Karen Barton-Gray

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About The Artist

Karen Barton chronicles our relationship with food and packaging through her contemporary still life paintings. Her works – from nostalgic spice tins to the hottest new flavors of high-end ice cream – are celebrations of personal and familial memories, cultural symbolism, and social commentary. In this way, she places herself in a long line of still life painters throughout history who have used food to represent both the significance and the fleetingness of everyday moments and things. Karen knows that food and the feelings it evokes are very personal and simultaneously integral to larger cultural identities.

As an only child, Karen was brought up on US military bases in Germany. There, her history-buff father and artistic mother exposed her to the great narratives woven into regional food cultures. Their family of three would regularly stuff themselves into a non-airconditioned VW square-back and head out on adventures to historical sites across Europe that always included finding good places to eat. Car windows rolled down, hair whipping furiously, bright colored suitcases stacked high in the backseat, and guided by a deeply creased old-fashioned road map, Karen learned to love the intersection of history and food. “It seemed as if every place we went had a story,” she recalls. And often these stories were connected with the local cuisines.

Her childhood culinary adventures were not limited to the historic. Much to her mother’s dismay, Karen and her father shared a passion for the prepared foods of the day — Swanson’s TV dinners, Sara Lee frozen brownies, Juicy Fruit gum, Hawaiian Punch, Pop Tarts, Ding-Dongs, and hot dogs on a bun were all high on their list. Her mother considered these products questionable and would only rarely relent.

Whatever the genesis, Karen’s paintings capture foods of today that will become someone’s nostalgic memories and foods from times past that can poignantly evoke the experiences they accented. Karen was always interested in art. “As a child I literally drew hundreds of horses that I fantasized about owning in a gigantic stable,” she recalls. Her mother frequently created with her, making crafts or drawing and painting, while sharing memories of her own past.

But art wasn’t really considered a sensible career choice, so her traditional parents encouraged Karen to pursue a “real profession.” Honoring their wishes, Karen graduated with a teaching degree, but she managed to also squeeze in an art minor. As a result, she enjoyed a 30-year career as a first-grade teacher. And, not surprisingly, art time was always a favorite part of the day for her students (and their teacher).

Despite the rigors of teaching, Karen never gave up on her art pursuits. Whenever school vacations came along, the paint brushes came out; and she continued to develop her painting skills. In the back of her mind, she always had the goal of becoming an artist. And now that dream has come to pass. One year after retirement, she picked up her brushes and embarked on her new life as a professional artist, with the full support of her husband and grown son.

In the beginning, Karen painted a variety of subject matter. But one day she watched a TV documentary on the life of Gloria Vanderbilt. When she learned that Vanderbilt painted vignettes of her memories and experiences, often writing her thoughts on her paintings, Karen was profoundly affected. She became inspired to paint some of the wonderful foods that lived in her memory. Her early food and product paintings sparked conversations with relatives and friends about their favorite memories. And the rich discussions that ensued established Karen’s desire to create a visual history of foods — past or present — that bring comfort, spark delight, or hold personal significance. Just as sharing food with one another creates a bond, Karen hopes that her paintings will create connections. She sees each piece that she paints as a small history with a story that is both already present and still waiting to be told by the viewer or collector.

Working in oils with brush and palette knife, Karen describes her painting style as “messy realism.” It suits her to be meticulous and also to create soft edges that break linear boundaries. In her work, you can see the influences of two of her favorite painters — Nicholas Simmons, whose bold, bright paintings refused to be constrained by the traditions of his medium, and Wayne Thiebaud, who loved color and painted food with passion. Karen also loves the vibrant color, subject matter, and compositions of Van Gogh, Renoir, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec.

She muses, “I am attracted to color and texture, as well as, visual contrasts. I like for my paintings to speak for themselves at a distance and to grab one’s curiosity with their texture and interaction of colors when up close.”

Karen Barton lives just south of Seattle, Washington, with her husband and their sassy standard poodle, Libby.