It’s amazing what a word of encouragement can do. I met Karen a few years ago at a MUD event. She had just started painting and told me she was interested in exhibiting and I told her to just have a go. I didn’t know at the time, but I certainly do now, that when Karen ‘has a go’ she really has a go.
In this guest blog – thank you Karen – she describes her journey from successful actor to (accidental) artist and her triumphs and personal battles along the way. Enjoy!
I was born into a hub of drips and buzzers and penicillin, in the East Lambeth baby wing of St. Thomas’ Hospital, London, in 1962. My mother weighed approximately five stone and was extremely ill during her pregnancy with me. She was also wracked with tuberculosis, which cut a swathe through London in the 60’s.
Although I was a healthy baby at 8lbs, due to the medication my mother was fed to combat the dreaded TB as she carried me in her womb, I did not open my eyes nor utter a sound for nearly two months. There was some conjecture that I would be severely impaired – brain damaged, deaf or even blind. My grandfather kept a vigil over me day and night, while my mother was taken to the TB wards of Guys Hospital to recover.
Then one day the doctors decided to give me a massive jab of penicillin to ‘ try and wake me up’. It worked! I opened my eyes, then my lungs, and hollered, much to everyone’s relief. And, as my grandfather put it, I never closed my mouth again!!! I was bundled off to Battersea, in South London to begin my life journey.
Home was a big old London Pub, The Fox and Hounds, on the Latchmere Road in Battersea. We all lived there, my mum – a single parent, my half brothers and me.
My grandmother lived with us and was the matriarch of the family, whilst my grandfather lived in Wimbledon with his partner. He was the Daddy of the family. He put a roof over our heads and gave my mother an income. When he barked you jumped to attention, but his bark was always worse than his bite.
Our neighbourhood was a rich melting pot of White, Afro Caribbean, Asian, Persian, Russian, Irish and Portuguese. Plenty of diversity to feed the senses and the stomach! People were ‘poor but happy’ as my great aunt Rose would say.
In the 70’s Battersea was one of the poorest parts of London. By the 80’s it was the new capital of the Yuppie kingdom.
Our street was a hybrid of working class families, struggling artists, photographers and musicians. We all played together in the streets and in each others’ houses. It was an enriching, multicultural experience in every way. The Kings Road and its soon to be Punk revolution was a brisk two mile walk, over the bridge that spanned Old Father Thames. Battersea Park and Clapham Common were a half mile in either direction. Clapham Junction a spit away. There was plenty of green space for young minds to invent strange new worlds.
Growing up in the pub, memories abound of old ladies in big hats and black coats decorated with dead fox collars, complete with head and claws, whose beady, emotionless little glass eyes stared at you. Their coat pockets bulged with hankies, ready to be spittled and applied to the face of any grubby child passing by.
In the saloon bar, the men wore Sunday Crombie coats, pork pie or trilby hats, ties and cuﬄinks, whilst donkey jackets, hearty laughter and coarsely bearded geezers graced the public bar. Everyone was called ‘Ducks’ or ‘Dearie’, ‘Flo’ or ‘Esme’.
I could glean a pocketful of pennies and boiled sweets – unwrapped and complete with ﬂuﬀ – by ‘doing a turn’, singing a little song, on a Sunday afternoon at closing time. I was born a natural entertainer, or a show-oﬀ for want of a better word!
Into the ‘world called show’
I hated my primary school and did not settle. I cried everyday and became a handful. So when my mother was hospitalised with yet more pregnancy sickness, while carrying my brothers, our kind neighbour, Betty, came up with a solution. She suggested that I could sit in the back of the kindergarten at the performing arts school that her grandson went to. There I could paint pretty things and sing and dance in the afternoon. It was a grand diversion for an anxious child, while my mother awaited the arrival of the terrible twinnies.
I could already read, write and recite my times table up to ten when I started primary school. So when I was sent on a blanket audition for the musical adaptation of Scrooge, featuring Alec Guiness and Albert Finney, I naturally sailed though – reading the script ﬂuently, singing and acting my little heart out, as I had done for all the old dears in the pub on a Sunday afternoon.
I secured the role of second child lead, much to the chagrin of the fee paying stage mothers, was hastily enrolled to the stage school and agency, and plunged into the biggest adventure of my little life.
And that was how I became a part of the alumni of the Corona Academy, a famous performing arts school in West London, spawning actors such as Ray Winstone and Nicholas Lyndhurst; Queens corgi painter, Cindy Lass; the original ‘Miss Whiplash’, Cleo Rocos; and a ‘Real Housewife of Beverley Hills’ to boot!
So there was little old me, securing enough TV commercials, voiceovers and supporting roles in ﬁlm and television, to ensure that I paid my school fees on time and maintained living this magical dream. I can’t recall ever being happier to be honest.
