Karrie Brawn

I enjoy talking about art. I'm lucky to know a lot of people who enjoy talking about art. I’ve decided to talk about art with people and put our conversations out in the world. These interviews are very casual; in November I invited my former MUSE manager, over for tea and we chatted about her practice. Karrie Brawn graduated from UMaine Presque Isle in 2013.

*The conversation ran very long; I am posting the audio on Soundcloud and Tumblr for anyone who wants to listen to 45 minutes of giggling (and some more on Karrie's art education background). She's so smart and interesting and has done a lot of great things!

** As with any new project, input is greatly appreciated. Thanks!

NB Coming out of a BFA and Art Education degree, you were focusing on portraiture. Was that a result of practicality?

From Karrie's senior show, Self II, 2013
From Karrie's senior show, Self II, 2013

KB I have a 3d design concentration and a painting and drawing concentration. I’m very resourceful and I like to experiment. I got to do a lot of unique things because it was a small school, but my senior exhibit was painting and drawing. It was a yearlong process of exploration and you got to choose the medium. The first day we talked about ourselves as artists like what we identify as. I, for a long time, was not confident. I definitely knew that I was talented, like i had like quality art in some ways but I really admired a couple girls in my high school who could just recreate portraits effortlessly. For me, a lot of my art journey was very inward, [looking for] that kind of validation. So I did self-portraiture, the idea of the narcissist and looking at [portraiture] from different vantage points, leaving the paintings unfinished, utilizing implied space.

NB Portraiture is one of the more viable genres in which you can actually function as an artist - something that’s a huge challenge for artists is making something that people are going to buy.

KB Well then, why are you making?What is the undertone, like are you making to sell? Because there are artists who are making to sell. Are you making to make, then why are you showing? That’s something I find myself in the middle of too. People like looking at people, they kind of understand it so for me that is something that I understood. Something about people I really gravitated towards, and I only really wanted to paint myself, frankly.

NB What is most compelling to you right now?

KB I’m a process-based painter, I think how you’re feeling in the moment of painting is going to affect the outcome 100%. When I moved down to Portland I did a lot of beach studies. I liked them; I was making okay paintings. I was getting in the studio semi-frequently but not feeling it. The past year has been a lot of like, either experimenting with really random mediums or getting too traditional, narrowing down the focus from people to what people. I had pictures of Kurt (Karrie’s partner) and his family when they were really little that his sister had given us so i had a lot of resource material. Some of them weren’t really hitting home; I was really making it too obvious what I was making. I didn’t want someone to be able to look at my painting and be like - oh so she was trying to do this.

Karrie's studio space, with sketch and photo reference.
Karrie's studio space, with sketch and photo reference.

I think about it a lot like a sculptor would think, about the physicality of the paint and the brushstrokes and the movement. For me painting and the drips were always spontaneous and it was about deciding to stop or continue. That type of chance operation painting is really exciting for me, and a lot of times I did not have a sense for it. There needs to be some type of enjoyment, and it was all out of me. I went back and found one of the artists I was really excited about, Richard Hickham. I read a couple of interviews that he had done with one of the galleries he’s been exclusive with and he talked about painting and process. Everything I understood from what I was reading was everything that I had felt that I couldn’t vocalize.

NB Do you have a highlight?

KB One of them was talking about [how] he’ll always take a chance on ruining a painting versus letting it be. He’ll always take the extra step and just go for it. The other thing was that he’s making characters; it didn’t have to be exactly who it was. That was something that I had realized I was doing for self portraiture and not doing for my other painting figures and my other portraits.

NB You were able to separate it from yourself but not…

KB …but not from the other people. It needed to have a representation of them and it was just not something I was ever conscious of. What I realized about my process and about stopping is that I’m not good at doing it on big canvass. I’ve been making those tiny sketches where I can spend like two minutes and theres no pressure cause i can just rip out the piece of paper and make a new one.

