Remembering: Karen Karnes
Beloved ceramist Karen Karnes died at her home in Morgan, Vermont, on July 12. She was 90 years old.
Karnes was born in 1925 in New York City to poor Russian and Polish immigrant garment workers. She developed a passion for the visual arts while studying at the High School of Music and Art in New York, and then at Brooklyn College, where she graduated with a design degree in 1946. While at Brooklyn College she met and married ceramist David Weinrib.
Following her graduation, Karnes moved to Pennsylvania, where Weinrib worked as a designer craftsman in a factory. It was in Pennsylvania that Karnes first became interested in clay, and she began working alongside her husband. Looking to advance her knowledge of the medium, Karnes studied abroad in Italy for one year before returning to the states to study ceramics on a fellowship at Alfred University in New York.
In 1952, Karnes and Weinrib were offered positions as artists-in-residence at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. While there, Karnes and Weinrib became close friends with fellow artists and Black Mountain instructors including John Cage, David Tudor, Paul and Vera Williams, and Mary Caroline (M.C.) Richards. In 1954, they all moved to Stony Point, New York, where they started the Gate Hill Cooperative, a living experiment in integrating art, life, family, and community. The couple had a son named Abel in 1956, and shortly thereafter they amicably separated. Weinrib moved to New York City to pursue a career in the fine art world. Karnes supported herself and Abel primarily through sales of her work rather than teaching. It was an uncommon move for a female craftsperson at the time.
Karnes became known in the 1960s for creating a flameproof casserole that could be put directly on the stove, along with other functional cups and vases she continued to make for more than 40 years. As her career progressed, she began to make larger, more abstract sculptural works in clay. Karnes was visiting the Penland School of Crafts in 1968 when she met fellow ceramist Byron Temple and learned the salt glaze technique, which became an important part of her process.
In the early 1970s, Karnes met British artist Ann Stannard, who would become her lifelong partner. The couple moved to rural Vermont in 1979, where Karnes built a kiln and established a studio practice, while continuing to make and sell lidded forms and sculptural vessels throughout the '80s and '90s. A seminal event in Karnes’ life was a fire in 1998 that destroyed her Morgan studio and home. It took her some time to return to work, but she did so with tremendous support - emotionally and financially - from the ceramics community. Following the fire, Karnes’ work became much more intimate and smaller in scale.
Karnes had a long relationship with the American Craft Council. It starting in the 1950s, when she was invited to sell work in New York City at the ACC’s retail shop, America House. From the '60s thorough the '80s, she participated in a number of ACC fairs, conferences, symposiums, and regional workshops. In 1976, she was named to the ACC’s College of Fellows. In 1998, she was recognized with the Council’s highest honor, the Gold Medal for Consummate Craftsmanship.
For more than 40 years, Karnes was the curator of the annual pottery show and sale at the Art School at Old Church in Demarest, New Jersey. In addition to the ACC Gold Medal, Karnes received numerous awards and honors, including the Vermont Arts Council Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts (1997), a Medal of Excellence (1990) from the Society of Arts & Crafts in Boston, a National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts Honorary Membership (1980), and a Craftsman’s Award from the National Endowment for the Arts (1976). Her work can be found in the permanent collections of many museums, including the Museum of Arts and Design, the Racine Art Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. In 2008, the film Don’t Know, We’ll See was made about Karnes’ life.
A celebration of Karnes' art and life will be held on September 17 at 4:30 p.m. at the Art School at Old Church. For more information, email Maria Danziger or call (201) 767-7160.
In 2012, writer and fellow potter Mark Shapiro gave this talk on the life and work of Karen Karnes at the ACC’s Baltimore show.