It was just after dinner time on a warm summer night when I pulled up to Karen Wight’s family house in the hills of Santa Barbara. We’d agreed on the interview date a week before and I came prepared with my voice recorder and notes to get us started.
Karen warmly welcomed me into a dimly lit, cozy seating room with paintings and sculptures tastefully displayed, where we settled in for an intimate conversation that ebbed and flowed through multiple tea pours and ended naturally, to a sky full of stars and a magical city view below the hills. Captured below, almost word for word, are Wight’s musings on her life and work as an artist. She is a woman in the present, with an amused glance to the past, if only to remember how far she has come, and to wonder, happily, about where she’s headed. What was meant to be an interview, became, on my part, an attempt to grasp the depth and mysticism of Karen Wight, an artist, a painter, and an eternal student of movement through body and space, without getting in her way.
Wight says that growing up she thought that all people were painters, because her mother was an artist. “I remember she was doing a walkway up to the house. What was going to be the curve? Was it going to be a compound curve, or was it going to go once or twice. I remember her doing a fireplace in our house. It was a huge stone fireplace, and she had the guys there building it, and they got about a quarter up of the way and she had them take it all down and start over. To watch the art process with my mom was a major thing. To watch her not only paint, but to also see all of the decisions that were made for the house projects. And in all of our houses, but particularly the one that I lived in the longest, one wall in the house must have been painted, I don’t know, at least fifty times. Everything had to be exact in relation to other things. There were always discussions about texture, color, line.”
“In third or fourth grade I had a teacher who painted on my painting. She was trying to show me that I could make it more abstract, it was a fish kind of shape, and she did a nice strong line in black. I didn’t like having black in my painting, I liked things closer in value. And I never said that it was my painting ever again. That was her painting after that. Having been a teacher, and having taught art, I never touched another person’s art work, we could talk about it, but I did not touch it.”
“I remember my first painting that I knew was a real working painting, the shape of the hills, the color intonations. I was about nine years old, it was of a mountain scene between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, and I don’t remember the paintings before that one. I just knew that it worked.”
On What Matters
“My mother could always draw better than me. She could catch that look in the eye, she would draw our neighbors. In all my life I’ve never been able to do that. I don’t ever get the body to look like that exact person, I can get it to feel like that person – the feeling of their movement or the gesture of their body, but not the look in their eyes, or the tilt of their head exactly. To tell the truth, it doesn’t interest me. That’s what I realize, in art, you just go for what touches you, what interests you.” Wight communicates with her whole body, using her arms and her hands as extra punctuation marks.
“I was drawing the other day with some people I used to draw with back in the 80s and I thought about the way I was looking at the model and I asked myself,
‘What matters to you, Karen?’ and it had something to do with a very graphic but dimensional thing– how far the arms moved out from the body and the kind of angles that they made and how they crossed over, and I thought, I just love that!”
“It’s so interesting to me, because I always wished I could do some of the things my art friends could do and then when you just realize … she is quiet for a moment, and then, as if struck by another thought, continues,
“And people used to say, ‘but Karen, why aren’t you doing this and such?’ when I was doing figures while people were doing really abstract things, [and of course I did a lot of abstract things in school], but then, [while everyone was doing abstract things] I couldn’t stop doing bodies, really large, whole figures, I was interested in what was happening, like right now,” she focuses in on me sitting on the couch across from her.
“The way you’re sitting, the way your hand is hitting against your head and the back, the way your arm is touching your thigh and how long your hand folds around, the way your two feet,” Wight says and stops mid-sentence for a moment, and then continues: “the work wasn’t about abstracting the body, for me; but it’s been fun, realizing what matters in my own work.”
Me: “It sounds like you were ahead of the trends when it comes to art, if you did abstract before everyone else.”
Wight: “Some people would say yes and some people would say no. I knew what I had to do in order to fit into the scene: I should have taken a sword and cut the body into pieces and throw them all over the room, but I couldn’t, I had to wait until it was what I wanted. It didn’t matter what they wanted, even if i could make money doing it, or get into galleries, it had to come from a deeper place for me, and not knowing why, I don’t always know why i’m doing something, but it must be important [to me].”
