People see a lot of extraordinary, unexpected things in Karen Roehl’s abstract paintings, and she is delighted that they do. “Humans are wired to make sense out of nonsensical things, to see patterns,” she says. “It’s funny, because I don’t need to do that—I’m happy just playing with shapes and colors. But people will look at one of my paintings and tell me, ‘That’s a matador, with a cape and a cat.’ Or ‘That’s a man crossing a bridge—don’t you see it?’ And I love that because it stirs my narrative, my imagination.”
The Canadian-born artist, who moved to Denver as a young teen, worked at the Colorado Institute of Art, where she got a full scholarship to study, and then as a graphic designer for 25 years, while raising two daughters.
Today, Roehl has a studio in The Temple, a conglomeration of artists’ spaces in RiNo, and teaches at the Art Students League, where her goal is for students “to wade through all the self-judgment and get an authentic expression out on the canvas, and then to have the guts to say, ‘I love what I’m saying.’”
Were you always artistic? I think all kids are artistic—adult artists are just the people who never quit. My father was a mechanical engineer, and he would bring home stacks and stacks of leftover paper, and my sister and I drew all the time.
You were a longtime graphic designer. What made you finally throw caution to the wind and become a fine artist? When my second marriage didn’t work out, I thought, I can’t go back to being a graphic designer and living life as usual. That sounds so meaningless. So I asked myself, “What have you always wanted to do, Karen?” And I thought, I’ve always wanted to be an artist full time, and to finish my college degree. I had kept my hand in art over the years—painting, sculpting, jewelry making, doing embroidery—and my two daughters were now grown so I only had me to worry about.
How did you get into painting abstracts? In school, I took art history and was just mesmerized. It was the adult version of a child listening to “Cinderella.” I really fell in love with the abstract expressionists during World War II and their emotional way of painting. A lot of artists were coming over from Nazi Europe and they were so devastated by the things they saw that they were saying, “What good are pretty pictures when humans have this dark side? We want to discover who that person is inside us.” That resonated with me.
You started out painting abstracts, then four years ago began doing horses. The two kinds of paintings feel so different. Painting horses is very intellectual, and painting abstracts is very emotional. In doing both, I wanted to unite my conscious and unconscious. But even with the horses, I start with an abstract painting underneath; I paint over it but it comes through in the shadow areas.
How do people react to your abstract paintings? I love it when people say, “I don’t know why I like this, but I do,” because then I can say, “OK, let’s get into a conversation about that, because it means you’re using your instinct brain.” I want to know what it’s saying to them because maybe it would give me a clue about what I’m saying.
What’s your process when you paint? I always wear a headset and play loud music that makes me want to dance. It’s like putting a TV in front of a young child—the music quiets down this toddler in my brain, which is my intellect, which wants to control everything and wants attention all the time. I’ll think, “Oh, man I love this song,” and I follow my gut, painting fast and intuitively—like driving a car. If I don’t have the music to distract me, I’ll start thinking about the painting and it will look contrived.
It’s interesting that your paintings all have layers. I was 50 when I went back to school to get my BFA. I was surrounded by all these young people, and started thinking about my age. Then I realized that my body actually tells a story. These wrinkles have been on this planet for a while! I started thinking about that in terms of painting—that things develop over time, and when you see marks underneath the surface of a painting, it suggests a past life, a history. A whole story.
How do you know a painting is done? I teach at the Art Students League, and that is the question everyone wants answered. I tell them, the only way you know if a painting is done is if you love it.