It was at Corona, with its progressive form of education and teachers with sometimes questionable qualiﬁcations , that I ﬁrst garnered an interest in producing art.
Roger Ruskin Spear founder member of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, son of British portrait painter Ruskin Spear, taught a mixture of art, philosophy and music business acumen, and treated us like the young adults we were becoming. I achieved an A plus grade in my Art O-level and I lay this squarely at his door.
We also had a New Zealander, a bearded Hagrid, who taught us about Cubism and Picasso, mainly because he was developing his own play called Picasso I don’t care, funnily enough. I don’t think it ever saw the light of day.
Then we had an elderly German gentleman who let us explore contemporary art, cover our canvasses with Polyﬁlla, and encouraged us to produce everything in mixed media.
There was all of this and the regular curriculum, on top of the singing, mime, stagecraft, acting, ballet, jazz and tap dancing that we threw ourselves into daily.
Corona was one big family, a way of life, and it consumed me like a drug. It invaded every pore of my being and I wallowed in it. When I left at 18 years of age, I was suddenly bereft and at odds as to what to do with myself.
Fashion and beyond
I started working for my second cousin, Brenda Knight, a successful Fashion PR, and her famous designer partner, Nigel Preston of Maxfield Parrish fame. I ﬁgured with a full Actors Union card under my belt, I could aﬀord to take a year or two out of the business. Just to see what life was like on the other side.
The Fashion business is a crazy world. I was the original Bubble (Ab Fab). Despatched across London with bags full of samples to present to fashion editors in big magazine houses. Not knowing my arse from my elbow in all truth. It was 1981 and the kids were in America with Bette Davis Eyes.
I encountered many legends of the fashion world along the way, including Diana Vreeland and Anna ‘Nuclear’ Wintour (American Vogue). For those of you who are not familiar with the fashion world, Anna Wintour is the woman Meryl Streep’s character is ﬁrmly based on in The Devil Wears Prada.
Noticing my complete naivety during one presentation of fashion samples to her, Anna Wintour patronisingly remarked that she could, ‘see it was a dress’. I got all ﬂustered and started to apologise. She smiled witheringly at me and said, “My dear how very ENGLISH of you!’. Formidable…. ..she was!!
Then came the call from my agent, would I like to go to a casting for Granada TV’s Crown Court?
The fashion business was long hours, skinny sleep-deprived models, lots of freebies, launch parties and lashings of red wine, but the pay was pants. I got the part and stepped back into ‘that world called show’, where I resumed my career as a supporting actor for another 15 years.
I also ﬂirted with the music business. My husband, a session guitarist, and I formed a grunge band. I discovered I was a formidable front man/girl, and song writer. We had a small modicum of success and a video on the telly.
Then disaster struck. My mum lost her home, her husband and her business. Ironically this coincided with us losing our peppercorn rent Battersea ﬂat. Everything was put on hold!
A move to Kent and a mortgage ensued and I fell into a ‘day job’. Sales is every actors spare string to the bow, yes that old chestnut!
Logistics, mortgages and then the crash of 2007 ended that sojourn and I found myself working for the probation service – a rewarding but poorly paid job. It was now 2017 and, after a particularly challenging bout of nightmare neighbours, which left me with a stress condition and seizures, I took three months oﬀ work with anxiety.
A fresh start in art
I was shell shocked and desperately needed a fresh take on life. We had moved towns and left the horror behind, but the echoes remained.
My Facebook friends were reaching out to me, so I made it a challenge to get out and meet as many of them as was geographically possible.
In closest reach were the artists Craig Turner and Peter Reeds, who welcomed me with open arms, told me how much they enjoyed my little blogs on Facebook and encouraged me to start painting.
I then progressed to the Nucleus Arts Centre in Chatham, Kent.
I had a lot of artist and entertainer friends on my Facebook page. As I went to each studio at Nucleus, matching the real person to the posts on my feed, I met artists Jon Gubbay and Nigel Adams who became casual mentors to me.
So here I was, an untrained outsider artist, arming myself with pastels, paint and a whole lot of enthusiasm. I had begun posting my endeavours on my Facebook page, when I heard about a new collaborative artists group that was in its infancy called MUD. I dragged my husband along to the ﬁrst meeting at a micro pub on Rochester High Street, and made the acquaintance of artists and founders of MUD Duncan Grant, and Derek Wells.
I’d gone along to the meeting to support the group and left as an exhibitor. ‘Just do it !’ was Duncan’s advice. So I did.
In 2017, I successfully submitted four oil pastel paintings for the very ﬁrst MUD artists exhibition at the Blake Gallery, Woodville Halls, Gravesend, Kent.
I continued to produce work in oil sticks and to exhibit work in acrylics. I was also developing a penchant for Sharpies and brush markers. This led to my #sharpieworx project.
