MaryBeth Karaus finds excitement in composing and beauty in design
By Gussie Fauntleroy
MaryBeth Karaus remembers wondering, through most of her five years in the design, architecture, art and planning program at the University of Cincinnati, whether she was on the wrong track. She loved the painting electives, but for her major she had chosen graphic design. It was supposed to be a ticket into the art-related job market, yet she kept thinking, “This is not me. This is not what I do best. Painting is what I want to do!” As it turned out, her graphic-design skills were put to good use. Following graduation, Karaus (pronounced CARE-us) and her then-husband opened a bookstore in Lexington, KY, and for five years she served as the business’s marketing department, creating book catalogs and other promotional materials. Still later, the value of design became even more apparent as an essential part of her approach to fine art.
Many of Karaus’ still-life paintings, for example, are oriented from a bird’s-eye view—if, that is, a small bird might hover over a kitchen table. It’s an unusual perspective, and it allows the artist to treat the canvas as though it’s a page she’s laying out, with all the design components arranged on a single plane. Flowers, fruits, and other objects become fluid compositional elements, similar to line and color in graphic design, that she can play with and position in the most compelling way.
Karaus’ distinctive style, which often involves working on an eye-catching scale and incorporating touches of abstraction, lends her otherwise classical work a subtle contemporary edge. An example is the 60-by-32-inch BOUNTIFUL CASCADE, a finalist in the 2017 Art Renewal Center Salon competition. Starting with peonies and roses that she found at Trader Joe’s, the artist added peaches, a half-peeled orange, and a copper bowl to a create a swirling composition whose elements seem to tumble toward the bottom of the canvas.
Sitting in her Cincinnati studio, the 56-year-old painter smiles. “My still-life pieces aren’t very still. They have a lot of movement,” she says. That sense of aliveness—well before it emerges through rich texture and vibrant brushwork—begins in the designing phase, with objects chosen and carefully positioned and repositioned for optimum dynamic effect. For Karaus, this part of the process is at least as exciting as the application of paint. And that’s saying quite a bit.
MaryBeth Karaus, The Chef’s Cutting Board, oil, 60 x 48.
MaryBeth Karaus, Simple Beauty, oil, 16 x 12.
MaryBeth Karaus, For You, Christine, oil, 36 x 24.
“It’s almost like breathing, such a yearning,” Karaus says of her lifelong relationship with art. “From the time I was a little girl I had to have a brush in my hand.” Raised in Louisville, KY, as the youngest of seven children, she was the only one who took an interest in her mother’s passion for drawing and painting. Her mother, a first-generation Lebanese-American, was an artistic child prodigy turned self-taught painter whose devotion to her family precluded an art career. But whenever she drew or painted, she set little MaryBeth next to her with paper or canvas, brushes, and paints.
Karaus also frequently had an art book in her lap. When she was a child, two of her much older brothers opened a small used bookstore—which eventually grew to become Borders Books—and “beautiful art books started showing up in our home,” she says. She and her mother would pour over them together, both especially enthralled by the Impressionists and John Singer Sargent. On the days when tempera paints were brought out in elementary school, she lined up excitedly for her turn—it’s all she wanted to do. Even as an adult, when her mother visited, the two would set up easels together and paint.
After she graduated from the University of Cincinnati, Karaus was inspired to step beyond graphic art. For two years she studied watercolor with Robert James Foose at the University of Kentucky. It was a medium in which she was previously self-taught, having learned a certain amount from practicing with instructional books. She applied her new skills in her role at the bookstore, creating watercolor paintings of her children and using them as colorful catalog covers.
But while paying for childcare could be justified for her hours spent working in the family business, quitting that to paint full time (while still paying for childcare) was not in the cards. Finally, after the family moved to Cincinnati to open another bookstore and the youngest daughter was in school, Karaus leased a studio downtown. She met other artists, became a signature member of the Cincinnati Art Club, and began selling her work, which at the time consisted of watercolor still lifes on an oversize scale.
