Room to breathe.
That about sums up how local visual artist Karena Ness describes her home state of North Dakota.
“Growing up in North Dakota you have this vast open space and everything is delineated so clearly, and even the horizon line is very dominant,” she said. “My mom grew up in North Carolina and we’d spend two weeks there in the summer. I always had a vivid memory of flying into the Midwest and everything would start to pan out and everything just made more sense. It was home.”
Those same dominating spaces are evident in Ness’s work where she examines environmental boundaries, both real and imagined.
Ness was awarded a $2,100 Individual Arts Partnership grant to attend workshops on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in June 2023 where she learned about layering monotypes, a process she intends to use in a series of aerial plot maps and photos of North Dakota homesteads. Her hope is the works will “shift and expose past boundaries,” a common theme in much of her work.
“When I look at my paintings, I really want to create my own environment that’s influenced by where I grew up,” Ness said.
Her dad, a retired farmer, used to plot wayfinding maps that showed who and what and where people’s boundaries were.
“I guess with this idea of environment in my paintings, there was a simplicity of the landscape, so I like to explore this imaginary space. Then when I look at my paintings, I see myself creating this layered space for myself to travel in and explore. And often, a horizon comes into play.”
“Untitled,” 2023, encaustic and monotype. 12″x12″. This piece, a result of workshops Ness attended as part of her TAP IAP grant funding, includes monotypes created on rice paper that offer a new method of embedding imagery and creating translucency within the layers of wax.
Ness works in a variety of visual mediums, including encaustics, a time-consuming type of painting layering that uses pigmented hot wax and results in more realistic images. She also practices mixed media and collage, drawings and prints.
Known as Mrs. Bergin to her art class students at Community High School in Grand Forks, Ness is a Finley-Sharon native who returned to the area in 2018 after spending several years in New England and Savannah, Georgia. She currently lives in Grand Forks with her two daughters.
“I’ve always been painting,” Ness said. She recalls anticipating the days when her mom would pull out the paints and brushes from where she hid them above the stove. “That was always special.”
Ness attended graduate school in painting, but it wasn’t until a semester abroad in France that she really understood her purpose as a mixed media visual artist.
“My art materials didn’t travel with me. I became resourceful and used less. I didn’t have my oil paint, so I was using stains and charcoal and coffee and wine and papers. That’s really when I had a sense and feel for what I wanted to do,” Ness said.
Since that trip, she “lets the paint be paint” and relies more on finding a balance between responding to the materials and controlling the process.
“Paint is very reactive to what you’re surrounding it with as well. The way it interacts with its space and with what’s layered on underneath, I respond to that more than I control it,” Ness said.
“Reverie,” 2016, acrylic and oil on canvas, 38″ x 40″.
Her encaustics and mixed media projects are particularly resonant with layers of ideas, memories and imagination. Encaustic, in particular, has opened up a world of possibilities for her by giving her the chance to cut, layer, block out and embed drawings on top of each other to make a dramatic visual story.
“One thing I like to do is explore new ways materials interact. Collaging, tearing away a piece to expose what’s beneath it is really exciting for me to deconstruct something that you’ve created. The more things you put on top makes it more precious and tearing it back to where it began is exciting when it works,” Ness said.
Birds also appear prominently in Ness’s work, an element she considers more “fleeting” than intentional.
“The birds that appear in the work just feel like they have a presence there. I find elements of a wing or a brush stroke that implies a wing or sharp edge that implies a beak, and it feels fitting because those birds are fleeting,” she said. “I’m not trying to paint the bluejay. It’s more of the essence of the bird.”
Ness is also exploring eco-printing so she can marry her two passions: gardening and painting.
“To think that I could create papers and fabrics that have the imprint of the botanical world into my collage, that’s exciting. I’d like to merge those two areas of my life into my painting,” she said.
Like many visual artists working in more abstract realms, Ness relies on her intuition to tell her when a piece is finished.
“With a student, I tell them they should have an aha moment. I have those same aha moments in my own work when something resonates well. Those are small, rewarding moments,” she said.
For her, though, Ness’s best moments come when she creates something that resonates in someone else. “Just to know that your aesthetic resonates with someone else and appreciates beauty in that sense. I think people try to find connections with each other all the time, and when you find that connection with someone artistically that means a lot,” she said.
Ness is open to commission work and encourages people to reach out to her on her website, https://www.karenajness.com/.
For more information about The Arts Partnership’s Individual Arts Partnership grants, visit https://www.theartspartnership.net/arts-hub/grants-and-funding/.
About the author
Lonna Whiting is an independent journalist and frequent contributor to The Arts Partnership communications program. She covers a broad range of topics, including local arts, health care, senior living, startups, technology and education. Whiting also writes extensively about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease for journals and publications such as Being Patient, an award-winning global news forum for dementia researchers, physicians, patients and their care partners. Read more of Whiting’s work at lonna.co.