Karen Offutt | Room to Breathe

Karen Offutt discovers the reality within realism

by Elizabeth L. Delaney

Karen Offutt, Day Dreaming, oil, 11 x 14.

Karen Offutt, Day Dreaming, oil, 11 x 14.

This story was featured in the April 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art May 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

The figure paintings of Karen Offutt spring to life with energy, thoughtfulness, and subconscious verve that come directly from the artist’s inherent need to paint. “Making art is something I have to do. I don’t have a choice,” says Offutt. Her paintings aren’t simply studies of people, but constructions of time and place—measured, expressive examinations of life as we know it. “Art connects us to now,” says the Austin-based artist, whose narratives employ traditional techniques applied to contemporary vignettes that celebrate the beauty of the human figure while also mining the emotions constantly swirling in and around us.

Offutt grew up in Dallas, TX, drawing and painting as far back as she can remember. The creative life was comfortable and familiar for her, as she was surrounded by it on all sides: Her mother worked as a designer and entrepreneur of a needlepoint company, and her father was highly adept at making art. “He could draw anything,” says Offutt. “I thought that was amazing.”

Offutt took the requisite art classes throughout her school days, but she learned the majority of her technique on her own. She would draw constantly, looking to the everyday things around her for inspiration. Human and animal figures emerged as favorite subjects, and when she started riding horses, she took her sketchbook along and drew them during her downtime at the arena. Soon she decided to draw the riders and discovered a marked interest in portraying the complexities of the human figure. “It was my zen,” she says.

In college, Offutt landed in the midst of an award-winning fine-arts program that she soon realized didn’t align with her needs as a student. She found it difficult to fit her interest in realism into a curriculum emphasizing conceptual, abstract theories and instruction. She sought a learning environment with a more formal rigor centered on the fundamentals of making art. Offutt left that program and briefly pursued an advertising track, which only underscored her need to work in the fine arts. She withdrew from college after getting a job painting furniture, thinking she would pursue her passion as a vocation. She continued on with various art-related jobs such as painting custom tiles and needlepoint canvases; however, they only served as a reminder that she was “painting everybody else’s ideas.”

She finally found her footing in the art world when she and her husband moved to Austin in the late 1990s. After recommitting to her own art, she enrolled in Austin Fine Art Classes, and there she found the instructive approach she had been craving since college. Excited to discover a place with more traditional training techniques, Offutt embraced the opportunity as a clean slate, relearning the basics of composition and color in charcoal and oil paint. These foundational classes, along with workshops led by well-known painters, provided her with the building blocks to eventually find her own voice and style within the realm of contemporary realism.

These days, in addition to making her own work, Offutt herself teaches workshops on figure painting, portraiture, and painting alla prima. Cementing her place in the Austin art landscape, this past April she and several colleagues opened Atelier Dojo Austin to provide a local space devoted to realism in the arts. Just as Offutt sought out a program of teaching that focused on the fundamentals of visual art at the beginning of her career, she has taken the opportunity to invest in other artists seeking similar support and enlightenment. Billed as a “professional arts academy,” the atelier offers multilevel instruction in drawing and painting, as well as master classes and workshops with guest artists.

Offutt began showing her paintings at Houston’s Jack Meier Gallery in 2002. Before moving to Austin, she had spent several years living in Paris, and as a result she found her work concentrating on landscapes and cityscapes: realist yet expressive and rife with placid, undulating lines and intricately tailored shapes. These signature paintings garnered attention from viewers and dealers alike, and before long she was showing work in four different galleries.

But soon Offutt had a young family to care for. She decided to take a hiatus from painting professionally to stay home with her two small children. It turned out to be a welcome break from the demands of the gallery world, giving her time to slow down and evaluate her art. After much consideration, she realized that in order to dig deeper, and consequently elevate her work, she needed to return to her original love of figure painting. She believes that having children provided the paradigm shift she needed to guide her back to that intrinsic, passionate fascination with the figure. “When I came out the other side of motherhood, I started being more reflective,” she says, “wanting to engage more in a personal way, wanting paintings to reflect more of my internal dialogue.”

She painted her children, friends, and models, honing her technique while simultaneously exploring the depths of her creativity, peeling back literal and figurative layers to reveal the more personal, intuitive core of her painting. “I wanted the paintings to breathe,” says Offutt, who found that painting could act as a release—a purging of the thoughts and feelings spinning through her head. She learned to paint from the standpoint of “why,” rather than “what,” and how to access the emotional drive and meaning behind her inspiration. In doing so, she was able to commingle that internal dialogue with external visual cues and elements. “Sometimes I’ll paint something and then realize how I connect with it later, after I’ve painted it,” she explains.

Offutt likes to place her subjects in settings that suit the mood or feeling she’s trying to elicit in each painting. To that end, she often constructs vignettes with backdrops of richly patterned fabric or props she has found or created. The setups aren’t just backgrounds, but environments that establish the figure visually and emotionally, anchoring each form in space as the brush strokes, color, and light slowly uncover a more complex, intimate expression. “I’m creating a window, but I’m also creating a mirror,” says Offutt of her paintings, which present both artist and viewer with multiple entry points, offering a way to look at something while also looking inward.

Offutt has a small stable of regular models who appear in her pieces, and, working together over time, they have developed a rapport with one another. Paintings emerge as a collaboration between artist and model, and Offutt has developed a keen sense of which figure will likely reflect her current idea or mood most effectively. Indeed, Offutt’s figures possess an inward gaze, a sense of contemplation that exists on both sides of the picture plane. What starts out as a meditation of the artist transforms into an external consideration for the viewer—a unique experience for anyone who interacts with the work.

Offutt infuses her compositions with strong patterning and design, and she enjoys layering visuals to combine elements of the past and present. “I like to play with the old and the new,” she says. “It’s like bringing a contemporary viewpoint to these elements.” In the past, she has fashioned unexpected accessories like an Elizabethan ruff or a bright, feathered wrap to pair with a model’s jewel-toned hair or a backdrop of rich, baroque fabric. Such juxtapositions become a confluence of time and space, combining the traditional with a more cutting-edge perspective.

The pieces also employ dramatic lights and darks to create a constant tension among compositional elements. Likewise, meticulously placed surges of color maintain energy and movement across the canvas. Her brushwork is expressive in its realism, situated in the same space as the viewer as it exposes both the calm and tension that exist just beneath the surface of that reality. All this coalesces to create an overall intensity within Offutt’s work—on both visual and emotional planes.

When she isn’t working in her studio, Offutt participates in life-painting sessions with her colleagues. This practice remains important to her overall body of work as it keeps her technique fresh and her ideas flowing. It also ensures that her work remains fluid, permeated by an ever-blowing stream of breath—an aspiration that has become a constant in her painting life.

As she has found her voice over the years, Offutt’s work has blossomed into something intensely personal and expressive. Her artistic journey has provided her with the clarity to find a balance in her technique—between tight and loose, prescribed and spontaneous, external and internal—as well as in her approach.

She writes, “As an artist, I am very aware of my environment, which invites me to be a constant observer. I see potential in everything, and my emotional reaction guides me to the specific inspiration. There are different aspects to my painting—for example, technical skill, creative freedom, and emotional truth. My goal is to create work that guides all these elements in a direction
that moves me.”

Jack Meier Gallery, Houston, TX; Principle Gallery, Charleston, SC; Abend Gallery, Denver, CO.

This story was featured in the April 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art May 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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