For as long as I lived in the Northeast Kingdom and since I returned, I’ve heard about two potters, a little older than I am, who lived somewhere in the vicinity of Morgan and not far from the Canadian border, where everything looks even more northerly than in Glover. One of the two women, at least, was famous somewhere, certainly not here and not everywhere, but somewhere. Karen Karnes was considered a genius. That much I knew.
Now, in its latest issue, the Chronicle, the local newspaper, has published an article about Karnes and her partner, Ann Stannard, in a review by Bethany Dunbar of a new book, A Chosen Path: The Ceramic Art of Karen Karnes. A collection of essays, the publication also features dozens of photos. I hope to buy it sometime soon, but in the meantime, quotations from Karne’s reflections on her life and work stirred my imagination and I wanted to share them here.
In 1998, the potter’s house and kiln shed burned to the ground in a fire that started in the kiln. Wrote Karnes:
It took over a year before I was able to work in clay again. It was the first time that my work had been interrupted for such a long time, and my new direction was hard to find. The work became smaller, lighter, and not like the larger vessels I had been making. I made pieces that clung together, that had a gentleness and affection that was new. It was a direction that grew directly from the trauma of the fire, and it was a welcome one.
I remember the aftermaths of fires: they represent a special kind of death. Blackened rubble framed by wooden stanchions riddled with holes. Pots must have been destroyed. Did their remains look like rancid mushrooms sprung from a subterranean lair? Or was nothing left but grungy bits of ceramic like pieces of a puzzle with no solution. And all the paraphernalia of daily living, burned, then soaked by the firehose, hollowed out, turned to sponge. Worst of all the pervasive smell of damp smoke.
And yet, from that carnage, something new emerged. Not easily, perhaps. But beautifully. It seems to me that lives in art are often filled with surprises.
What a splendid life in art!
P.S. The book about Karen Karnes will accompany a traveling show of her work. Look for her at the ASU Ceramics Research Center in Arizona; Asheville, North Carolina; Manchester, New Hampshire and, eventually, points west in Wisconsin and California.