Artist Statement

Creation by Karen Marston

Creation, 2001. Oil on Linen, 36" x 48"


“Totum animo comprendere caelum” is inscribed on the exterior of the National Weather Center at the University of Oklahoma, a global nerve center for all things regarding severe weather and meterological patterns. “To embrace the whole sky with the mind”. The poetic motto of these scientists captures my desire as an artist to paint the magnitude of the sky—from sparkling blue calm to ferocious threatening grey and all the shifting subtleties of colors and implications in-between.

I had the opportunity to paint plein air last summer at the Soaring Gardens Artists’ Residency in rural Pennsylvania. The rolling hills of the landscape there afford an expansive view of an ever changing sky. I was completely absorbed by the daily drama of the clouds. This direct dialogue with nature deeply informs my year round studio practice.

For the past several years I have been painting natural and not so natural disasters, triggered by the near simultaneous explosions of the oilrig in the Gulf of Mexico and the volcano in Iceland. These images became an external manifestation of an apprehensive mood fed by a growing litany of frightening catastrophes, a conflation of many destructive crises consuming the world.

The scope of this exploration has broadened to include forest fires, hurricanes and tornadoes. Blurring the line between natural and manmade disasters, our influence on our climate has enlarged these phenomena beyond their natural proportions. I am mesmerized by the power of these elemental threats, bigger and more frightening than ever, amplified rather than tamed by modernity.

I am equally as influenced by the history of awe inspired landscape painting (from Turner’s storms to Church’s icebergs), as by the stream of violent images in our daily news feed, and the immediacy of nature and organic form fed from painting outdoors; for me it is all connected.



My paintings have always explored the poetics of seeing. Using body and nature metaphors to illuminate veiled human experience, I have focused on the meanings of inhabiting body and gesture, shape and structure, place and atmosphere. The structures of nature are the structures of the body, are the structures of emotion. My work articulates these visual connections and investigates the relationships, dichotomies and ambiguities between outside and inside, familiar and unfamiliar, beautiful and disturbing, powerful and vulnerable.

Landscape and architectural forms have recurred in my visual vocabulary for many years. Several earlier series of paintings were inspired by different locations I encountered through travel and relocation. These works directly responded to my surroundings as I was consistently drawn to vast melancholy landscapes of sky, desert, and water, and skeletal architectural structures. Attracted to their profound beauty and power, I have long had an interest in environments as materialization of human emotional states.

As personal injuries forever changed my awareness of and relationship to my own body, it became important to image damaged anatomy. A long running theme in my work has been a dual exploration of an anatomical autobiography and a variety of animal images. These paintings investigate the contrasts and ambiguities between movement, flight and freedom on the one hand, and constriction, vulnerability and pain on the other. I use human anatomy and birds, deer and dogs to dramatize interruption of natural movement, focusing on the contrast between an acute sense of immobility and powerlessness and a forceful sense of grace and self-possession.

In the Wizard of Oz series I experimented with a familiar popular text, exploring many layers of meaning imbedded in childhood memory and consciousness. This tale of a risky journey to a wondrous place filled with damaged characters, provided me with metaphor and framework for my continuing concerns. With these paintings I recast the Wizard of Oz as my own meditation on life, synthesizing much of my previous imagery to form a coherent personal narrative.

The Oz series was followed by a continuing investigation of anatomy and nature. This work was initially inspired by the arresting sight of many large trees marooned in a flooded river bank, their limbs reaching up and out, tangled branches spreading like our own bronchial tree, sustained by a root system analogous to veins and arteries. On one level I am examining the essential physicality and anatomy of the heart and lungs; breath and nature; repetitions of patterns and structures in the body and the environment. On another level a metaphor unfolds, speaking of pain, loss and regeneration. Internal organs, keenly felt deep and unseen within the body, serve both literally and figuratively as signals for strong emotions.

In these paintings I continually experiment with scale and the blurring relationship between interior and exterior. Recurring imagery has included water, drowning and nourishing, suggesting the unconscious and the body—reflective on the surface, much hidden beneath, inside. Likewise the intricate architecture of the tree is both another rendering of the human form, down to the most delicate bronchia, and a larger environment, an entire forest. This exploration expanded to include the structures of the inner ear—the cochlea and the semicircular canals for hearing and equilibrium. They’re beautiful and mysteriously abstract with many metaphoric possibilities, these tiny spirals, like so many of my subjects, are a fundamental repeating shape, circling around again and again for re-examination.