Why is it, a viewer might wonder, that the bright blue bear with a splash of gold on his face, painted by Karen Ahlgren, reveals an aspect of this animal which somehow was never noticed before? Or perhaps it is a wolf with strangely golden fur which now speaks of the canine's wild and warm consciousness that precipitates this question. The answer might lie in eyes of the wild subject Ahlgren has painted.
In contrast to many artists, Ahlgren starts with the eyes of the wild creatures she paints. "They are the most important and, if the eyes don't work, there's no point in carrying on with the painting," she says. "I want you to connect with the animal through the eyes."
Ahlgren, whose painting of a golden wolf was selected for one of this year's Taos Is Art banners, did not start out in life as either a painter or a wildlife champion, though she has had a lifelong love of animals. Growing up in suburban California, she channeled her creativity into the film industry where she worked in set lighting as a union member. "My father gave me a 35-mm Nikon," she says, and so photography became her door to the visual arts.
In high school she had loved Gauguin and Matisse and they taught her, she explains, "that you don't have to paint like a photograph to be a successful artist and have a voice. You can do anything" and do it "how you want it." Though Ahlgren had, at that time, no formal training, she found she could "actually draw." This hobby led her to watercolor and gouache. After attending the University of the Americas in Mexico, she was attracted to "brilliant colors. I want my colors to vibrate," she says. Though Ahlgren later graduated from UNM and attended Otis Parsons Institute of Design, she considers herself largely self-taught, and being self-taught, she explains, "takes longer."
When Ahlgren was out of work due to a strike in the film industry, her friends persuaded her to do a one-woman show. She did two around 1990, selling all her work at both events. She then ventured into paintings based on Guatemalan fabric designs; these did not sell. Then Ahlgren visited Taos.
She said to herself, "This is where I want to be." She and her husband, James, looked for two years before they bought property and built a straw bale house in Amalia. Always a wildlife enthusiast, she says she had always "loved bear, fox, mountain lion, and bobcat," but once moving here, she says, "now I really love them."
They moved into their semifinished home with a tarp over the door in 1996. "You learn to appreciate running water," she says. "To me it's beautiful. It's a labor of love."
"I'm painting on the dining room table and we're framing in the living room." This effort gave Ahlgren a new sense of appreciation. "My life has been so full since I moved here when I was 40."
Subsequently, Ahlgren acquired and remodeled a large studio in 2006 which has become a regular stop on the Costilla Studio Tour. She often takes her own wildlife photographs and paints from these, and her studio is filled with these bright creations.
She says, "The most important thing to me [about painting] is sitting down in front of that blank piece of paper. And you end up with something you love, in a few days or a week. They're beings to me. I walk in here and I greet everybody. They have a life and they were a white piece of paper. I think that's magic."
Explaining her process, Ahlgren says that for her there are good drawing days and bad drawing days. "The other day," she states, "I did two really good sketches, and they're ready to become beings."
"If I'm open enough and loose enough and not on a deadline, they paint themselves. The most successful ones paint themselves."
As might be expected by a painter who donates her watercolors to wildlife causes and thrills to paint wildlife, Ahlgren has encountered some interesting, synchronous experiences. For example, she took a photograph of a bald eagle at a wildlife sanctuary and she painted a portrait of this raptor. When she returned to her studio after she had completed the painting, she saw in a tree nearby what appeared to be a bald eagle. Once inside, she grabbed her binoculars and identified the white feathers on his head. The eagle stayed there for two hours, appearing to gaze into her studio, yet she had never seen an eagle there in all the years before.
Ahlgren's songbird paintings can be seen at Magpie Gallery. She can be contacted at karenahlgren.com, by email (email@example.com) and by phone (575) 779-2943.