“I got into these body sculptures that sit in different positions… that happened accidentally. I was working on a winged woman, and I went to the foundry. When I got to the foundry, there was the sculpture, just cast, but it was leaning over, and I looked at it and I went ‘Ah!’It was fabulous, because the knee went up and the toe came down but it didn’t touch the ground, it was like this far off the ground — she reaches down, to show the amount of space between her arm and the floor, as she speaks, “and if the toe touched the ground, it would be nothing, but because there was that space,” Karen gestures excitedly, “and so I made it a piece that could sit in lots of positions, and from then on I made a whole series that were about that concept. And I love the mechanical part, of thinking about a body as though it’s a structure. I have to think when I’m sculpting, where does it balance, how to make it lie down, stand up and hang all in one sculpture, and I like that a lot. I like the technical part designing my jewelry so it turns. I didn’t want to put my jewelry out until it turned. It was fine, it was nice silver figures, little bodies, that was nice, but I wouldn’t put it out until i figured out that mechanism that made the pendants turn.”
“That sensibility of the way the figure is constructed, when I’m sculpting a piece of jewelry or a sculpture, I’m often thinking of it as a building, so that you’re climbing inside the body, even if it’s the tiniest little two inch [jewelry] piece, in my mind, in my imagination, it’s huge. I think that came from dissection.”
When Wight was twenty seven years old, she taught dissection of cadavers for the sports medicine program that had just started at Pepperdine University. She taught fascia dissection there and at UCLA for three years.
“A lot of the students that were not UCLA students were body workers and massage therapists. I did a thing where people meditated before dissecting. They had to do it in silence, and were asked to keep a notebook, because I wanted them to learn not just about dissection but also how they were affected by what they were seeing [altered by editor for clarity]. There were people who didn’t have good motor skills and they would cut through all kinds of tissue. It was incredible, one of the most influential experiences of my life. I wasn’t a figurative sculpture before then. In fact, I didn’t even draw that well, if I’m being honest. I still don’t draw that well. Other people draw better than me.”
“If you look at my sculptures you can find all kinds of mistakes. I make arms longer than they should be, but the feeling to me is, does it feel like a body, does it feel like it’s alive, is there that oomph inside of it. I can tell you what’s wrong with my work, but to tell you the truth, the ones that have the most wrong with them are the best sellers. I have a piece called Balance Man. I didn’t realize how bad it was until I looked at it a couple of years ago,” she says, and she laughs.
“I have only two left, the edition sold out the fastest, and I looked at it and thought, oh my god, there are so many mistakes in it, but the way he feels, he feels wonderful, on his toes on top of a little cube, holding onto his knees and his head is kind of down,– she gestures as she describes him.
“So people think that he’s like an ancient sculpture, but he is not exactly at all like the Thinker, but people’s imagination takes them to an older sculpture, and they love it. I tried to redo him, but part of me just thinks that I have to let him be who he was, I don’t have to make him right.”
Point of Contact
“I have one piece, called Point of Contact. It’s a man – I started working on him right after living with cancer and it was about coming home… and living. In my first image of him, he had wings and everything and he was coming from the sky down to earth, but he lost his wings, even though I did all these drawings of dragonfly wings, he didn’t want them. It’s like you do all of these things and they [the sculptures] go, ‘never mind’, so okay, never mind. My pieces often talk to me. This particular one was really difficult. He looked like he was done, but something was wrong and I had him in a box to be completed. He is about eighteen inches [tall], a figure where his legs are up, one arm is going backwards and one arm is going down touching the earth with his middle finger. He’s very elegant, very dancer like, a little feminine but definitely a man with all of his parts. Wight laughs and adds that all of her men and women have all of their parts.
“And I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with his sculpture. I think it was four years before I finished it. You know what it was?”
