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Willa Cather Foundation - Red Cloud Nebraska (NE)

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Artist Karen Vierneisel: “I must find my own way and trust my own eye.”

Artist Karen Vierneisel: “I must find my own way and trust my own eye.”

Karen Vierneisel
Wednesday, May 19, 2021

We recently spoke with Chicago-based artist, Karen Vierneisel, whose exhibit Memories in Light and Shadow — Paintings Inspired by the Art and Life of Willa Cather is showing at the Red Cloud Opera House Gallery through June 30 and will be featured in our 66th annual Willa Cather Spring Conference in June. Karen will be in Red Cloud during Spring Conference and will be presenting a pre-recorded virtual gallery talk at 1:00 p.m. on June 5.

The paintings in this exhibit are for sale and you can view the exhibit virtually HERE. We also have select prints available for purchase. Contact our program associate, Alise Perault, at for additional information.

What is your favorite work (or works) from your exhibit and why?

I have two favorites: Song of the Lark and Golden Goddess. The former required considerable research once it occurred to me that the Art Institute of Chicago would have looked different in the 1890s than it does now. Working with the museum’s institutional archivist, I developed a completely different sketch for the painting than I had originally envisioned. The colors are so rich and the Tiffany skylight, though painstaking while I was painting it, provides the light necessary to make the painting work. Painting the various pieces that hung on the wall in the exhibit that Cather saw was such fun. I used a palette knife and created loose, abstract images with the colors from the paintings I learned had been in the exhibit Cather saw. Golden Goddess was a challenge. I used a model for the nude; I posed her in a sunlit window facing west and took many photos of her moving rhythmically as Cather described in “Coming, Aphrodite!” Then I had to figure out how to place the figure in my painting of the boarding house room that Eden Bower rented in Greenwich Village. I enjoyed creating the cityscape of New York which Eden sees through her apartment window when she is exercising. The golden shower that envelopes her posed the most difficulty. Once I let go of a preconceived notion of what Cather meant by “a lake of gold” at her feet, everything in the painting fell into place.

What inspired your art in general and how do you like to work?

I prefer working in my small home studio, and I do use my own photographs. I paint en plein air because I learn about light and it forces me to simplify. But I hate the elements — too hot, too windy, too buggy. I admire en plein air painters, but have never finished a piece that I consider worthy while working outside. I always have to work on it or use it as a study.

What led you to painting? Were you a natural before any formal training?

People are curious about an artist’s process and inspirations, and what motivates them. My journey as a painter began as a young child in Chicago when my art teacher in elementary school took my class into the neighborhood. Sketching the nearby factory was my first experience of seeing line and light. It shaped my interest in the urban scene. Other interests dominated my attention in mid-life. But in retirement, I decided to become serious about painting. It’s been thirteen years since I started in earnest, and I’ve taken lots of workshops and now work with a group of artists in Chicago.

Elaborating upon that, what was your specific process and inspiration for your Willa Cather-related exhibit?

In September of 2017, I read Alex Ross's "A Walk in Willa Cather's Prairie" in The New Yorker. I had always thought the images in Cather's fiction evocative and mused about painting some of them when I reread her novels. Ross's article was the impetus for this project.

What brought you to Willa Cather and what was the first book of hers that you read? Any favorites?

In 1970, my path diverged from the dream of being a writer to being a professor. Looking back, I see I was choosing my head over my heart. I began work on a PhD in English Literature at the University of Chicago. Early on, I found James E. Miller, Jr., professor of English, a teacher whose broad interest in interpretation appealed to me. I was searching for a dissertation adviser and a topic and Jim seemed a good fit. I read Djuna Barnes and Anaïs Nin in my spare time and researched literary lesbians. I thought one of them might be suitable as a dissertation topic. Jim suggested I read Willa Cather and, at the time, I was unfamiliar with her work. But once I began to read her, I was hooked. The more I immersed myself in her novels and short stories and read about her life, the more fascinated I became with her strong women characters, portrayal of women artists, and her elegiac sense of life. The first work I read was My Ántonia and the line about the “. . . precious, incommunicable past” grabbed me by the throat.

What led you to the specific images that represent specific works or moments from Willa Cather’s life and art in this exhibit?

The descriptive power of an image. The colors. The pathos and juxtaposition of the vast prairie set against the bodies of young lovers. The struggle of artists.

Have you been to Nebraska or the Great Plains before?

I was last in Red Cloud and Lincoln in August 1974 while working on my dissertation and reading Cather’s letters, which at that time could not be quoted. I look forward to seeing the restored prairie, the Red Cloud Opera House, and the Willa Cather Childhood Home.

What is your biggest takeaway from this exhibit and your artistic process for it?

The process of creating paintings inspired by Cather's fiction has taught me many lessons. The most important one is about analysis and the moment. It is an idea shared by Cather and one of her favorite divas, Lillian Nordica. In a review of Wagner's Lohengrin and Die Walküre in the Lincoln Courier, June 10, 1899, Cather notes that she was talking with Mme. Nordica about Elsa's character, when the diva impulsively interrupted: "Yes, . . . that is all in Wagner, that too much analysis destroys; that, and the opportunity of the moment . . . for mortals there is only the moment. . . ." I had asked my artist friends to comment on some of my paintings in progress and I discovered that too much analysis sapped my joy in painting. In one instance, the analysis actually weakened the final painting because I lost the moment. I now know I must find my own way and trust my own eye.