A Shaftesbury Artist Shares The Secrets Of Her Success

Karren Burkett has a reason to be cheerful. She’s just opened her weeklong exhibition in the Shaftesbury Arts Centre Gallery, following the success of the first Art Fair in the Town Hall, arranged with fellow artist Andrea Jenkins.

Last Friday, 467 people browsed or bought the work of Shaftesbury-area artists at the showcase. “We were generating a buzz throughout the whole town, which is exactly what we wanted to do. We feel that by bringing people to an art fair we can bring more business into the community.”

But Karren hasn’t had time to relax and enjoy her achievement. As soon as the fair finished, she was straight back to work. And she has been ‘burning the midnight oil’ preparing for her joint show, with textile artist Amanda House.

Karren Burkett

I called into the Arts Centre Gallery on Wednesday morning, thirty minutes before the doors opened at 10am. Karren had left her easel and paints in her studio. She told me that the only tool she needed was her flask filled with strong, black coffee. Oh, and she needed the stepladder that she was standing on. She just had time to hang one last picture. As she worked away, I commented on a faint, chemical smell.

“The last painting was finished yesterday morning and the frames for two of the pictures didn’t arrive until lunchtime,” explained Karren. “You have to put silicon on to attach the pictures to the frame and that really needs 48 hours. The pictures were laid on the floor in the gallery overnight and I crossed my fingers, hoping that the silicon was dry enough to hang them on the walls this morning!”

Luckily it was dry but Karren may still need to post a ‘wet paint’ sign in the gallery. “I really want to go around and touch up some of the frames. They always need touching up. That may not happen until tomorrow,” she said.

Not all artists live a relaxed lifestyle, picking up the brush when the mood takes them. As Karren exhibits, her work is purchased and the pressure is on the create more work. She’s had to follow a rigid timetable in order to fill the blank white walls of the Arts Centre Gallery space.

“Even if you’ve not got the pressure of an exhibition, and running an art fair, the pressure is on you to constantly work because you have to chase your ideas. If the idea is in your head and you don’t get it down, it may disappear. So you might have to get up during the night and make some notes, do some drawings and put some colours down. The other night, I had one more painting to do for this exhibition. At 11.30pm I was there in my nightie cutting the board for it and then I was getting up periodically throughout the night. It’s not relaxed at all!”

Some famous singer-songwriters and lyricists say that they sleep with a notepad next to the bed, in case they wake up inspired. “I haven’t done that yet but I think I ought to,” smiled Karren. “My work is so big, my sketchpad wouldn’t do it. It’s better if it is in my studio and then I can come down in the morning and look at it with fresh eyes. That’s if I manage to go to bed at all,” Karren laughed.

Now I understood why the flask of coffee is so important. She’s been burning the candle at both ends. But is it possible to be creative against the clock? Can Karren always come up with enough ideas in time for a big show?

“I can always think of things. It’s making sure that there are enough things that hang together for an exhibition. It’s no good having a hugely disparate exhibition because it is not comfortable when people look at it. I want things to flow. Having ten ideas for a showing is important and holding ten ideas in your head, when you are being pressed for time, is a bit of a challenge.”

Whilst many of us can appreciate the stress of finishing a project to meet a deadline, the atmosphere in the gallery appears relaxed, with ten minutes to go before opening. Karren clearly manages her schedule well. And her artistic skill comes naturally.

“I’ve always been able to draw. I’ve always put colours together, even in the years I wasn’t producing art. I would arrange my gardens and my furniture. I move plants to make them sit together properly. I went to art school and had to go to work, because there was no way to put food on the table as a painter,” Karren said. “Back in the early 1970s, there was no place for an artist like me so everything went on hold. But I did a little bit of art work throughout the years.”

Then, ten years ago, Karren’s circumstance changed. “I was very fortunate to meet a man who said to me ‘you paint and I’ll do everything else’. He just encouraged me. And it’s just gone from there.” I asked Karren if she is now putting food on the table. “I’d like to,” she laughed. “It’s not happening. But it (the art) might be paying for itself.”

Karren’s not so concerned about material gain. “It’s not about people buying or selling work. It’s about people feeling joyous when they see things and enjoying what I have done. I want people to feel good when they look at the work in the way that I do.”

Karren has found renewed artistic energy since she relocated to our hilltop town. “I have absolutely loved living in Shaftesbury since I moved here in February. I can feel the joy bubbling out of me. When I see something that is joyful, I paint it joyfully. I don’t pick up a brush and gently stroke the canvas. It’s an ‘all in’ thing for me. I use my feet, hands and teeth a lot.”

I asked Karren how she would describe her art. “I am a landscape artist,” Karren replied. For a moment we both looked at the walls and, after a pause, she burst into laughter. “But these are all flowers.” The walls were covered with mostly bright, sunny, vibrant paintings of sunflowers. Karren had captured the essence of our spectacular Shaftesbury summer.

“I always paint the flowers that people give me as gifts. I usually paint them as they are dying. Sunflowers were around me a lot recently because I have them in my new garden. I went to dinner at a neighbour’s house and she had them on the table, too. They were there and ‘battering’ me with their images so I had to paint them.”

So did Karren actually get her sketchpad out during the dinner party? “No. I asked if I could have them. In fact the vase is the blue one that is in two of the paintings. It belongs to Kate Pickard, who runs the gallery. I still have her vase but it will be returned,” said Karren.

I asked Karren to tell me which of her paintings gave her the most joy. She led me to a picture near the window facing onto Bell Street. “It has a blue, grey background. It’s quite large. It’s nearly four-feet high and two-feet-six wide and it has three sunflowers on it,” described Karren. “The one in the top right hand corner, as it was dying, was almost two-dimensional with the petals falling against the centre of the flower. Without doing anything to it, it became a drawing all on its own. There’s one behind it, which has turned its back on the world. That painting is called ‘My Life This Year’. There’s also a sunflower that is totally frazzled. It’s orange, brown and red and sitting in Kate’s blue Japanese vase. It just feels like me.”

It’s now five minutes to ten, and despite her self deprecating remarks about ‘nobody coming out’ a couple were milling about on the pavement, waiting to view the exhibition. Andrea unlocked the door, commenting on the gallery’s ‘Fort Knox’ like qualities and after turning the third key, the excited visitors were invited inside. I left Karren as more art-lovers, two women, walked in.

You can view Karren’s work all this week. “I will be here every day until 4pm next Tuesday, except for the odd time when I can escape and feed my dog at lunchtime!” And if you see her flagging behind the desk, offer to refill her flask. She may have been up all night, planning the next exhibition.