Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Hello. I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching, Radio Maine.  Today. I have with me, Karen Blair, an artist with the Portland Art Gallery, who is joining us from her studio in Charlottesville, Virginia. Thanks for being here today.


Karen Blair:

Thank you. And hello from Charlottesville.


Dr. Lisa Belisle:

As I was telling you before we came on air, Charlottesville is one of my favorite places. I've done a fair amount of visiting there, to UVA and elsewhere, and I’ve done a fair amount of running there. It's actually not that different from Maine in many ways.


Karen Blair:

I absolutely agree with that. The weather is somewhat similar with the exception of the middle of winter and in the middle of summer. And, where you have mud season, we have allergy season but both to be endured and each has their charms. And I think that Charlottesville especially has a bit of the artistic college town vibe that is so often found in Maine


Dr. Lisa Belisle:

That is very true. One of my dear dear friends from high school actually went to UVA and she was one of the most artistic people that I know. She actually helped create a book with me. She designed it. She also had architectural training. So I think that the Charlottesville area is certainly coming up with a lot of people who are doing wonderful work.


Karen Blair:

It's a great place to be. And I have a wonderful posse of friends with whom I travel and meet together and paint together. And there's an old joke that when bankers get together, they talk about art, but when artists get together, they talk about money.


Dr. Lisa Belisle:

That makes sense.


Karen Blair:

Well, there are always these questions about what kind of brushes are you buying? How much are you paying for shipping? Where do you get your canvases made? There's just a lot of nitty gritty that goes on amongst artists.


Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes, that actually makes sense to me. So when you're not with artists and you do want to talk about art, and maybe specifically Maine artists and Maine art, what do you think about, what do you talk about?


Karen Blair:

I loved your show last week and you talked about being such a book addict and that you love to read. You and I share that. So when I am in need of a fix, I have some go-to books. So Lois Dodd, Reggie Hodges, John Walker. And so I have that stack and then of course, Alex Katz, Milton Avery, Fairfield Porter and the list goes on. You're kind of nobody if you don't work in Maine at least a little bit.


Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I love it. I love hearing that. I feel like you and I are kindred spirits with the book sharing. I could have brought my own stack in here but several of the books that you've brought in, in particular the Lois Dodd book are ones that I'm familiar with. And I agree with you. Reading is such a delicious thing to have the opportunity to do, to open it up and see the wonderful art that's available.


Karen Blair:

Yes. I'm coming to Maine in July. I'll be there on July 7th at the Portland Art Gallery. They will have a show for Carlos  Gamez de Francisco, William Crosby, Page Eastburn O'Rourke and Julia Einstein. So I'm coming to that opening and, following that, I'm going up to visit Lois Dodd. So I'm very excited about that. And then I'll go on to Deer Isle to see other friends. So that should be a great trip. And then I'll be back in September for my September 1st show opening with Cooper Dragonette, Helen Lewis and Anne Heywood. And so all of you artists that I just mentioned, I'll be there in July. And, I'll be there in September. Please come and tell me who you are. I want to meet as many of you as I can.


Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I love it. That's wonderful. It's a personal challenge this way. We'll get to hear who actually listens and watches the podcast and we'll know whether they're paying attention to you Karen.


Karen Blair:

I have to say, I watched your show on Sunday and I just want to know where are shark and Newt?


Dr. Lisa Belisle:

<laugh> Well, shark and Newt are sitting in the sunshine right now on our porch because summer has finally inched its way up to Maine. They would rather be hanging out on the porch.  


Karen Blair: 

And I have so many questions, but one is what tranquilizers did you give those dogs? They were the most chill dogs.


Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, the funny thing is that I think they were stunned by the fact that we let them into the studio to do a podcast with us. I think they were afraid that if they actually acted up that we would make them go sit outside. So <laugh>, that was the only thing we needed to do was to actually invite them in. Isn't it kind of funny that it worked out that way?


Karen Blair:

Well, they were awesome. Anyone who has not seen the episode, don’t just listen to it. You have to go look at it becasue you have to see Shark and Newt.


Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes, I agree. Absolutely. So you also have a dog if I'm not mistaken.

Karen Blai

Yes. Ours is not ready for prime time. She is a two year old Brittany and we love her, but she is not making an appearance today.


Dr. Lisa Belisle:

No?  Is she still learning how to exist in polite society? Is that what you're saying?


Karen Blair: 

She's a busy little creature, but as you know, one of the great things about a dog is that they remind you every day of how exciting just waking up and life in general is. Oh, there's a leaf falling and there's a rabbit and the sun is out. As you said about your dogs, and it's back to again your show, that sense of gratitude and that sense of wonder. 