“The arm that was going back, the hand was turned wrong – and every time I worked on it, my shoulder hurt. I couldn’t figure out why, it didn’t hurt on other pieces, and then it hit me — I had the hand turned the wrong way! After that it took me minutes to finish it, after four years, and [now] he can go down like he’s balancing on his finger. Once, I had him displayed coming off the wall, and his toe went into the wall and he was just free falling. He’s just a beautiful shape, a really nice gesture. So it’s usually about the movement, what’s happening in the form.”
“Some pieces come together pretty quickly. This one piece, I had an idea of what he was going to be and I was working on him, and then one day he said, ‘Stop!’ and I say to him, ‘what do you mean, stop, your penis is right in my face!’”
“You know?” she says, and continues,“there were his legs open, and his penis was right in my face.”
“I was so afraid that my galleries wouldn’t take him, and you know what? it really sold well,” she says, sounding as surprised as she is proud.
“There he is and he is not very big, and he looks beautiful in lots of positions, but I love him hanging with that quiet look on his face. And it’s so weird, it’s just what he wanted to be. People think that we as artists make all these decisions that are our decisions, and I was like, are you sure?”
“Blessing is a big fountain that I’ve done in many different incarnations. She’s had a Christ crown, a bronze crown, and a crystal crown. The Crystal Blessing was a six foot tall bronze fountain, the water is flowing out of her hands, and she is coming up from a piece of crystal that a client had, and so I had something for a crown, and she liked the idea of it being made from glass. So there is a large crystal at her feet and glass on her head, she’s made of bronze, and the water of course is beautiful flowing from her hands.”
“I did that piece originally when I was living with cancer.” Wight says softly yet strongly, as a matter of fact.
“I didn’t know at the time that I had cancer. She was about fifteen days from being finished, and everything was done on her, except for her fingernails and a couple of things on her hands, and I was diagnosed with uterine cancer.” There is tenderness in Wight’s voice, as she continues, “It was such an amazing thing, because when I was building the inside structure of her, the armature broke right in the middle, in the belly, where my cancer was living, but at the time I didn’t know it, and I had to fortify exactly the part of her body that my body needed fortifying or whatever it needed, because hey, that was twenty six years ago.”
Wight is quiet for a short while. I pour us some more tea.
“I didn’t know what she was going to have on her head, and I was walking down a stream in Santa Fe, and I had a piece of clay in my hand. I was walking around, wondering, was I living or dying, because they thought I had ovarian cancer or something deeper, but they didn’t know because back then they couldn’t do any tests to know what you had until they got inside. And what came out, was the crown, that looks a bit Christ like and a bit Medusa like, with little fire flames coming up and the first time it was more Christ like, it went around. To tell the truth I never finished the sculpture the way it asked to be done. Can you believe that? It makes me sad, for her. It makes me cry, thinking about it.” Wight says, fighting back tears.
“You know, they ask you to do something, and I was afraid to do it, I was afraid they wouldn’t understand. She wanted to have these triangular, about 3/4 of an inch by 3/4 by 3/4 links and they were supposed to come out of the back of her neck and go down and touch the sacrum, to represent the energy from the sacrum going to the top, right to the neck. I was so afraid they’d think I was weird.”
On Origins of Blessing
“Blessing came to me in a drawing, I only saw the back part, and her face, and the rest of it came when I sculpted, but seeing it from the top was when I got it.”
Baptism of the Shadow
“Before this, I did a piece so many people reacted to badly, wrote me letters. It was a woman tied up, backwards, in a bridge position. I showed the piece in a couple of galleries. In one gallery they put paper in the window, and in the other one, it was at Shidoni, in a big sculpture garden in Santa Fe. People wrote to them and thought I was some kind of a weirdo, because they thought I was talking about S&M. But I said, ‘look at her face, does she look like she died?’ By the way,” Wight says, referring to the proportions of the sculpture, “that one is really wrong too, the arms are almost as long as the legs, but no one has ever, ever noticed it unless I say it to them, then they will notice. I wanted the triangle to have a certain feel – and it mattered that it spoke that. Baptism [of the Shadow] was the piece that I did before I was diagnosed with cancer. She came to me in some body work, we were doing a past life thing, and she came to me, it was though I was in a boat during the time women were being killed for being witches. It was though I was being dunked into the water for being a witch but I didn’t die so I was in that [backward bridge] shape, while being dunked into the water.”
