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Artist profile: Karen Williams

Red Crest Necklace, 2011

Artist: Karen Williams
Business name: Skunk Hill Studio   
Location: Seattle, WA

Website & Blog:  
Skunk Hill Studio

Ocean Waves Collar, 2007 
Freeform peyote with seed beads, pressed glass and trapped sea glass focal.  
A detail of this piece is on the cover of Karen's book.

Karen, how do you describe your work?    
My primary interest is and has always been color.  Whether I'm working with paints, dyes, fabrics or beads, color is what first draws me in.  Beyond color, I love texture, both visual and physical.  These days, I work almost entirely with seed beads; each bead a discrete dot of both color and texture with which I can paint and sculpt simultaneously, which I love. 

Most of my designs are abstract and for the past couple of years I’ve focused primarily on jewelry because I love the idea of it being worn, used and enjoyed. 

My studio’s name harkens back to the dark ages of my artistic career, in the mid 90s.  As the co-owner of an art gallery, I was surrounded by art on a daily basis, but only had very limited time to create my own work.  A chance conversation with one of the artists we represented made me realize that he saw me as solely a businessperson, not a fellow artist.  That hit me like a blow and my art very nearly died inside me before it ever had a chance to breathe.

Instead, I decided to push forward.  Another conversation with one of our artists made me realize my studio (an extra bedroom in our home) needed a name.  Once something has a name, it begins to take on a life of its own; names have the power to make things real. 

Since my inspiration is drawn from the natural world around me, I wanted my studio’s name to reflect that.  We lived on a hill, so that was easy, but Hill Studio seemed a bit plain.  Then one early morning while I was working out in the garden, a skunk wandered through.  A skunk!  My first instinct was to flee, but it completely ignored me as it went its way, poking its nose into my flower pots and pawing through random piles of leaves, seemingly right at home.  Before long, I found myself simply watching this small, courageous, confident creature as its curiosity led it through my yard.  I wanted that courage, that confidence, that belief in one's ability and Skunk Hill Studio was born.  To this day, I periodically borrow that courage, when my own is insufficient to the artistic task at hand. 

  School of Fancy Goldfish

What is your creative process like?
A lot of my process depends upon the size of the project; the larger it is, the more time I spend in planning.  With earrings, I’ll choose a color palette and a general technique and run with it.  With a larger project like collar or beaded bottle, I sketch out ideas, I’ll often make paper templates to check size and placement and will stitch small samples of any question areas in the design.  I have a large cutting table leftover from my days as a textile artist, and more often than not half the table is covered with a rainbow of beading packets so that I can quickly choose what I need as I work. 

My hands don't let me work for long stretches at a time.  I try to take breaks about every hour of beading and in a typical 'beading' day, I'll spend three to five hours maximum stitching, then spend the rest of the time photographing work, playing with new ideas, organizing my studio or sketching.  I carry a small sketchbook, pen, watercolor box and waterbrush almost everywhere I go and often sketch ideas while riding the bus or standing in line. And I always travel with a small bead box which is my ultimate protection from being bored.

Necklace that Karen created for Lori Anderson's September 2011 Bead Soup challenge, 
with lampworked beads and a fused glass focal by Kim Roberts

What kind of training did you have which helped you achieve your current level of artistry?
Most of my early training came from books and extensive experimentation when I couldn't find books on the topic I wanted to learn, like freeform peyote. I've never been afraid to go 'off road', which is one of my strengths.  Conversely, I hate counted patterns because my artist brain is severely dyslexic and cannot create and count at the same time without causing myself considerable pain.

About ten years ago, an acquaintance brought a freeform peyote collar she’d just finished to a wearable arts study group meeting.  It was love at first sight, and I knew that was the perfect beading technique for me.  For about six months I scoured bookstores and beading catalogs in an unsuccessful hunt for instructions.  Then I set out to teach myself and soon after began sharing what I’d learned with others, teaching freeform peyote locally.   Then, in 2008 I was fortunate enough to study under David Chatt at Penland School of Craft in South Carolina.  He introduced me to single-needle right angle weave and my time at Penland solidified my love of freeform beading as an art form. Since then, I've come to combine the two stitches more and more frequently in my work.

I’ve also completed City and Guilds courses in Machine Embroidery, and in Design through the Gail Harker Creative Studies Center on Whidbey Island, which definitely strengthened my design and preplanning skills. 

