Western North Carolina Woman

profile: karen ives
by arlene winkler

The problem with contemporary art is that it’s provocative. I know this because people behave so badly when they’re around it. For instance, at an opening at the wonderful Upstairs Gallery in Tryon, I saw a well-dressed woman try to push a ceiling mounted sculpture back and forth like a swing. When the artist told her to stop, she gave it another shove before she stalked away. But this behavior is not confined to the mountains of North Carolina. At an outdoor exhibit in Brooklyn, I saw a proud father encourage his two year old to climb a gravity defying inside curve on a 17 foot wood sculpture. When I told him the child had to come down, he told me that it was a public sculpture and to mind my own business. It took a security guard to convince him otherwise. At the Cy Twombly retrospective in Texas, a young French woman had to be escorted out of the gallery when she stripped off her clothes —because she felt it was the best way to experience the paintings. I, of course, am a paragon of good art behavior: I never strip, I never touch anything, and I never never say “What is it?”

Little do I know as I drive to South Asheville in 90 degree heat with a record pollen count—miserable with the AC off and windows open—that I’m heading for my come-uppance.

Karen Ives is waiting for me to join her in the newly built studio behind her home. The professional table saw that dominates the room is doing double duty on this occasion as a display table. As always, I am eager to see the work. She opens a box, as we discuss her early influences, and sets out a series of small polychromed pieces; colorful wood turnings of various heights with padded tops covered in silk. And before I can stop myself, I blurt out the dread question, “What are they?”

She doesn’t bat an eye. “I call them pin cushions.”

I laugh out loud in delight. But to describe this work as whimsical is to completely by-pass its complex sensibility. This is humor informed by a sharp intelligence, and something else which I find even more intriguing. The mature craft that is evident in the intricacy and skill of her execution is wrapped around the kind of unabashed perception that we encourage in small children — but find subversive in responsible adults.

By this time, she’s set out at least a dozen pin cushions, and before I know it, I’m snatching the remaining ones out of the box, but I quickly cover my gaffe with an interview question. “Sooo, what made you think of pin cushions as a form?”

She explains that the themes in her sculpture draw on patterns and routine, and on social situations and everyday movement. Routine is made up of patterns that are part of everyday life, like being caught in traffic, doing dishes, touching the same things over and over. Her sculptures, which are produced in series, are intended to create a narrative between the forms, their surroundings, and the viewer.

A good for instance is an earlier series called “Leaners”, based on her observations of standing and waiting—wishing she had something to lean on. This is a series of upholstered wall sculptures, formed to support a leaning hip, a full “tush”, and a group lean. In fact, the physical requirements for relaxation are often her inspiration, witness the works entitled: Idle Talk, Bumpy Position, and Leisure Seat.

“Who were your influences?” I ask curiously, rearranging the pincushions so they can talk to each other.

I’m not surprised when she starts her list with Paul Klee and Constantin Brancusi. Klee for his gently humorous works with their colorful allusions to dreams and music, Brancusi for the purity of his forms, and the way they reveal the complexity of thought that went into their construction. She mentions David Nash whom she worked with at NNCA, and Marisol, an artist I remember from the ‘60s, a Parisian sculptor who first made her name in the U.S. constructing wooden sculptures with casts of human faces and limbs. But in the midst of this elite company, she names her mother, Barbara Ives, an artist and art teacher in Chapel Hill, as her major inspiration.

“I grew up knowing I wanted to be an artist. As a kid I got to play with the scraps in my mother’s studio. I think I fell in love with color before I could talk. Later, when I was old enough, I started helping her run a children’s art camp every summer. Then the summer of 11th grade I went to an art camp myself, at Grange College, where I got to try out everything—painting, sculpture, glass. That’s when I got really serious.”

Really serious. Her MFA in Sculpture and Woodworking from University of Wisconsin as well as a BFA in Sculpture and printmaking from University of North Carolina Asheville, was preceded by a decade of summer courses at Penland, Santa Fe Community College, Madison Area Technical College (twice; once for upholstery, once for welding) and Haystack Mountain School of Crafts.

“You must get a marvelous response to these,” I murmur as I arrange the pin cushions to ignore each other.

“If you’re asking if people like them, yes, they love them...”


“Nobody buys them.”

I can’t believe my luck. What does she charge for them?

“It doesn’t make any difference. I change the prices every time I show them and they still don’t sell…”


“Much as I’d love to have someone buy them, and I could certainly use the income, it’s not the point. I have a passion to sculpt. It’s something I have to do. It’s like a routine for me. If I go without doing it for a day I’m still busy thinking about ideas. If I’m not forming it with my hands its forming itself in my head. Other than that I’m occupied with my daughter Frances, and our second child is due in February. It’s the reason I’ve never tried to have a major show—I don’t know how I could manage the time and stress of getting ready.”

As a veteran of multiple shows with my spouse, I know exactly what she means. The time and emotion that go into a single installation are resources lost forever from the studio. And whether or not the show is a success, it can take a long time for the adrenalin to subside and allow the mind and body to resume the creative routine—to say nothing of the effect on the family.
“But I do need to bring in some income,” she continues. “I’m thinking of getting a nursing degree because it’s the one thing I can do part time and still have a career path.”

I am unable to hide my dismay.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” she says trying to reassure me.
“But with all your talent and qualifications,” I point out, “You’d be a wonderful art professor. It pushes you to show your work and at the same time, you’re leading young people and teaching them what you know. It’s what you love, what you do best. You’ve been teaching since grade school.”
She smiles, “That would be ideal. Short of that, I’d like to be able to show more, sell a little more.”

“What do we need in Asheville to make that possible?"

She doesn’t hesitate. “We need another Zone One. It was a gallery for artists, not for crafts people. It was a place about ideas.”

Are you listening, Connie Bostic? Are you listening Asheville?

Karen Ives is currently an adjunct professor at UNC Asheville where she teaches two- and three-dimensional design. Her work is on view there at the faculty show. She has exhibited in galleries around the country including the Upstairs Gallery in Tryon, NC, The Wood Turning Centers in Philadelphia and St. Louis, Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton New Jersey, and the ACC spotlight show at Blue Spiral Gallery in Asheville - to name only a few. She can be reached at karen@karenives.com.


Arlene Winkler is a freelance financial writer, specializing in institutional finance. Her articles are published in financial trade journals all over the world. But don’t bother to GOOGLE her, they’re all credited to the executives who employ her. A former ad agency president and enthusiastic participant of life on the New York fast track, she moved to Asheville in 2002 with her sculptor husband, Robert Winkler. A mother of three, a grand mother of four, she is passionate about fine art and usually a paragon of good art behavior.


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