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.
“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.
Intention vs. Inspiration
June 15, 2020 by MaryBeth Karaus
Early in the fall when life was humming along normally, I had some well-educated and well-connected women tour my studio. One of the women raised her hand to ask a question. She said, “I don’t know much about art, but I would like to know what comes first, inspiration or intention?” I am not one to think quickly on her feet, so I fumbled and mumbled some sort of response. I have been tossing this question around in my head for the last nine months. The reason I find it so important is that each one of us has our own unique way of creating our paintings. Taking a few steps back and analyzing our process might help us in the future when we seem to get stuck or have a block.
This period of time in isolation is nothing new for us. As painters, we beg the universe for uninterrupted time at the easel. Some of us may be getting just that, but finding it difficult to even begin to mix colors because of the graveness of our world situation. Others of us may have spouses and children at home, and time at the easel is impossible. We certainly have more time to pause and think. We may wish we could feel that “ah-ha” moment when a great idea comes to us and we begin to run with it. Our paths to inspiration are as different as we are.
For me, inspiration for new paintings is everywhere. It can be the petals of a flower, peeling open a grapefruit or the chubby cheeks of my granddaughter. One time as I walked through the grocery store, I held in my hand an unusual plum. I was fascinated and “inspired by” the amazing yellow-green color. Then I was “inspired to” use analogous colors and a variety of sizes to create a composition. “Oh Honey” was painted starting with this encounter in the grocery store. It may be an interesting exercise to trace the source of inspiration for our favorite pieces. Then I concluded that very often we are inspired, but not all of the time do we take action. It seems then that inspiration comes first. If we want to take this inspiration further and give it energy, then we direct our intention to this inspiration. Problem solved.
Not so fast. My friend Malachi Lawrence, who is an aerospace engineer, says intention comes first for him. An engineer may face a baffling problem that he or she intends to solve but all of their best analytical efforts may fail. But sometimes in the middle of the night, the inspiration for the solution comes! For some of us as painters, commissions motivate us. The intention to fulfill the clients needs comes first and then finding inspiration to create a painting comes second. Okay then, so it could go either way.
Then why ask this question after all? Because we all need to learn to tap into our own resources for inspiration. It made me want to dive deeper into how inspiration comes about. Is inspiration a voluntary or involuntary occurrence? I wrote an email to Scott Barry Kaufman, PhD, who is a humanist psychologist, author, researcher and speaker, known for his research on intelligence, creativity, and human potential. He sent me his article called “Why inspiration Matters” from the Harvard Business Review.
He writes, “Inspiration awakens us to new possibilities by allowing us to transcend our ordinary experiences and limitations.” Kaufman found that “Openness to Experience” often came before inspiration, suggesting that those who are more open to inspiration are more likely to experience it.We have all experienced a higher level of creative thinking for some of our paintings. However, we may find this inspiration is few and far between. We may have a total creative block due to many different circumstances in our lives. This pandemic could be causing major difficulty for some of us. Can we call inspiration in? Dr. Kaufman writes, “Mastery of work, absorption, creativity, perceived competence, self-esteem, and optimism were all consequences of inspiration, suggesting that inspiration facilitates these important psychological resources. Interestingly, work mastery also came before inspiration, suggesting that inspiration is not purely passive, but does favor the prepared mind.” The idea of being more absorbed in our tasks or mastery of work is something we can all strive for as we wait for inspiration. Two quotes from artists I saw recently suggest this.
“Inspiration is for amateurs: the rest of us just show up and get to work.” Chuck Close
“Inspiration exists but it has to find you working.” Pablo Picasso
During the most difficult time in my life, I believe I painted two of my best pieces. During the first half of 2018, my son, Stefan, was facing a very risky open-heart surgery and insurance was not willing to cover it. I spent countless hours researching this surgery to make the decision for him to have it or not, and months haggling with the hospital and the insurance company over benefits. My oldest daughter, Shelby, was struggling through a very difficult pregnancy and was due six weeks after Stefan’s scheduled surgery. During this time I painted “Orange Romance” and entered it into the OPA National. On June 18, Stefan pulled through this miraculous thirteen-hour surgery. As Stefan recovered, I was very consumed with worry for my daughter. With Stefan getting better every day, I painted “Tango in Yellow.” My granddaughter Camilla was born healthy on July 31. As I look back on this time and wonder how I was able to create these paintings, I can only say that it had been preceded by years of work on studying painting and understanding composition. Inspiration might come when you least expect it. One thing I do know is that I love to paint, and this love provided an escape from the harsh realities of life and I do believe they had some divine inspiration. Some higher power was at work and I really can’t explain, but I believe these works lifted me high above and carried me through these difficult times.
These last few weeks have been unprecedented in our lives. I was living in so much fear and was unable to sleep. Confined to my home and reading too much news, I found myself comforted by the arrival of spring. First to come from the earth were the daffodils. The timing was perfect and very inspirational for me. I did five paintings of varied species that grew right outside my door because there were to be no trips to the florists. Exploring their unique forms and trying to create them in space became my obsession for two weeks. Interestingly they go from light to dark in overall feeling. Creating them gave me escape and eventually hope for what is to come. The botanist Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer says, “The exchange of love between earth and people calls forth the creative gifts of both. The earth is not indifferent to us, but rather calling for our gifts in return for hers—the reciprocal nature of life and creativity.” I am surely more grateful for these Flowers blooming more than ever before.
Maybe the situation is different in your studio. A friend of mine, Austin-based artist Will Klemm, tells me, “Occasionally, if I’ve been away from work too long, or have had too long to ruminate on a ‘big idea’ for a series or a show, a kind of painter’s block can set in. If my first two strategies (cleaning up and pouring over) don’t work, I pull out a handful of unresolved or unfinished paintings. Then I work back into them, sometimes just a slight glaze will change everything, sometimes I completely obliterate the original with a palette knife. The point is to get the studio muscles moving again, without striving for any particular outcome.”
I have found that another way to do this would be to delve back into old photos on your computer. Try new cropping or editing and old photos can become new masterpieces. Inspirational ideas can come to us when we are not in the studio. Have you ever had your most brilliant ideas come to you while taking a shower or doing dishes? A quote from Mozart: “When I am traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep: it is on such occasions that ideas flow best and most abundantly.”
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” writes in her book, “Big Magic,” “I don’t demand a translation of the unknown. I don’t need to understand what it all means, or where ideas are originally conceived, or why creativity plays out as unpredictably as it does. I don’t need to know why we are sometimes to converse freely with inspiration, when at other times we labor hard in solitude and come up with nothing.” She later concludes, “All I know for certain is that this is how I want to spend my life-collaborating to the best of my ability with forces of inspiration that I can neither see nor prove, nor command, nor understand.” When one wonders where inspiration has gone in current work, I like Gilbert’s thought here: “You can believe that you are neither a slave to inspiration nor its master, but something far more interesting-its partner-and that the two of you are working together toward something intriguing and worthwhile.”
Here is my conclusion on the question that was asked of me last fall. If we keep working diligently at the craft of good painting and mastering our skills of composition, color mixing, and creating form on a canvas – if we do our part in the hard work, once in a while the painting transcends to a higher level. And often you may look back and say, “I don’t even remember painting that.” Maybe it was divine inspiration.
“Big Magic-Creative Living Beyond Fear” by Elizabeth Gilbert, 2015
“Why Inspiration Matters” by Scott Barry Kaufman November 8, 2011 Harvard Business Review
This article appeared on the Oil Painters of America Blog, June 15, 2020