Karen Blair's pursuit of joie de vivre.
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James River Turquoise Sky
"James River Turquoise Sky," by Sarah Sargent
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I meet Karen Blair at her light-filled second floor studio in the McGuffey Art Center, Charlottesville’s artists’ cooperative. Tall and slender, Blair, who is 58, has classic blue-eyed, blond good looks and I’m not surprised to learn that she worked as a fashion model for Richmond’s once-famous ladies’ specialty shop, Montaldo’s, after her graduation from UNC Greensboro.
Though her degree was in fine arts, Blair’s route to becoming a professional artist was circuitous; she did not take up painting until about 10 years ago when her youngest children—twins—were in fourth grade. Her star has been on the rise ever since, and she has had shows in Richmond and Charlottesville galleries. Her work has also been acquired by a number of corporate collections, including Phillip Morris USA, Capital One, Couric Clinical Cancer Center, UVA Hospital and The Jefferson Hotel.
Today, Blair is an inspiration to anyone who has put aside an avocation to focus on other, perhaps more practical, things.
Blair devotes herself now almost entirely to her art, painting landscapes (rural scenes, gardens, cityscapes), interiors and still lifes. In addition, she also does portrait commissions. “Painting is my life,” she says. “It’s a compulsion. Being in the studio settles me; I am at peace with the world and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.” Blair, a native of Winston-Salem who has lived in Crozet since 2010, works five days per week for six to eight hours each day: “I have to be disciplined,” she explains, “in order to stay focused and get the work done.”
Blair first began taking courses at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Studio School with Marjorie Perrin, an award-winning portrait and landscape painter who has been teaching there since 1989. Perrin eventually told her: “I’ve given you all you can get from me. You need to go to Eleanor Rufty.” Rufty, also a teacher at the Studio School, together with her late husband, Richard Carlyon, who taught at VCU, influenced a generation of artists studying in Virginia. Their work provided an important example for Blair of the perseverance and commitment needed to establish one’s place in the art world.
In 2003, Blair won a residency at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont, the largest international artists’ and writers’ residency program in the U.S. She describes it as a pivotal experience that exposed her to people who were doing art full time and able to make a living from it. “Painting is such a solitary pursuit. Residencies provide a real sense of community and an affirmation of what one is doing.” Blair was also a 2008 fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Amherst.
Blair is constantly observing the world, employing not just her eyes, but all her senses. When out in nature, she notes wind, temperature, moisture, birdsong, smells, etc., incorporating all these aspects into her impression of a place. Her aim is to produce a fully fleshed-out representation of her subject, and capture its essence in a more powerful way than an exact replication ever could.
While Blair’s work is representational, it has a strong abstract quality. This is evident in the ways she applies paint, building up her surfaces with ornate chunk-like daubs, jagged brushstrokes or flat expanses of color. Blair is drawn both to what she paints and the paint itself. This duality ensures there’s a constant tension between realism and abstraction in her work that keeps it fresh and interesting.
In Blair’s hands, color also veers away from doctrinaire representation to become an expressive tool not constrained by the rules of nature. Her gaudy flowers, over-the-top green meadows and azure skies are more intense versions of their real-life counterparts and also encapsulate the joie de vivre that these particular things possess and inspire.
Blair paints in oil on canvas, and generally works in series, exploring a subject repeatedly. She occasionally does some preliminary sketches outside, but she primarily paints indoors, eschewing painting en plein air, which she says is “French for ‘windy and cold,’” adding with a twinkle, “which can also be translated as ‘hot and buggy.’” Comfort may be a consideration, but her working style is quite different from an impressionist, and she also likes to work on large canvases, which are ungainly if not impossible to transport. Ideally, she wants her canvas big enough “so that it fills up my field of vision,” allowing her, in a sense, to disappear into it for a time.
Blair mentions four artists who have influenced her: Fairfield Porter, followed by Lois Dodd, Louisa Mattaisdottir and Alex Katz, who all share an extreme flatness of style. There’s also a strong connection to the post-impressionist avant-garde artists, The Nabis (Vuillard and Bonnard), in the way Blair uses paint, her palette and the use of pattern, particularly in her interiors.
Teaching is very important to Blair, who sees it as a way of “paying it forward.” She teaches two 3-hour adult painting classes each week, and mentors a couple of private students. “I love teaching and think it makes me a better painter,” she says. “It makes me think about painting, and as I search for sources for my students, I find things that make me pause and think about my own work in perhaps a new way.”
Blair tells me that writer Annie Dillard’s famous quote, “As we live our days, so we live our lives” expresses her attitude toward work and the spirituality of her daily devotions. As she toils each day in her studio, she produces paintings that reflect the wonder with which she views the world.
Blair’s work may be seen at Page Bond Gallery in Richmond and Les Yeux du Monde in Charlottesville. KarenBlairPaintings.com