Dr. Lisa Belisle: (07:47):

Yes. It's always amazing to me that our dogs will be sitting looking outside. And it seems to me that they're not looking at anything, but then if you look a little bit more closely, there actually is a butterfly that landed on a plant or there is the wind that's blowing the tree branches around and they wanna make sure that they're aware of what's happening cause they also wanna defend their castle against any potential intruders.


Karen Blair: (08:15):

Well, I, I think that observation is important and while I don't paint on plan air, I, I need a certain amount of time outside to gather information and, and there is always something going on. There is always some event, a shift of the light or a breeze or a fragrance. And right now we have honeysuckle blooming. So you, you just catch the waft and, and it is important to be present for that.


Dr. Lisa Belisle: (09:00):

It's very true. And when I was running today, we don't have honey suckle quite yet. We're still in lilacs, but I was running up the hill this morning. And it's exactly, as you suggested, there was just the faintest scent of lilac on the warm air. And it really, it served to kind of bring me right back to exactly where I was at that moment. And, and that seems like that's what painting often will do is that capturing of wherever you are at that time and making it available for other people to enjoy in the future,


Karen Blair: (09:34):

There is that sense of trying to cram all of that into a painting. What you, what fragrances were in the air and what was the wind doing and what was the temperature? And these are not necessarily visual elements, but yet they can become those in a painting. So, and then I think beyond that, there's that sense of, of editing and the way that perhaps you make a R that you start with ingredients and then you cook it down to the essence of the thing and all of that takes place and all of it's important. So, you know, throw it in the pot and then cook it down until you get just what you want.


Dr. Lisa Belisle: (10:30):

Tell me about this piece. That's in the studio with me today. I believe it's called early morning fog.


Karen Blair: (10:38):

Yes.  there is, I think for artists like photographers that early morning period, or that time at dusk and what those two times a day create are because of the shift in temperatures, there's often wind or fog. And I think it's important to go out at those times of day and observe those. And I have always loved fog and we get a fair amount because we're in the mountains, but is that sense of things are revealed. And then the next minute they're not there and something else has been revealed and, and there's a mystery there and that, and that going back to that idea, like the dogs on the porch of waiting and taking that time to breathe and, and knowing that with great anticipation that at any moment, something else will pull into view. And, and, and that was what I was after in that painting. I have a, a firm belief in trusting the viewer and people bring things to paintings when they see them. And I'm always pleased and sometimes surprised and occasionally shocked at what people see in my paintings, but it's all successful because I want to leave space and air and room for people in the same way that maybe one reads a book and, and brings one's own experience into that narrative.


Dr. Lisa Belisle: (12:49):

Can you give an example of a time that you were surprised or even shocked by what people were seeing in your paintings?


Karen Blair: (12:59):

I often have people say they see faces in the paintings, which I don't intentionally put in there. And certainly, I don't think subconsciously, but maybe it's just basic human nature that we tend to see a face or a figure.  and that's okay.


Dr. Lisa Belisle: (13:27):

So interestingly, as you're talking, I think about when I look at Birch trees, I will often see faces in the Birch trees and I call them the


Karen Blair: (13:35):

Watcher. Okay. There you are. And that's a great case in point. Yes. I see faces in Birch trees too. In fact times I I've skied when I'm on the lift going up, it's the Birch trees that I remember about skiing. It's not the great run or the powder, or it it's those, those trees with those faces and you're on the ski lift and it's quiet and you're riding. I could just go to a ski resort and ride the ski lift around and around. I think


Dr. Lisa Belisle: (14:12):

So maybe subconsciously you, you are bringing the faces into your pieces because you're seeing the faces yourself. You just don't realize you're actually putting them in there.


Karen Blair: (14:23):

Oh, that's a great observation. And I will totally own that.


Dr. Lisa Belisle: (14:29):

Well, I'm interested in talking to you a little bit about Carl Young, because I read that you have a Bailey island connection and that people who are followers of Carl Young also have a Bailey island connection. And I did not realize that that existed and I'm, he is someone that I find quite fascinating. Could you tell me more about that?


Karen Blair: (14:54):

I, myself am not a hardcore youngian and I don't know a lot about it, but I have had friends who made actual pilgrimages to Bailey island because of young being there and working there. I, I find young fascinating as well. And it is interesting to me that the notion of putting oneself in a place where I figure a figure of interest of, of reverence has been, and that we can absorb some of that same experience. And I do firmly believe that that's a real thing and that all of us are capable of doing that.


