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Karen Hersey – My First Mentor

I have wanted to blog for a long time but kept wondering who would be interested in reading about me?  As I pondered this question, I realized that my life has certainly not been the norm.  Every morning I wake up and wonder what the day will bring? What will I create or not create?  And in the last 4 years, I have found the glorious world of words and now I contemplate what will I write today?  Using my new found passion for writing, I look forward to sharing stories about my life in this business of being an artist and now a writer and I hope that you will get to know me a bit better.

How did I become an artist in the first place?

I was twenty-one years old and half way through my undergraduate degree majoring in psychology when, in an unexpected moment, I decided to take a semester off from University.  This impulsive decision resulted in moving back home with my parents who were living in a large log home on ten acres in the middle of the bald headed prairies of southern Alberta with a view of nothing but endless skies. Living in this place changed me and I never returned to those University classrooms to complete my degree. I spent the year floating; travelling and wandering aimlessly trying to discover exactly what it was I was meant to be doing with my life.  At this point, all I knew was that psychology was not it and art could not be further from my mind.

  In October of 1994 everything changed.  Karen Hersey literally walked into my life.  There is a famous saying that when the student is ready the teacher will appear.  Karen came across me by sheer chance even though I lived forty kilometres from the nearest city and people rarely graced our front door.  A friend brought Karen to visit my Mom on that autumn day. Karen took one look at our large log home, the views of the prairies which went on forever and said to us “I want to live here!”.  We all chuckled and little did we know that within a few months she would do just that.  Meanwhile, during our first visit, over a cup of coffee, Karen looked over to me and offered to teach me to paint. I politely replied “No thank you, I have absolutely no talent when it comes to painting and drawing.”  When I was a little girl my Mom put me in art lessons and bought all the supplies but I didn’t take to it.  I had no interest in taking art in school or university.  Mom had always kept me very busy with creative projects but art had never been a part of our life when I was growing up. Mom taught me to be a custom seamstress and I made all my own clothes but painting was not my thing.  I knew little of art, I could not have told the difference between a Michelangelo or a Monet. Yet Karen was determined to teach me and refused to take no for an answer.  Despite my resistance, I took her up on her offer to teach me to paint simply because I had nothing better to do at the time. Karen was a professional artist and teacher for thirty years but due to health issues she was not painting and had plenty of time to teach me.  She was a strict teacher and insisted on abiding by the rules of fine art. Our weekly lessons began with a sketchbook and pencil as she trained me in endless art theory.  She taught me the art techniques that the Masters used and she insisted that I needed to know the Masters themselves as she handed me a 3 inch art history book and said “read this”.  I rolled my eyes and tossed the book on a shelf.   Considering I wasn’t interested in painting in the first place, my dedication to the lessons waned quickly.  The spark did not ignite until she finally handed me a paintbrush!  Hallelujah!  From that point on there was no turning back. I still have my first painting to remember those first strokes that started me on a lifelong love affair with paint.  In those early days, I had no idea of the magnitude of the gift that had been handed to me.  I could have searched everywhere for an art teacher with Karen’s qualifications as very few artists are capable of passing on the knowledge that she had.  I shudder to think of my life if I had not agreed to her generous offer.

“Tie Lake”, my first painting, November 1994

We had been painting together for a few months and Karen was living alone in downtown Calgary.  One night while she slept in her bed, she was robbed and she awoke in the morning to find her front door wide open and her jewellery stolen. The trauma shook her and she needed a place to heal and regroup. Our log home had seven bedrooms and plenty of solitude so we offered her a place to stay.  The months that followed were a gift for both of us.  Our art lessons not only continued but it was non-stop art all throughout the days and months.  We had the great fortune to have the support from my Mom, who cooked for us and gave us the opportunity of not having to think about anything BUT art.  Art was on the agenda from the time we awoke in the morning, over coffee, during lunch, painting side by side in the afternoons and the discussions never stopped until we went to bed.  It was a very bohemian lifestyle with great food, great conversation, great books, great music and of course great painting!  Karen and I set up our studio in the living room with my easel on the left and her easel on the right.  I can still see her paintbrush in her right hand dancing across her canvas in quick, determined strokes, with the constant cigarette burning in her left hand.  I can still hear her voice in my head as she instructed me to “Lay it and leave it!”. 

Karen was a strict teacher but I became a student obsessed and I drove her crazy with my incessant questions.  Every morning she would wake up and wonder “what am I going to teach her today?”.  As I look back on those treasured memories of being in that special place with my parents and Karen, I realize it was a magical time in my life. Karen moved out 5 months later.  Her health began to return and I was on my way to becoming an artist, a lifelong journey.
Karen taught me En Plein Air painting (on location outdoors) as we sketched and painted the views of the beautiful prairies that surrounded us.  This is where she taught me how to “see”.  I found it unfathomable that I had lived twenty-one years on this planet and was unaware that the sky is lighter blue near the horizon, that as trees recede they become bluer in color and that snow is not white.  How did I never notice these things?  One day as we drove down our country road, there were storm clouds all across the sky.  Karen asked me what color I would paint the horizon if I had my paints?  I hesitated as I did not want to trust my eyes.  The wheat in the distance looked navy blue with the obscured light!  The most profound art lesson happened in that moment.

The day Karen took me to the art supply store for the first time was an event.  It was time to buy my own oil paints. Even though it had only been five months, I had made the decision to be a professional artist and as such I spent $850 on that first trip to the art store!  I was exhilarated and thrilled to have found my passion.  I was going to be an artist! It took me years to use up all of those supplies but what a good investment it was. 

As I look back, I am deeply humbled by the opportunity to study with Karen.  My poor relatives were in shock except for my Mom and Dad who have always been my biggest supporters.  Can you imagine?  The plan was to get a university degree and now I’m going to be a crazy artist?  What kind of a career choice is that?  I do not regret a single moment and can not imagine my life without art. Who knew? 

Karen and I at our art show in Invermere, BC June 1995

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