A Visit with Karen Fenley

October 5, 2021

"...as a writer, I continuously attempt to make inroads on the vast terrain of what cannot be said…” – Marilynne Robinson


I was welcomed into Karen Fenley’s studio on this sweetly rainy day.

and entered a room full of canvases and materials, and felt a sense of orderly profusion.

On my right, there was a wall of paintings, glowing with light or softly shimmering, some with sharper lines contrasting with cloudier areas.

This is all recent work, isn’t it?

"The work in this show was done over the last two complicated years. I mostly stuck to materials I had in my studio. That encouraged me to repeat some favorite processes but also invent some new ones.”


Can you describe your processes?

"I began with transparent washes of color, then collaged more specific forms on top of them. On two of these pieces I sanded the work almost completely off and started over, but let some of the previous work show through. I often can't identify the scope of the subject of my work until it's completed.”


On the drafting table was an unfinished painting with strong marks intersecting lively color.

"Being locked down in a time of great uncertainty made me listen harder than ever to the voices of others. This led to the idea of communication forms and frustrations as a theme. I've always been intrigued by the many forms of written language, and even if I can't understand the words in a manuscript or other cultural icon, the feeling that the message was important for the person to say often comes through. Over time an artist's unique language becomes identifiable to those interested in their work."

So, you can’t read the calligraphy you study, but...

"There is such appeal in Egyptian stele, Kufic inscriptions, the calligraphy of Islamic art. Looking at it—the calligraphy on Rumi’s tomb in Turkey, and manuscripts of his words in calligraphy—something is talking to us over vast distances."


Karen showed me some pages in a big black notebook.

A journal?

"I've been keeping a journal of art ideas for 50 years. It's full of sketches, pictures and observations that I use in my work. Sometimes I just want to keep track of a complicated process that I don't want to forget."


As I was getting ready to leave, I asked about this striking door.

All the numbers and lines scratched on the wood—these look like math problems.

“And they just do not add up. But it turns out they’re dart scores!”

So Karen put a dart board up there to complete the picture. She calls this her Rauschenberg door.


Leaving, I went out the other door, through the rainy garden.

Miriam Davis