Karen Turner has become an artist during the pandemic – almost by accident. Here she explains how her figure painting isn’t just about celebrating flesh – it’s about fat liberation
I’ve had a good career in the media intelligence industry for the past 20-odd years, and though I’ve worked hard at that, none of it has been by design. I’ve just always been in the right place at the right time in terms of the opportunities that have presented themselves. Even my recent transition to becoming an artist was an accident of the pandemic, although now that’s come about, I’m determined to shape what happens next, and not just leave the next stages of my art career to fate.
I’ve always thought I was just born an artist – albeit one who, for over 20 years, wasn’t producing any art! I started drawing at an early age, and it was always the thing that I was better at than anything else. The problem was, despite having been lucky enough to do my A-levels at Hampstead Fine Arts, the overall message from everyone I met was that art isn’t a sustainable career and you’re best off keeping it as a hobby. So, after school I didn’t bother applying to study art at university, I just went out and got a job in a completely different industry.
At the start of the pandemic everything was entirely different for me, in that I wasn’t a practising artist at all. I was working remotely already, for a company in London that I’ve been with for nearly 20 years and living in Eye in Suffolk. Working took up the bulk of the week and Eye’s a sociable place so it didn’t take much to fill up the weekends. I’d always thought I’d return to art at some point in my life, and so the pandemic offered the obvious opportunity, given that evenings and weekends were suddenly empty. What I didn’t anticipate though was how seriously I’d end up taking it. I still have the day job but it’s flexible so I’m able to paint every day, and things are going so well that I’m hopeful of one day being able to move to art full time. It might take a few years to reach that point, but I’m going to do everything possible to make it happen.
It was the Portraits for NHS Heroes initiative that really started everything for me. I heard about it on the news and loved the idea of getting involved – partly because it was an incentive to start creating again, and partly because I’ve spent a lot of time in NHS hospitals over the years (I’ve got Crohn’s disease and spent a year in a wheelchair nearly 20 years ago after a serious road accident) so the idea of producing something for an NHS worker really appealed. Everyone who produced a portrait was invited to have it included in a huge online exhibition, and from that Tom Croft, who started the initiative, selected a few hundred to be included in the Bloomsbury book. To be part of the initiative, though, you had to be on Instagram, and so that’s the reason I created an account in the first place. Without that account I might still be sketching away in a quiet room, not showing any of my work to anybody!
Figure painting was what I really loved to do back in college, but when I returned to art in 2020, I was drawing faces. Initially that was just to get my hand back in, but then I couldn’t quite find the courage to get the paints back out. I knew what I wanted to paint and how I wanted to paint it but didn’t think I had the skills to live up to that, and so just kept putting it off. Thankfully I got over my fears in April of 2021, and I’ve been painting figures ever since.
It’s hugely important to depict women of all shapes and sizes. Back in college all our life models were young and slim, so when I painted at home, I’d look for images in magazines of larger women as I found them more interesting. Now of course it’s much easier to find models online to work with, so it just made sense to seek out models with shapes that really appealed to me. And aside from the fact that I love painting fleshy bodies, I also think the art world is so full of the ‘ideal’ body shape that we should be countering that with paintings of real bodies. As much as it’s sometimes said that the fuller figure used to be seen in paintings more frequently a few hundred years ago, I’d argue that the women painted by the likes of Rubens weren’t really any bigger than a little plump.
And more recent depictions by Lucian Freud and Jenny Saville – amazing paintings though they are – feel to me to be bordering on the grotesque. What I want to do is celebrate flesh, and to portray it with sensitivity. The overall message is more than body positivity (which encourages us to love our bodies no matter what they look like), it’s fat liberation (which is much more powerful and goes beyond messages about positivity and instead looks to actively combat the discrimination of fat people).
2021 was beyond my wildest dreams in terms of recognition for my work. In January of 2021 I hadn’t painted in over 20 years and was too nervous to give it another go, but by December I’d not only produced a body of work that I’m really proud of but I’d won the President’s Prize from The Institute of East Anglian Artists, a finalist’s place from The Holly Bush Emerging Woman Painter’s Prize and a shortlisting from the Women United Art Prize.
I was included in several publications including Art Seen from The Curator’s Salon and All She Makes Magazine, selected for a variety of online exhibitions, and in December my paintings made their first physical public appearance at Art Fair East in Norwich. I think the icing on the cake was being selected for The Other Art Fair in London, which is coming up in March 2022. It’s a well-respected art fair and not easy to get into – I’d put it on my wish list for a couple of years down the line, so I was thrilled to smash that goal so soon!
In 2022 I want to try to make the most of the world opening a little and get my work into as many physical places as possible. 2021 was brilliant for making the most of online exposure, but this year I want to widen my audience as much as possible by venturing further out into the real world.
I’ve started the year quietly in the studio trying to produce as much as possible, because in March I’m exhibiting in two places at once. Between the 17th and 20th March I’ll be at The Other Art Fair at the Truman Brewery near Brick Lane in London, and between March 11th and May 2nd about 10-12 of my paintings will be showing at Masham Gallery in North Yorkshire. I’ll also be at Lauderdale House in London in June as part of The Holly Bush Painting Prize Exhibition, with the painting that made the finals last year. I’m hoping to be a part of Suffolk Open Studios in June, and I’ll be at Art Fair East again in Norwich in December. That’s what the calendar’s looking like now anyway – the intention is to fill it up even more!
Featured image picture credit: Phil Turner