Mountain PBS Anniversary Collection. She was Guest Artist
at the Plein Air Painters of America Show on Catalina Island, California and was
featured artist at the Denver Performing Arts gala "Saturday Night Alive."
Her studio is crammed with unpacked boxes, canvasses, and
paints. A path led to her easel, where she rushed to put finishing touches on an
oil painting of Byers Peak. She wanted to capture the early morning light just
right as it splashed across the meadow in the foreground. The piece was a
donation for the Grand County Historical Association, which would raffle it off
to raise funds-and the public unveiling was only a few hours away.
Vance is always a small cyclone of high energy, but her pace
on this day was even more frenetic than ever. She recently returned from
painting in Vermont, then pumped out 26 paintings for a one-woman show in Niwot,
Colorado. "I said, 'I can't do it,' And I thought 'Maybe I'll just do it.' And
lo and behold, I've done it. I don't know where the time came from." The
following day, she would jet off to Catalina Island, in California for a two
week painting sprint and show with the Plein Air Artists of America.
"Sometimes I do my best work under pressure because I'm not
over thinking the painting." she said. "All the intuitive stuff just comes out."
Vance's introduction to the world of art began as a child in
the family’s suburban Chicago home. On Sunday afternoons, her father, an
accomplished painter and sculptor, taught Vance and her sisters how to draw
trees in the backyard or draw boats in the nearby harbor. They spent rainy
afternoons in massive galleries of the Chicago Art Institute and even today she
remembers every square inch of the place. But even with her family's artistic
background, she never believed she could make art a fulltime career. "I watched
my dad making a living as an artist and I didn't know if I wanted that," she
said. "It's the hardest profession in the world for making a living."
It took the divorce to jolt her to make the commitment and
put the painting career into high gear. But as strong as a passion can be, it
doesn't necessarily pay the rent or put food on the table. She held a lot of
other jobs just to survive, like graphic artist, office manager, and meeting
planner for an oil company. She was even the Winter Park town clerk for three
Even though her goal may have been a distant spot on the
landscape, she never lost sight of the dream. "Sometimes I'd go home and paint
until 3 or 4 in the morning because my right brain hadn't been working all day
and was completely starved." she said.
She started by producing and selling what she described as
"decorative art." "Pretty stuff that reminds people of somewhere." But
after a year or so, it just wasn't making it for her. She desperately wanted to
produce fine art, the kind she take could take pride in, and make a
living at the same time. Her strategy was: learn from the masters.
"You can't get a Ph.D. in art - not in painting. What you
have to do is find people whose work you really admire. And if they teach, you
go seek them out. You watch them. You study with them," she explained
Quang Ho, the internationally known oil painter, accepted
Vance into his professional-level study group in Denver. "She had more
determination and thirst for learning than anyone I've known," he said, adding
that Vance would drive from Winter Park to Denver through blinding snowstorms so
she wouldn't miss one of the weekly sessions.
In addition to formal studies, Vance soon discovered the more
she painted, the more she learned. "Every painting you do is a learning
experience. It's on-going," she said. 'If you ever see an artist who continues
to do the same thing over and over and over and over again-they're not growing.
That's not art. Art is growing."
Vance has certainly grown, both personally and
professionally. She's now happily remarried and she's doing exactly what she set
out to do. Her work is receiving critical acclaim. She's busier than ever and
happier than ever.
"I've never worked so hard in my life," she said with a broad
smile. "It's so exciting. I feel so blessed. Passion for my work drives me all
the time. I have paintings in my head all the time. I know the next ten
paintings I'm going to paint. This thing drives me."
Quang Ho said Vance is emerging as one of the nationally
known artists in America and he has no doubt she'll continue along a fast track
toward artistic stardom. "She's making tremendous progress. I'm seeing her
improve by the month," he said. "The thing that really impressed me about Karen
was her ability to start with an idea and stick with it."
Vance will tell you that the secret of a successful career is
to first set a goal. But, she said, "If you're not really going to sink yourself
into it-dive in completely-you won't make it. You just got to do it."
While Karen Vance may be the quintessential success story,
don't think for a moment she's ready to kick back and rest on her laurels. No,
she's doing just the opposite by raising her goals to new heights.
"I have this other goal now," she said. "I'm going to become
one of the finest living female artists of my generation."
You get the strong impression she's determined enough to do