“People used photos of this sculpture in therapy situations because people react so strongly to her. She looks like she is bursting out. If you turn her sideways, she looks like she can fly. I was always going to do the next piece of her breaking free. The Baptism was about that moment before I was diagnosed. I was diagnosed about a year later when I was building Blessing.”
On Becoming a Jeweler
“After I did Blessing, I wanted to do a piece of jewelry that a Cancer organization could sell and raise money for the cause. I thought why wouldn’t someone want my little piece of jewelry and they could sell it? I found a woman in Albuquerque to make my piece and she made it and it was horrible. So I thought I could do it better myself and I became a jeweler. A jeweler friend of mine saw my little pieces and said he would mold them. He made me tools and taught me how to work small, what waxes to use, etc., but I didn’t develop the whole line until I came to Mexico. Now, there’s really a dance between my jewelry and my sculpture. I’m so happy about that, because I get to develop something that could in the future be a sculpture and develop it small, now that bronze and metal is so much more expensive than it was ten years ago.”
The Swimmer “into the Light”
“I did The Swimmer first as a piece of jewelry, and I knew when I was doing her it was a sculpture, but her head went the other way, she was holding onto a rope and she was hanging, and her head was in a different position, but when I started sculpting her, she turned into a swimmer. It’s just a feeling. I guess that’s how people feel about poetry, or words, where a gesture of a body is a strong word to me.”
“I always hope that when people see my work that they feel their own body more, or that they feel the wonder of being a human in a body. That’s why a lot of times at my shows I do dance at the opening show. Once I made a pedestal and a woman [dancer] moved really slowly into various positions. I don’t think we get reminded enough about what a marvelous experience it is in this lifetime to be in human form. I’ve always loved moving, being very into sports when I was younger, I’ve always had a hard time sitting still.”
On Life Choices
“I just went to my high school reunion, and I was one of the few people who wasn’t married, or lived with someone for a long time. It’s so funny now at 68 years old, to realize that it’s not something that I chose. That’s not going to happen. I’ve never had a feeling of somebody else I would have wanted to be with. I’m so amazed that I’ve lived the life that I’ve had. I’ve lived in France, in Mexico, I’ve had shows all over Europe, I’ve climbed mountains in Switzerland, and I still love to do what I do. I am never going to retire. I chose to do something that I’d want to do all my life. I think that’s the coolest thing.
On life as an Artist
“I was talking to another friend who is an artist about a week and a half ago. We both went to art school when we were 18 or 19 or so. He was asking me questions about being artists all this time, he asked if it would matter to me if I had really made it, if I were really well known. And I said, ‘No, not really, but if it happens, it’s fine. If it’s meant to happen, it will.’ I am so happy that I get to do this in my life and that I still get to do this every day.”
On Future Work
“When a little more money starts flowing in, I have all the things ready to do the larger sculptures. I love working with resin because it’s light weight and I couldn’t do things in glass that would float, because glass is as heavy as bronze.
A lot of people want my stuff but they want it cheaper, not out of sterling silver, and I still like the gold and the silver. So that’s the way it goes. The more expensive I make the pieces the better they like them: bigger, turning, spinning.”
On Evolution as an Artist
“When I used to draw when I was younger, I always drew with both hands. I remember people would be in a class, and in twenty, forty five minutes they would do perfect little drawings, and I’d do a lot of drawings all the way around, with two hands, and it seems interesting that I was already wanting movement, how much that gesture quality was so important. I’d never use an eraser or anything, I’d sculpt and it’d either say it worked or it didn’t. When I look at my drawings I know they’re my drawings. I just laugh and say, that’s me – I don’t make such a big deal out of them not being as perfect as they’d be if someone else drew them, because it’s not as important to me. I don’t feel bad that I’m not what somebody else is, because when you look at art through time it’s really how that person was able to show you who they were, how they saw, what moved them about a flower, a body, or an ear.”