"A winter morning: crisp air, a frozen stream, a seemingly cold subject matter. However, I think it turned out warm and inviting, too."
A Sense of Intimacy
By Sara Gilbert
After a visit to her father's graphics arts studio when she was 6 years old, Karen Vance knew what she wanted to be when she grew up: a secretary, just like the woman who kept her father's schedule and organized his day. When she made the announcement, her mother, a fashion designer, replied, "No, honey; you're an artist."
Vance has been a working artist, in one form or another, since she was 15 and began an apprenticeship with her father, drawing illustrations for Popular Mechanics and Reynold's Aluminum. Today she's a full-time fine artist, painting award-winning landscapes from her home in Winter Park, Colorado.
Although Vance never regretted not becoming a secretary, she admits that the pursuit of a career in fine art was a bit scary initially. "I always loved to paint," she says. "But I wasn't sure if I could really make a living at it. I watched my dad struggle so much. He would have loved to make a living as a full-time painter and sculptor, but he had three daughters to take care of. He did the best he could, but we still had lean times. That's just the way the art business is."
Vance learned that first hand. Following a divorce, she settled 1 in Winter Park, a ski town nestled among the Colorado Rockies. She was working as the town clerk but staying up until 2 or 3 a.m. painting landscapes for a local gallery. Then, in 1986 she decided to quit her day job and paint full time. "It was very scary," she says. "But I already had a little following, and I worked real hard at it. I did a lot of snow scenes and skier paintings, and then the ski area here asked me to do its annual ski posters. I still do those."
Today those posters are what Vance does for fun. Most of her time is spent painting originals for the half dozen galleries that carry her work and for the many shows she participates in each year. She is relieved that the days of "living like a pauper" are behind her and is thankful that her paintings are finding homes with collectors such as the one who paid $14,000 for one of her pieces at last summer's C. M. Russell Art Show and Auction.
Such success is humbling for Vance, who says that for a long time she felt selfish about doing some- thing she loved so much and that brought her so much satisfaction. But, like her father who worked in his design studio all day and painted at home much of the night, she knows that it's also the result of much concerted effort. "It is work, definitely," she says. "Especially when I have deadlines and when galleries need more paintings, there does tend to be a tremendous amount of pressure. But I really love what I'm doing."
Part of that love is in her blood. As the sixth generation in a family full of fine artists, Vance learned very early about the glory of drawing, painting, and sculpting. She and her sisters tagged along as their parents made trips to the Art Institute of Chicago. "A1most all of our family activities centered around art," Vance says. "I remember going to the zoo and drawing the animals. We were always drawing-that was the biggest recreational thing we did."
Vance continued to apprentice with her father to help pay her way through school at both the Art Institute of Chicago and Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois. Her father, she says, was a tough boss-and for that, she's grateful. "Working with him was the hardest job I ever had and the best job I ever had," she says. "My dad gave me a great work ethic, which is some- thing I will always thank him for."
He also taught her to have a healthy respect for the art of drawing, which she still has today. In college, however, Vance was disappointed to find that most of her professors would simply unlock the door to the classroom and encourage their students to do almost anything, as long as it was creative. So Vance sought out supplemental art classes in her hometown of Skokie, Illinois, to help develop her drawing skills. Those classes, at The Village Art School, quickly became her favorites.
"We learned the real basics that way," she says. "We started drawing detailed and very accurate drawings of marble casts of hands and heads, then moved on to still lifes and life drawing. It was wonderful, and it is what I still rely on today. Drawing is imperative to good painting."
Even now, Vance forces herself to practice drawing often. Most of her paintings, except those done on location, start as sketches; for intricate studio pieces, she always begins each one by penciling in the shapes and sizes of her subjects. "You can get pretty lazy," she admits, "and drawing brings you back to reality pretty quickly. You can't fake drawing. The ability to draw shapes that aren't ordinary, that move from one shape to another, takes skill. It takes a lot of practice."
To give herself enough time for all that practice, Vance starts each day with a hot cup of coffee and a blank sheet of paper, making a list of things she needs to take care of immediately. After jotting down the first couple of items, she always inserts "Paint!!!" in large letters with several exclamation points.
"I have to get done with the business stuff, but then it's my private time to paint," she explains. "It is a business, and you have to treat it as such. I really treat my art like a business-I've never thought of it as a hobby, and I think that's part of my success."
Helping with the business side of her art is Jim, Vance's husband of 11 years. "He doesn't have a chance not to be involved," she laughs. "He takes care of so much of the behind- the-scenes things, especially at shows. He always makes sure I have a plate of food for supper, that I have coffee in the morning, and that I get plenty of rest. He's pretty great. He allows me to do what I do best'
One of the things Vance does best is to capture the raw emotion of a landscape in such a way that viewers feel it, too. She cherishes the letters from people who write to tell her how much her work has touched their lives. One such letter came from a mother whose daughter had died. The woman said that, after scattering her daughter's ashes on top of a ski hill, she had returned to the lodge, where she saw one of Vance's paintings.
"She told me that for the first time, she felt consoled, just by looking at my painting," Vance says. "That's amazing to me. It made me realize that there is a tremendous amount of emotion in my work that does touch the hearts and souls of people."
That emotion is no accident. It begins when Vance finds a scene that she wants to paint. She has to feel a sense of intimacy with an environment before she can paint it. "It seems that I feel a -landscape more than I see it," she says. "It touches something inside me, I think. Landscapes hold the rhythm of life in them. They have the same vulnerability and strength that we have in human nature. I like to portray that."
When Vance sits down to paint, feelings are the last thing on her mind. "I'm really more concerned about shapes and lines, textures and edges," she says. "But I find the emotion always comes out anyway. I can't keep it out; it's almost like osmosis or something."
Vance knows what it's like to be moved to tears by a painting. It happened to her recently, when she and Jim visited a Latin art exhibit at the Hispanic Society of America in New York City. "I walked into the mural room and immediately got weak kneed," she says. "I got goose bumps and started to cry. Every painting had everything that I long to achieve in my paintings. They were truly symphonies of the visual elements."
That experience followed Vance home to Colorado. "It changed my life," she says. "I am so fired up to paint now. I'm pushing more and more toward that symphony of visual element, regardless of the subject matter in my painting."
Sara Gilbert is a writer living in Mankato, Minnesota.
Art of the West January/February 2006
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