“I like the idea of taking control of your own narrative, having social responsibility”,
expressed Karen Parker as we discussed the feminist and environmentalist sentiments pervasive throughout her paintings and illustrations. Parker’s work is centred around the belief that art and the artist have a vital role in prompting conversations and new ideas in both the personal and political spheres. The diverse array of styles, mediums and subjects that fill Karen’s cozy Vancouver Studio—from whimsical acrylics of the Pacific Northwest beside portraits to feminist heroes and feminine deities—gesture to the the assortment of compelling dialogues, unique voices, and poignant visual narratives active in Parker’s work. Karen approaches her central threads of feminism and environmentalism by celebrating each in romantic and graceful renderings of fearless women and sublime nature. Her multidisciplinary academic background in illustration, interior design, and film, equips Parker with a myriad of artistic approaches and, in turn, a boundless aesthetic voice with which to represent her political passions. By exploring different mediums, Karen conveys her inspiring worldview with various angles, welcoming her viewer to a new way of seeing and feeling in multiple ways and forms.
Throughout the past two decades, Parker has become distinguished for her windswept storm trees, wild coastlines, and vast cloudscapes. Through these ‘Environment Portraits,’ Karen seeks to highlight Canada’s overwhelming raw beauty and in doing so, draw attention to our responsibility to preserve it. When reflecting upon pivotal moments that ignited her environmentalism, Karen recalls polluted haze completely obscuring her view of the horizon upon completing a hike in Taiwan. The experience served as a vital reminder of climate change and an eagerness to represent Canadian nature as a means to emphasize what we fight to protect. Whether capturing the rugged ocean shores of British Columbia or a windswept tree amid a storm, Karen continuously features romantic lighting—what she labels as a ‘Golden Hour’ aesthetic—in order to endow each piece with a heightened sense of emotion that conveys a loving intimacy with and passion for nature itself. “Growing up in Alberta’s flat landscape,” recalls Parker, “there is nothing but sky all around you, it feels massive.” Such early influences inform her large scale acrylics, iconic for their colossal skyscapes sweeping over minuscule yet detailed scenes: a tiny boat cruising along the coast or a petite outline of Vancouver. This signature composition of amalgamating the micro with the macro feels cinematic and charges each Environment Portrait with a sense of astounding grandeur. By fusing together these polar scales, Parker connects the individual with the ‘big picture:’ with nature at large and our place in its preservation.
Exploring a completely different kind of ‘wilderness,’ Karen’s collection, “The Feminine Wild,” gestures to the collective unconscious of women and the shared experiences of struggle, courage, and joy. Within this abundant compilation are various sub-series devoted to different aspects of women and their experiences. The paintings and illustrations of “Larger Than Life” feature women from all points of history that redefined their fields, subverted convention, and have no time for rules—Parker’s personal heroes. Karen purposefully directed her research for the collection’s subjects toward women who never received deserved recognition, overshadowed by their often less worthy male peers. The range of feminist heroes “Larger Than Life” focuses upon includes: Iraqi human rights activist, Nadia Murad, the fearless voice of too many survivors and victims of human trafficking and sexual assault; physician, Frances Kelsey, who refused to authorize the highly dangerous thalidomide and thereby saved countless children from being born with birth defects; Dr. Mae Jemison, the NASA astronaut, engineer, and first black woman to travel to space; author and independent publisher, Betty Ballantine, who introduced the paperback novel to increasing the accessible of literature; the first black woman elected to the United States Congress in ‘68, Shirley Chisholm. The series aims to create space for the more than deserving subjects, celebrate their achievements, and open up conversations regarding gender inequality. Additionally, “Larger Than Life” includes feminine deities and mythic goddesses that confront power abuse. The a vibrantly coloured painting, ”Attack on the 230 Ft Lady Justice,” features a righteous goddess wobbling over Manhattan Financial District, which Parker describes as symbolic for “the corporate greed” that threatens the future of society and the environment alike. In another series, Karen reinterprets pop culture trends, historically hollow of political purpose, into bold reflections of current injustices. “NRA Question Period” depicts, in a disturbingly literal way, the backwards popular American opinion that gun violence can be solved by further arming the nation; the 50’s style pin-up Norman Rothwell-esq illustration features a school teacher pointing her gun at a class of young students. The pieces offers a romanticized style of a dystopian future that cries out for human rights and dignities.
Karen’s political activism and visual art gained global recognition at the 2018 #MeToo themed Golden Globes when her line figure illustration of a woman posed fearlessly—embodying the evening’s themed support survivors of sexual assault—was chosen to be apart of the guest gift as the Lindor Chocolate box art. The piece recalls Karen’s earliest inspiration: Vogue fashion illustrations. “My best friend as a teenager was a fashion designer,” notes Parker, “the dramatic way he styled women deeply influenced me.” The women Karen depicts in a fashion illustration like style, however, differ from the either hyper-sexualized or frail and timid conventional representations. Rather, “Feminine Wild” portrays feminine figures in moments of everyday ease— characterized by confidence, grace, and joy. Karen notes that such representations are missing in the visual archive of women and aims to correct this gap. Parker’s most recent creative exploration with alcohol inks contributes to this effort in a more abstract way. Inspired by the challenge of transforming a trendy medium into fine art, Karen blends the inks fluid shapes with fashion illustration figures; fusing interior essence in ink with beautiful sketches of bold women. The flowing inks incorporate natural movement, an inherent aspect of Parker’s ethereal aesthetic and render the flowers of the series in a way that conveys the feeling of the flower rather than the literal flower itself. Additionally, the unplanned nature of the inks forces Parker to move away from her typically planned process—intense critical editing and often painting over a piece all together—into a more fluid process of sketching around the draped shapes. This approach permits Karen to paint intuitively, recalling the female figure by memory with bold strokes. Following this initial instinctive draft, Karen returns to the piece with references regarding anatomy, physics or patterns in nature to ensure a well supported representation. In “Glass Ceiling,” the metaphor for the social barriers women face in the workplace and social sphere at large, footprints lay in the centre of the ethereal ink stains.The piece imagines a utopian future in which women are no longer contained beneath this figurative cage but rather stand above it.
Parker’s capacity to excel in a wide range of aesthetic styles—from figurative to abstract, literal to conceptual—is both astounding and inspiring; Karen’s stylistic multiplicity reflects her complex amalgamation of sociopolitical concerns, her dynamic and boundless voice. Before our afternoon reached its conclusion, Walker added, “If art doesn’t engage you on some lasting level – powerful, engaging, cathartic, meditative — why bother make it, why own it?”. I leave you with Karen’s words, with her question, and pondering her striking capacity to give life to countless styles and voices, to capture the wild within and all around.
Michaela Jones is a freelance journalist, content producer and fiction writer based in Montreal and Melbourne. Her editorial pieces explore the arts sector from an intersectional feminist perspective and seek to illuminate informed ways of consuming media. With a Bachelor's Degree from McGill University in Literature, Film and Communications, Michaela’s creative approach transforms research and analysis into unique and authentic literary portraits of her subjects.