Is there a tool or material that you can't imagine living without?
While I have a studio full of specialty tools for this or that, my basic beading kit is almost ridiculously simple - John James sharps beading needles size 12 (the finer the better) is the only tool I simply cannot do without.  Everything else is negotiable.  While I love my sharp embroidery scissors, I leave them at home when I travel, substituting a pair of security-approved nail clippers instead.

What inspires you to create? 
Beyond all else, I am a colorist, likely because for a portion of my life color was the only thing I could see completely clearly.  I believe I am drawn to fine details - leaves, individual stones, sea shells - instead of sweeping landscapes for the same reason.  If I could hold it in my hand, I could see it.  Nature has always had the strongest pull on my senses, the colors in my work often reflecting the colors of current season.  

I used to have nightmares about my world going completely black; my art was a way of combating that fear, every piece a celebration that I could still see.  A series of eye surgeries in my early thirties restored my vision in an amazing personal miracle, but I will never, ever take my sight for granted.  Creating art is one of the ways I celebrate and give thanks.

What inspires you to keep going when the work gets frustrating or tough?
Music helps me through a lot of tough spots and I have a number of different play lists depending upon the types of work I'm doing: instrumental music when I’m working with text or numbers, Celtic music and singer/songwriters when life is good, and 80s rock when the going gets particularly tough. I'll make bargains with myself along the lines of 'you love the next song; if you keep working you'll get to listen to it, but if you stop, the music stops too'.  And yes, I talk to myself in the third person, an unfortunate quirk I’ve picked up from working by myself for so many years. 

For larger projects, I use my circle of friends, and more recently my blog, to hold myself accountable.  If I've told others that I'm going to do something, it gives me far greater incentive to actually complete the project.

Beyond that, I've learned that inspiration isn't always necessary, especially in the middle stages of a project.  Often, it’s simply more important to show up and keep going.  "Chop wood, carry water".  The hardest part is showing up.  Once I've started working on any given day, momentum tends to keep things rolling. 

Points Unkown, 2011 
This pendant was created for a challenge Bello Modo issued the NW Bead Society 
and Seedbeaders Group, and took 1st of 13 entries.

What is your best piece of advice for those who would like to rise in their level of artistry?
Create what you love, not what's popular or what you think you should create.  Play to your strengths, but don't be afraid to ask 'what if' and venture outside your comfort zone.  That will help you improve your creativity in general.

Beyond that, consider each piece as a whole, whether you’re painting a picture, creating a piece of jewelry or building a sculpture. In the highest quality work, every element of the finished piece builds upon the rest and is essential to the finished design.  This doesn't mean that you must to plan every single step in advance, but each step, every element should be considered carefully at some point in the design process.  Towards the end of a large project, when you're exhausted and ready to be done, it's really tempting to cut corners.  Don't.   I speak from experience when I say that paves the road to regrets and still struggle against this temptation myself. 

Fountain of Youth, 2011
A beaded coke bottle which is the first in a planned six-pack!

What takes up the majority of your time besides your art?
These days, I spend a frightening amount of my time on the computer.  Besides blogging and doing my best to keep up with the other social media, I am currently working on a couple of e-patterns, one of which may turn into a small e-book.

What else do you love to do? 
I'm an avid if erratic gardener.  Living in the Pacific Northwest, my garden's green and requires work year round.  Weeding is one of my favorite forms of meditation, though its definitely harder to convince myself of this when its 45 degrees and rainy outside.  When I'm stumped by a project, or too wound up to think clearly I pull on my gardening gloves and head outside.  An hour spent in the garden can work wonders inside my mind. 

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I pinned the little goldfish. It was a hard choice between the Bead Soup necklace and the fishies. Lovely bead work!
Karen Williams said…
Thank you Cyndi! I am truly delighted and thrilled that you chose to feature my work. Thank you!
Cyndi L said…
Karen, it was purely my pleasure! What a great addition to Seed Bead Month you are :-)
Sarah Sequins said…
I love Karen's work, and it was so much fun to learn about her creative process. I especially like what she had to say about creating what we like, not what's popular. :)

Every time I see her pieces, I get the urge to give freeform peyote a try.
Anonymous said…
Really enjoyed this artist profile. I also just had to save one pic for myself. Reallyl;iked the idea of the beaded part of the wire work pendant.