Dr. Lisa Belisle: (15:53):

yes. I mean, I think that is something that for me has been really important about Maine is, is the number of individuals who used to be here or still are here, who in engage in creative journeys.  Winslow, Homer is one the Y family, all the people that you've mentioned previously. And I think that Charlottesville has its own interesting history in that way as well. And one thing I wonder about, and maybe, maybe I'm bringing this up and it won't resonate with you, but similarly, when I go to places and there have been places where tragedies have occurred, and when I go to the south and the civil war, for example, I'll go to a graveyard and it's, it's filled with Confederate gravestones. I mean, there's actually a sense of almost sadness, a sense of presence that exists that I don't know that I would've come up with just kind of reading about the police.


Karen Blair: (17:03):

Oh, it's very real. It's palpable. You go to places and Virginia, especially is strew with battle sites and tens and tens of thousands of deaths. And there is a palpable sense of ghosts and the, the lives that were lost. And I think it could maybe goes back that maybe art artists are more in tune with that, but I think anyone could be you know, there are two impulses I find throughout history and throughout time. And that is that we ritually bury our dead and we make art. And I really can't think of a civilization that didn't do those two things. And I think these battlefields maybe go back to that, that we ritually buried the dead. And then we honor them in some way we, we create paintings or we write songs or we have Memorial services and we wear special clothing. And, and so I think it speaks to a very deep set of impulses in us when we visit those places.


Dr. Lisa Belisle: (18:40):

So similarly, what happens when we don't have the opportunity to engage in those rituals, I'm thinking about just the countless sleeves, for example, that came to this country and worked the land and they don't have monuments to them. We don't even necessarily know where they are. I mean, that, that's another piece of all of this that has always kind of caused me to wonder, you know, are, are there, I don't know, let's say, are their spirits less stable? Are they still haunting us in a way, because we haven't had the chance to give them a place of consecrated ground.


Karen Blair: (19:25):

I hope that's being addressed. And certainly there are some institutions such as Monticello that are working hard on that.  I think it's a consequence of no access to art materials that what has come down to us from our African American friends is such a great oral tradition with the cadence of the ministers and the, the music. And we owe so much to all of that, the great poets, the writers. So I, I increasingly am aware myself of more and more African American artists in this country. And certainly that's a wrong, that is being righted. But I think we can't overlook the strength of the oral tradition.


Dr. Lisa Belisle: (20:28):

Yes, that's actually a really good point. And I had the opportunity before he passed away to interview and write a story about Ashley Bryant, who is a main artist who happens to be African American originally from New York. And even though he is clearly a visual artist, he also did a lot of work with puppetry, for example, and he was certainly a storyteller. So I think you're right, that, that art is being captured just maybe in a different way. I, and I, and I'm not trying to ask you to be an apologist for the entirety of, you know, the Southern part of the United States, just because you happen to live in, in Charlottesville, by the way, I just I've pondered these things. And, and I've wondered if this is something that you've also had the chance to be thinking about yourself.


Karen Blair: (21:17):

Well, it's, it's a part of our fabric and not to acknowledge it would be a fools errand. It's it's there. It's not fixed. It's ongoing. We had a horrific incident in Charlottesville, not so long ago. And yes, it's you know, we, it's gonna make me sort of cry to talk about it. It's, it's a disgrace really, but I think through art, we have a chance to heal. And a lot of my work goes into hospitals, I think, size and color, and for various reasons, and I get wonderful letters or emails from people saying I was taking my mother for her cancer treatment and there was your painting. And it took us out of ourselves for 10 minutes. And, and maybe, you know, we have a chance to do that.


Dr. Lisa Belisle: (22:29):

That's a really wonderful thing to say. And I think it is very true that we think of hospitals as a place of healing the body. But when we put art in hospitals or other places of, of healing, it gives perhaps the opportunity for healing the soul or the spirit. And so it is very important, the work that you're doing, that that puts those pieces in front of people.


Karen Blair: (22:57):

Well, thank you for saying that. And you as a doctor would be so aware of that. It's  yes, I, I took my own daughter for a, a very bad cancer diagnosis and she has been through chemo and surgery and is doing well, but we came out of the office after a very dire meeting and she looked down the hall and said, oh, mom, I feel right at home. There was one of my big paintings. So that was little moments in life to, you know, celebrate, take a breath, appreciate, say, okay, you know, let's get a grip here. We need to go paint. We just need to go write a book. We need to do whatever it is that feeds our soul.


