The Outsiders

The woman who turned her house into a canvas, and other stories from the far fringes of the visual-art scene

The artist Karen Kasel has an odd look on her face as she stands to greet me at her door of her St. Paul apartment-cum-studio. There's a nervousness to the brow, a peevishness to the mouth: It is the look of a child visiting a department-store Santa Claus, wanting to be hopeful but feeling the first blush of cynicism instead.

She invites me inside the sunny space and points tentatively to three paintings set up on the floor between two languid cats and various unpacked boxes. They are medium-sized canvases of scratchy, pastel lines and small squares floating in an atmospheric chalky color. "I don't know exactly what you want to see," she says. "These are my most recent works."

Artist's workshop: Shawn Holster in his studio
Daniel Corrigan
Artist's workshop: Shawn Holster in his studio

In her early 30s, Kasel is fit and tanned; her hair is brown, bobbed, and flies loose; she wears jeans and a T-shirt, and has bare feet. She describes having just moved from Minneapolis to this location on Summit Avenue, across the street from the house where F. Scott Fitzgerald lived while writing his wildly successful first novel, This Side of Paradise. Soon, she says, she will be pursuing her own artistic dreams at the next level--that is, as an undergraduate at the College of Visual Arts just down the street. Yet none of this is why I want to see her paintings.

In fact, her enrollment in art school will necessarily dampen my interest in her work. For it is the 11 years of painting she has done prior to now that interest me--an era during which she scratched out a living waiting tables and meanwhile tried to become an artist on her own, without formal instruction, without much sense of how to proceed, without any contacts at all in any art community. In fact, the pre-university Kasel is an interesting breed of artist: one who has taught herself the vagaries of manipulating pigment on canvas, who is beholden to no preconceived standards, movements, or lingo, and who stands firmly outside the artistic mainstream. And now, frustrated and seeking something more, Kasel is poised to drop the "outsider" label she has embraced for the past decade for a college art education, and the slight hope that there might be a payoff someday.

"I feel like I've finally come to a place where I think my work is good," she says, her voice conflicted. "Going back to school...I don't know where it's all going to go, but I'm a little bit afraid of losing my freedom."

The best name for an artist like Kasel is "self-taught artist." Sometimes you will hear the terms "outsider artist" and "visionary artist" applied to her kind. But each of these names tends to connote a certain value judgment on the person, whether true or not, placing them on the fringes ("outsider") or in the clouds ("visionary"). People tend to associate outsider work with folk-art traditions, or with the labels "naive" or "primitive." The truth is that self-taught artists represent a wide variety of styles, media, imagery, and the like, and as such belong in their own group.

Artificial as the distinction may seem, particularly in the modern age when art is all but assumed to be about free expression, the self-taught artist is one who has made the decision to practice a discipline without having come in contact with any formal art education system. There are reasons that potential artists may not be able to attend school: They may not have fit into a traditional arts program because of their personality; they may have been trained in a similar or unrelated field, such as a craft or industrial art, or law or hog farming perhaps, but somehow began to fancy themselves as Artists-with-a-capital-A; or they may simply not have had the wherewithal--mental, emotional, financial--to become an artist any other way.

As we sit and talk about her work, Kasel begins to warm to her subject. She pulls older, less slick work from the back room: loosely rendered watercolors of nude women, small framed acrylic landscapes, various portraits of women in atmospheric settings. She even suggests that she would welcome an honest appraisal from "someone like me." I smile at her and tell her, No problem (much as I am unnerved when put on the spot in this way and feel inadequate to the task), and I struggle to find some way to reassure her, without sounding condescending, that I take her work as seriously as the work of any other artist.

So how to begin critiquing Karen Kasel's work? By ordinary standards, it seems incomplete, lacking certain professional touches. The figures, while not attractive in any traditional way--often bald, almost otherworldly--float like totems in the sky or seem to meld into the space around them, perhaps a crude white moon over a shoulder, or a bright swath of purple. The canvases evidence a lack of understanding of painterly technique. Her pictures are composed of flat areas of colors that add little realism or complexity to the images. This is not to diminish their power. Think of, for instance, the difference between the grainy photographs in a daily newspaper and the glossy, high-resolution photos in a high-fashion magazine. While the daily newspaper photos cannot compete with glossy magazine photos in terms of rich visual detail, the newspaper photos nonetheless can achieve a more immediate impact--these are important events that demand our attention in a way that a well-lit, baby-oiled model does not.

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