She also found herself increasingly intrigued by oils. She knew she needed instruction, so in the early days of Google, she went searching online and came across the website of acclaimed oil painter Daniel Gerhartz. Karaus was especially taken by his alla prima technique, painting from life and completing a piece in one sitting, wet on wet. In 2002 she signed up for a five-day workshop with Gerhartz in Taos, NM. “I heard about things I hadn’t known before, about value and color temperature and how to squint and see values,” she says of the experience. “It was amazing. I didn’t really know the medium, but it was really a turning point for me.” Two years later, working in oils, she took the top award of excellence in a juried exhibition at the Woman’s Art Club of Cincinnati.
In 2012 Karaus decided to reinforce her foundational knowledge through classical drawing and painting classes with figurative painter David Mueller at his Cincinnati studio. It was her first immersion in an academic approach, and it firmed up her understanding of principles she had been exploring for some time. “It was a very important step,” she says. She became a signature member of Oil Painters of America in 2014, and in 2017 she and Mueller were featured in a two-artist show at Cincinnati’s Eisele Gallery of Fine Art. At the OPA national exhibition in 2018 she won an Honorable Mention, and she was also honored with the Dorothy Driehaus Mellin Fellowship for Midwestern Artists, which came with a $20,000 prize.
While Karaus finds delight in painting a range of subjects, from figurative to plein-air landscapes, in recent years her primary focus has been still life. She paints smaller pieces from life, benefitting from perfect north light in her studio, which is part of her home in an older Cincinnati suburb. The studio doubles as a living room, and rather than having shelves dedicated to still-life objects, she chooses beautiful vases and porcelain from her dining-room cupboard and other spots around the house. (Or she borrows things from her sister, who collects antiques. “I almost always return them,” she laughs.) These serve as containers for what really inspires her art these days: fresh flowers and fruit.
Because Karaus’ favorite subjects are perishable, they must either be painted quickly or photographed to paint later as large-scale works. Sometimes she approaches an image from a traditional, eye-level view, and other times from above. Either way, she spends hours positioning the various components, using value, color, and light to create subtle shapes—an S, X, or O, for example—and directing the viewer’s eye around the canvas, inviting pauses at multiple focal points. When looking down on an arrangement, she stands on a stepstool, taking photos, moving items, taking more shots. “Nobody can talk to me on those days,” she jokes. “It’s really exciting and intense. I can get this flow, a movement in the design. Then I load all the photos on the computer and one will just jump out at me, and wow, that’s it!”
LOVE ME BLUE began with wisteria blooming outside the artist’s house. Then she found blue hydrangea and added pink roses and deep red plums. “It’s a study in balance, in lights and darks,” Karaus says of the top-down view. Using lush colors on a 36-by-48-inch canvas, the simple, fresh-feeling composition against a white cloth creates a powerful visual effect.
Other recent efforts include a series incorporating various arrangements of seven pale-blue eggs. In quiet colors, often featuring a large peony or rose, the paintings honor the memory of the artist’s mother: The eggs represent seven children, while the flowers symbolize Karaus’ parents, very different from each other but happily married for 64 years.
Although scale, impact, and the teasing of edges into subtle abstraction give Karaus’ art a contemporary feel, she is clearly following the age-old tradition of wanting to share life’s simple gifts of beauty. “A painting can be an oasis of peace and give nourishment to the soul in an otherwise tumultuous and chaotic world,” she says. As a painter, and with her mother’s artistic example, she has gained the ability to slow down and look, the eyes to find inspiration almost anywhere, and the tools to convey what she appreciates. “It can be just some little thing about a color, like the gorgeous shade on the underside of a conch shell I saw in Florida and painting that with roses,” she says. “There are so many beautiful objects God gives us, and especially the ways they can be combined—it’s just endless.”
This story was featured in the November 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art November 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.
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