Dr. Lisa Belisle: (23:46):

yes. I, I couldn't agree with you more. I, I know that one of the things that has enabled people to come through COVID and we're still going through COVID is, is the chance to interact with the creative spirit, whether it's you know, through a piece that you've painted or whether it's a song that somebody has created, or whether it's even writing something myself. I know that it's it's, it requires some level of openness though that I, that has been sometimes hard to come by with COVID.


Karen Blair: (24:24):

Oh, it's. I mean, first of all, artists is such a solitary life that we were all about to turn into bombers. I mean, here we were no contact by ourselves all day. And yes, I, the way that my grandparents talked about the depression, they would never waste food. We will talk about COVID and we will never waste fellowship.


Dr. Lisa Belisle: (24:58):

yes. I, I think it's, it's so true that this sense of great isolation that was forced upon many people as a result of COVID has really caused us to appreciate the other side of things and the opportunity to connect with one another.


Karen Blair: (25:15):

Oh, absolutely. It is such a joy just to be able to gather a group of us just went to Baltimore, to the Joan Mitchell painting show. And we were just giddy.  you know, we, even from the moment we got on the train to go, it was nonstop. Just stop just excitement over the chance to physically be together and to be unasked. It's not the same with the mask on. And of course artists are visual people, so we lose so much. I think we all do when, when people are masked.


Dr. Lisa Belisle: (26:02):

yes. I, I think that's true. It's, it's having spent the last two plus years working in a brand new organization. I didn't get to know very many people before we all started wearing masks and we're still wearing masks cuz we're in healthcare, but, and we probably will be for quite a long time, but it's always fascinating when I then get on a zoom call and I'm like, oh, that's what the bottom half of your face looks like. And it's <laugh> and you can tell a lot with some looking at somebody's eyes, but I, it it's, it's so strange to have this kind of veil over a significant part of our body that is used for expression. And to know what that's gonna look like in a few years when we come out on the other side.


Karen Blair: (26:50):

Yes. And I, I think about children who are learning speech at this time and there's just a lot of things I think will never get back. So yes, we need to get together. I'm so excited about coming to Maine twice this summer, because I haven't been in a few years because of, as we say in, in the south, the COVID we have not been able to do those things. And of course I, I have yet to meet all of the wonderful people at the Portland art gallery. And so, so far we we're just pen pals.


Dr. Lisa Belisle: (27:32):

Well, that's good. It's the best kind of pen pal to have. It's a very friendly group. So when you finally get to meet them yes, I think you'll be very pleased.


Karen Blair: (27:40):

I have never met anyone from Maine who wasn't friendly. I, it just seems to be in the air of there. And I don't know if every winter's COVID a mini COVID spring comes and people are just so glad. Oh, you made it through the winter. I, I'm not sure what it is, but people are so friendly.


Dr. Lisa Belisle: (28:03):

Yes. We're all basically a bunch of daffodils. If the snow finally clears and we're able to spring up and show our faces again, there we are. So yes, it's very true. We are a resilient bunch and happy for the sun, for sure. So tell me about what you'll be doing this summer to prepare for your September show.


Karen Blair: (28:22):

I'll give you a little, let's see if I can get this around a little peak here in the back. I know if you can see if there's a main painting behind me can you see right back behind me over my shoulder and maybe all the way back? There's one. yes. So, you know, I've got me on the brain. I am working toward that. I might be able to get you a little bit more into, are you following me? Is this okay? I'm gonna turn this around to the studio. How about that? So, so this is Maine I'm working on and over here, Maine and over here, Maine and <affirmative> and those are perhaps a bit more realistic, but I'm also working on some maybe less obvious. So there is definitely some stuff going on. That's gotten in my mind about Maine and I am, I, I love when that happens because I tend to work in series and I like to take something, you know, as far as I can go with it. So yes, there will be, there will be some rocks there'll be oceans. There'll be all kinds of things.


Dr. Lisa Belisle: (30:27):

Well, Karen, I am I'm it, it's been a very delightful conversation with you. You, this is the first conversation I've had with an artist who has not only shown me their studio, but also their backyard and their garden and their projects. So I really appreciate your, your spending time with me and being willing


Karen Blair: (30:42):

To do this. Thank you so much. This is fun. I can't wait to meet you live and in person in July,

Speaker 3 (30:50):



Dr. Lisa Belisle: (30:50):

July live and in person. Absolutely. I've been speaking with artist, Karen Blair, who will be visiting Maine at least once this summer. And then again in September for her show. And I hope that people take the time to learn more about her work online, the Portland art gallery website, and then also have a chance to meet with her and talk with her as I have. You are a delightful person, Karen, and it's been my pleasure to have this conversation with you today. I'm Dr. Lisa Lyle, and this has been radio Maine.