Drawing of photo from Karrie's sketchbook, 2015
Drawing of photo from Karrie's sketchbook, 2015

So I [went] back to gestural mark making, somehow getting structured back to the face and the figure. It needs to somehow be representative, but how far can I stretch that implied space? I’ve been taking the successful ones and making paintings out of them. It was the first time that I was dying to get back into the studio. The fire got reignited a little bit and - it’s so different; I don’t really have any bearings because I’ve never painted like that before. I’m using much bigger brushes than I used to and a lot more layering than i’m used to. I work through a layer and I try keep the color blocking going and I reference back to the study when I start to get lost or start to get too crazy.

Hickham is about making a character that when you come back to, you’re gonna find something different. My favorite paintings are when you’re not really told all the answers, not really told anything. You’re just looking at it, experiencing and then you’re stepping away. I hate looking at the men on horses American Art; that’s what I was trying to be as a painter and that’s not who I am. Now I’m looking at viewer experience and my experience as a painter and as a mark maker and seeing where it goes.

NB You talked about unfinished work, getting to the idea of implied space.

KB In some ways implied space is probably more what I was doing for my [BFA] show rather than what I’m doing now, but I feel like I’m interacting with he space more successfully. With the drips (in BFA work) I started to feel stuck because I knew that I couldn’t keep painting but it needed more. I feel a lot more successful and validated with painting because I feel like I can bring whatever character is coming to life. It stops being so much about a person that I sketched as opposed to what’s happening on the canvas. I’m making something new as opposed to trying to stay true to the image.

NB In a lot of traditional painting working from photos is kind of a taboo. Would you rather be working from sitters, or does the photo bring something to the painting?

Photo and sketch of Karrie's sister.
Photo and sketch of Karrie's sister.

KB What the photo does is it gives me more structure. It helps get the process started, otherwise face shapes are weird and I find that it’s very lumpy. The picture to me is not so much about capturing the perfect lighting and the perfect idea. It’s more getting the moment that you can stick with. I take that energy, put it into the sketch and then it’s almost like those two things connect and I can forget about the picture afterwards.

NB Are you taking hints and clues from the photo itself?

KB When I start with the photos, absolutely. I know part of the reason i’m so attached to my sister and her ballerina picture is because I have a connection, right? I always had that kind of big sister in me so bringing me back to this moment with her was a really strong connection with the picture. That emotional response was why I chose the picture. But the mark making I kind of feel from the gut. I put my lines down and it sometimes works and sometimes it’s really bad.

NB Can it be with strangers, or is that personal connection really crucial?

KB So I haven’t… What i started thinking about yesterday is that I wanted to do a series of people in coats, just as simple as that. I want to take what’s happening right now, the idea of covering and concealing, that intentional color blocking and see where it goes. I think that I’m only working from the photos that I have because I have them. And now that I have an idea of where my process works I want to explore it. I’m taking my phone and being really creepy and taking pictures of people. We just do weird things, right? That’s fine. That’s normal.

Karrie's sister as a ballerina. Acrylic on canvas. 2015
Karrie's sister as a ballerina. Acrylic on canvas. 2015

I think that i’m going to have more of an emotional connection to people that I know and whether that’s more or less helpful for the making of characters in my paintings, who cares and who knows? It was just kind of getting back to that place where I was feeling good as maker and that was what took a while. But I love it again and I remember why I really love it. It could be that I find the connections because I’m projecting something I see in another person. I think a lot of what photography does for people is bring them to a place that they can relate to.

NB I found this one - it was so weird I just found this snapshot on the streets of Oakland and I still have it!

KB I have a picture that I found outside of Muse last year and it was just his black and white picture of this lady with curly hair. I still have it taped up on my wall. I don’t know her, I feel kind of - Kurt is probably concerned.

NB Do you think about the why of things like that?

KB Like why i keep things? I think the world works in ways, like my intention was not to stay in Aristook county for four years. It was to save money and move after I got through the general requirements. I almost didn’t finish my art education degree because I knew I wanted to make art and teaching just didn’t seem like it was going to give me the time to do it. I loved it, but I knew in my heart I need to be creating and be making. It’s just weird the way the world works and I’ve always picked up random pieces of paper - I had them taped all over my easel at school. Things that other people would leave behind I’d take. I dunno I just think that in some ways the world working and me taking things are kind of - they’re not too different i don’t think.

Outside References:

Adam Phillips' work on excess

Richard Hickham