In the spring of 2019, my work was progressing to more ﬁgurative and abstract ﬁelds. I took the bull by the horns and decided to submit to the 2019 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. I submitted an abstract acrylic called Brother Sun, which made the ﬁnal selection. I made the ﬁnals (!!) but didn’t make the hang. However, I was mighty proud of getting that far with what was essentially only the ﬁfth acrylic painting I had ever produced in my artistic endeavours.
Then in July of that same year I was struck by a hemorrhagic stroke, paralysed down my left side, and packaged oﬀ to a neurological rehab centre in Ashford, Kent. It was like a boot camp, but I quickly got with the programme and started to regain the use of my limbs.
My brain bleed aﬀected the creative part of my right lobe and I didn’t attempt to draw for a while. Then one day I got bored with staring at the white board in my room and drew an Italian looking lady on it in red marker.
‘Oooh who did that?’ the nurses all exclaimed. Phew I could still draw!
After three months I returned home and started producing a lot of erotic art. I had always drawn female nudes, but now there were men as well.
I got back into the swing of things and ordered a whole heap of paints and canvasses. I started to experiment with abstract form and expressionism. For once I was producing a lot more works in acrylics than pen.
I also started to concentrate on developing my Android Photography PhoneArt : #TinyEyeProject.
I have been exploring the medium of Phone Art for three years now. It is a new and accepted art form and I am totally absorbed by it.
My parameters are very strict:
- Everything must be photographed, enhanced and edited entirely on my mobile phone
- NO Macs or Photoshop, and
- I trawl the Android world for free digital apps to manipulate my work with.
This has resulted in a catalogue of amazing images. It also resulted in a project featuring myself titled: A Persistence of Being. This is a series exploring female sexuality, its projections, and feminism.
I have recently also started another PhoneArt project featuring my friends titled: Pimp My Pals. This is a collaborative work, as I take existing photos from friends albums and ‘pimp’ them digitally. I am currently building this into a series as well, in the same style as my Persistence of Being project. Both are a hybrid of photographic and acrylic works, taken from the detail of the photographs.
I hope to have both these both ‘in the bag’ by Spring 2021, with a view to featuring them in solo exhibitions.
I am fascinated by how digital media pervades everything we do and dictates how we look, behave and perceive ourselves. We have essentially become ‘avatars’ or ‘parodies’ of ourselves. Social media platforms are becoming an extension of our personality and being.
Why sexuality? Surely it’s been done to death?
Sexuality has always been historically a very important component of art. There is the male and the female gaze. It features very strongly today across many social media platforms, with women unwittingly pushing back the margins of feminism, with their trout pouts and bum enhancements, twerking merrily as they display themselves as sexual objects.
In my project I explore this. I have used traditional poses, but also direct poses that are designed to make the viewer somewhat uncomfortable, such as in Kiss me Quick. It’s the ultimate feminist statement, in that as a woman I am taking charge of my sexuality. And indeed this has had that eﬀect on some male viewers, who have likened this picture to that of a gun ﬁghter and acknowledged it as somewhat challenging.
My stroke has deﬁnitely taken my work to another level. I know my brain injury has changed me in subtle ways and in the beginning, I felt like a part of me was missing. But it also took me to a diﬀerent viewpoint. I have expressed this through my art, and it has helped me work though it and discover who I am.
I can’t say I’m really inﬂuenced by any one particular artist. I have eclectic tastes in nearly everything. I don’t use life models except for myself, and I produce a lot of images directly from my head, with very little reference material.
I have been described as an ‘automatic artist’, in that during my creative process I make no preliminary marks or sketches. The same goes for my photographic work, I just shoot and see what comes out.
As an untrained artist, I enjoy being at liberty, devoid of boundaries or parameters. I have an experimental nature and noone can really tell me, ‘You can’t do that!’.
My work is very rarely planned unless I’m working to a brief, even then I will put on some sounds and let the muse take me.
My inspiration comes from many sources, Literally whatever makes my brain go pop!
Regardless of the Covid 19 virus, I managed to squeeze in three exhibitions this year, including at the prestigious Peter Pears Gallery in Aldeburgh, Suﬀolk, and despite suﬀering a badly pinned hip fracture.
So ﬁnally, why the accidental artist ?
Well….. had it not been for attending that ﬁrst public MUD meeting in 2017, meeting Duncan Grant and being told by him to, ‘Just do it!’ I would never have dreamed of exhibiting professionally and taking my art any further than a hobby to calm my anxious mind.
It was an act of fate, a leap of faith and sheer determination!!
You can buy Karen’s work and read her artist statement on her page in the Plogix Galleryhttps://gallery.plogix.com/en/kareng
Her work will also be available shortly from her Instagram pages.
You can DM or message Karen via her Instagram @karenglykys or Facebook Art page