The tenuous boundary between living nature and human encroachment is the primary unifying theme in my artwork.
In my ongoing painting series, Watershed, I take a light-hearted yet subversive approach to the serious subject of ocean degradation, presenting a tongue-in-cheek taxonomy of our new post-consumer creatures of the sea. The Watershed paintings are inspired by the incongruity of the man-made detritus found washed up on the otherwise pristine shores near my Discovery Bay WA studio; the plastic shards and PETE water bottles, plastic bags, the mismatched running shoes, the foggy plastic water bottles, the throw-away lighters, the frayed lengths of nylon rope, the spent shotgun shells, to name but a few. I collect this local flotsam that bobs in on the waves from far and near, and with my ear to the sand for a close view, I pose and photograph it on the beach where it strands. The resulting seascape compositions depict the beach trash as monolithic, thereby providing a visual metaphor for the issue of ocean debris. Painting traditionally with oil and gouache, I lovingly and meticulously craft “beautiful” images of conventionally “ugly” beach cast-offs, aiming to create a provocative visual juxtaposition of form and idea. As synthetic castaways from grocery shelf life proudly and cheerily proclaim their “natural” rights, a gyre of plastic swirls in the Pacific, and plastic becomes the new sand.
Issues of industriousness, overpopulation, and deforestation merge in my found object sculptures made from hundreds of burned and unburned wooden matchsticks, wood glue, driftwood, and miniature scale-model figures. Suggesting the exploitative cycle of forest and natural resource depletion, the matchstick sculptures imply the imminent risk of explosion and devastation. Oblivious to the danger, charming swarms of figures busy themselves with work and recreation, continuing mankind’s ongoing pattern of growth and decay, and expansion and contraction.
Water Shed, a walk-in sculpture installed at Port Angeles Fine Art Center, is a house-like structure that I built using a salvaged, burned-out greenhouse as its frame, with PETE water bottles and recycled copper wire strung together as its siding and roof. All of the hundreds of bottles were salvaged from the beach, businesses, individuals and the Jefferson County Recycling Center, reusing materials that have been shed from consumer culture.
The Pop Art culture of the 1960’s and 70’s is evident in my Watershed paintings, influenced by artists such as Andy Warhol, Claus Oldenburg, Wayne Thiebauld, and Ed Ruscha, as well by realist and photorealist artists, Robert Bechtle, Janet Fish, Ralph Goings, and Edward Hopper. The found-object images in the Watershed artworks echo mid 20th century movie images depicting foreign invasions, monstrous alien creatures, and the threat of nuclear and environmental holocaust.
Born in New Jersey in 1955 and raised in rural Connecticut, Karen Hackenberg developed her first connections to the natural world in the pastures, orchards, wooded hills, and beaches along Long Island Sound.
She earned her BFA degree in painting from the Rhode Island School of Design and, upon graduating in 1978, migrated west to San Francisco.
In her decade and a half living by the San Francisco Bay, she worked in architecture and ecological textile design (Esprit’s E-Collection), honed her environmental values, and educated her eye to the juxtaposition of man-made shapes and natural forms. In 1992 she migrated once again, this time to the Pacific Northwest, where her life experiences came full circle. There on the shores of Discovery Bay, near Port Townsend, Washington, where she lives to this day, she was again surrounded by an ever-present natural landscape. Her past experiences heightened her awareness of this naturally blessed region’s struggle to find balance between its increasing population and development and its preservation of wild places.
Hackenberg has exhibited extensively in museums and galleries around the Northwest and across the nation, most recently in the ocean-themed exhibition Beneath the Surface: Rediscovering a World Worth Conserving at the American Association for the Advancement of Science headquarters in Washington, DC. Her green sensibility has been prized by many private collectors and has earned a place in numerous permanent public collections including: the New York State Museum (Albany, New York), Providence Medical Center (Everett, Washington), and the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art (Washington).
Five of her paintings were recently purchased for Washington’s State Art Collection, and she was granted an Artist Trust (Seattle) GAP award to turn her Watershed series into a limited-edition bound book by Marquand Editions and Paper Hammer, Seattle WA. A solo show of Karen's Watershed series was also featured at a Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, where Gary Faigin interviewed Karen about her insparation and thoughts about the series.