Karen was born in 1951 in Birmingham. Whilst she was at primary school the family were living in Harborne, a working class area; then they moved to more affluent Edgebaston where she was enrolled at Edgebaston High School for Girls. Here there were detached houses with gardens and where people were often snooty and no-one voted Labour and she found the change difficult. Her parents were well to do, her father an architect and her mother a housewife. She had a happy childhood playing in the garden with her elder brother, and going on motor holidays to Europe where her father was interested in the churches and art galleries, her mother was interested in flowers and they did a lot of walking in the hills. She was more interested in climbing trees and scrambling up walls and getting dirty than in girly things. Drawing horses was a passion – “anything with horses, red indians, knights in armour and fantasy things, kings and queens, a pile of diamonds a mile high – realising I suppose that you could use those things to express ideas you can’t in other ways – nothing objective – just an urge to draw – sometimes quite nasty stuff – battles, blood and fights.”
drawing and High School
Karen’s mother pushed her to do well academically and she passed ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels well. Regarding herself as being too delayed in growing up and too closeted, she was eager to leave home. She applied to study Art History at the University of East Anglia and got in; it was her opportunity to get away. University was a huge experience, all these new people and possible friends. Life and everything took over and all the drawing stopped.
It was a good art history course and in the seminars you would discuss with people who knew what it was all about. She liked the new social life, the gender mix – disliking all-women groups since school – going for drinks and finding other interests, particularly in horses, getting up groups to go to Newmarket for the racing. The course was demanding. She said, “The basis of university is to organise your thoughts, do research, put it together and put forward a proposition – whereas I was completely lost – it was a big jump from ‘A’ level and I did not know how to go about it until the third year – when it was too late.” Disliking the anatomical dissection involved in study of the impressionists and cubists options, Karen went for the major option ‘Art of the Dark Ages’ where the research was more direct. “In Dark Ages painting you are trying to find out what the painting is about in an iconographic way, who has done it and where the influences were from,” like discovering the Scythian interlacing sketches from China that inspired the Celtic phenomenon, and finding a love of Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian Art.
Saint Martins, squatting and hard work
On leaving the university with a 2.two Karen came to London with her boyfriend. Living on the outskirts and working at the Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS) Karen started to pick up on an art career. She went to life-drawing classes at Saint Martin’s School of Art aiming to get into a full time course there, failed to get in but managed to find a place on the foundation course at Hornsey College of Art – “which was great, full of punks” – afforded by part-time jobs and money from her parents. The next year with a new portfolio, she persuaded Saint Martin’s to admit her to the ‘Sculpture A Course.’ Over her whole seven years of further education, though she did not pay course fees, Karen had no grant to live on, but was helped by her parents. At art school she lived in sixteen squats, and worked evenings. The disruption to her studies was ruinous, brought a threat of failing the course. She says she “worked harder than I have ever worked before, day and night, making a book of her experiences in the squats, of the amazing people, the places and the events with photographs, text and drawings which was presented as her finals submission – and got a 2.one degree in sculpture. “I had realised that you could achieve something from sitting down and doing work – probably the main thing I got out of Saint Martin’s. It wasn’t a fantasy, it was very real. It was because the people there were so extraordinary, the experience there was very strong – nothing like I had ever experienced before!”
In 1978 Karen joined Camden Art Workers Co-operative funded by job creation schemes, being run by Mick Jones in the borough of Camden. “We used to paint all around Camden Town using Keeps Enamel Coach Paints, a very viscous and difficult stuff. It was where I learned to paint.” Mick was a good teacher and as the group progressed round the Borough Karen became more confident and proficient, and learned the rule that on the street you have to talk to passers by. At the end of 1978 the scheme finished and she began to work with Kim Bennett, a friend from Saint Martin’s, who had also joined the project. “Kim would go for anything, nothing would ever phase her, she was great to work with.” They found short-life accommodation at Grays Inn Building, “a step up from squats – quite decent, hot water, sockets in the walls,” and spent weeks making grandiose designs for gable-end history murals at Kings Cross, followed by shop shutter murals against the redevelopment of Covent Garden, and then Dave Bangs invited them to work with him on Lisson Green playground.
Lisson Grove and regular pay
In 1980 Karen took a teacher training course at Goldsmiths, qualified and taught for a time. Working with children was a good experience but the commanding role was not, and the next year she was back at work on Lisson Grove, making sculptures and murals in Bethnal Green and murals in Kentish Town. She spent 1982 painting murals with Dave Bangs and Kim on the Martin Luther King Community Centre, funded by the Manpower Services Commission (MSC ). For the first time she enjoyed a regular wage, thirty-five pounds a week working with “Clean Up Islington” (CUI ) teams. The following year Karen was invited to run the Camden Mural team on projects around the borough. The eight members of the team were interesting, disparate and inexperienced people – difficult to manage, so Karen spent more time directing and training them than painting herself. They began with murals for the Camden Youth Centre – designing together. Many walls were completed as their skills and confidence grew – the largest being the vast train mural at “Godwin Court”, home of people who worked in the train sheds of Euston and St Pancras.
designing Somers Town
Karen’s ‘Somers Town’ mural grew out of the Camden project. “I saw this gable end 33 feet high by 50 feet wide and thought, this is too big for us to undertake as a team.” A building owned by the St Pancras Building Society (SBS) it was the perfect shape for a Diego Rivera, except “I don’t think I appreciated Diego Rivera as much then as I do now! I wanted to do something from British painting, found a book of Constable paintings and thought I will create a composition around his ‘Haywain’. Sue Crockford, who ran Camden Youth Centre said she wanted a history of famous women – “and that was a great vehicle to base it on. There was Mary Wollstonecraft and the suffragettes, the Womens’ Hospital and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and an interesting timeline. I devised a cartoon – the pond – the trees – the haywain and landscape – various references to Kentish Town and Somers Town – the Polygon where Mary lived – and Dickens – Edith Neville, Father Jellicoe and the Victorian crowd – Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe on a bridge. Many of the images were taken from famous paintings and some were portrayals of children in the school. I had great fun organising all this lot but when I applied to the GLC for money they stuck it in a drawer for a year; so I rang up and made a fuss about it, and then Conrad Atkinson got it out and really liked it, and he made the money come through at the end of 1983.”
Safety problems delayed Karen’s start until Spring 1984 and though daunted by the sheer size of the scaffolding she got the tree done. In the second year she battled through with the middle ground and in the third year pulled it all together. “It proved a lengthy endurance test for me, and was finally completed in 1986, by this time the GLC grant had long run out and I was working part-time to support myself. It was a long haul but came good. In the end I just walked away without even an opening event, and got on with other things. And then people started getting in touch and saying how much they liked it, and I realised people did really like it. It lasted ten years overlooking what was to be a nature area.”
painting the mural
In 1996 SBS bought the area to build houses on, which would cover the mural. Karen decided to repaint it and looked for help. “June Watkins who had helped me get into art school contacted Claire Tomalin – who wrote Mary Wollstonecraft’s biography – and she helped me raise the money to paint the mural again on another side of the building.” Funds were found from an astonishing number of sources – including Faberge – and Karen’s own pocket. This time she painted using the Keim system. Then finally in 2006 the building was demolished for new flats and she painted it yet again, helped by her partner Jerry Flynn and by Kim, with funding from the SBS and Camden Borough. The first version had taken three years to complete and the latter two six months each. A poster version of the mural was made for schools identifying all Karen’s historical and artistic sources.
After 1986 Karen continued painting murals including a Peace Mural with Dave Bangs, and thereafter commissions from schools and businesses. When in the 1990’s funding dried up she took up her studio painting again – which continues.