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  • Writer's pictureShea Stanfield

Eye-Catching Detail on Nature’s Canvas

The difference between something great and something excellent is attention to detail.

Local artist Karen Friend has taken the art of perfecting details to the next level. Her designer gourds and Faberge eggs are as eye-catching as they are breathtaking in their imaginative design, abundant color, and exquisite details. Karen’s expertise in the techniques of painting, carving, pyrographs, and embellishing design opens a whole new world of visual possibilities. She refers to her studio as a living collage, full of treasures from thrift shops, yard sales, desert hikes, and random objects that wander in from various places.

Karen grew up outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She remembers receiving coloring books and sketch pads as a child; using her crayons, watercolors, tempura, tissue paper, and glue all on one page, she turned the average coloring book image into a masterful work of mixed media art. Karen says, "In middle school, my art teacher, Mr. Thomas Marr, encouraged me to continue exploring a variety of mediums and introduced me to artist competitions, which I entered and won ribbons and awards, a real inspiration for me!"

Karen began her journey into the formal study of art while attending Allegheny Community College in southwestern Pennsylvania in the 1970s, where she completed her two-year Associate's degree in Graphic Arts. Karen completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the University of Chicago, graduating in 1977. She says, "During my time in Chicago, I benefited from visits to the Art Institute of Chicago, special exhibits, and enrolling in classes and workshops offered to members.” Upon graduation, Karen entered the corporate world, using her creativity as identity branding in the sign and printing industry. Twenty-five years later, it was time for a change. In 2002, Karen and her husband Roger bought and remodeled a Bed and Breakfast in Cave Creek, launching a five-year stent in the hospitality industry. By 2007, the couple decided to reclaim their privacy and pursue other interests. After selling the B & B, they moved to New River, Arizona, where Karen found time to immerse herself back into the fine arts, this time using the objects of nature embellishing gourds and eggs.

“My excursions to gourd farms in Arizona and Southern California yield a selection of gourds with a distinct personality I use as three-dimensional canvases.”

Karen’s excursions to gourd farms in Arizona and Southern California yield a selection of gourds she uses as three-dimensional canvases. She looks for personality and possibility in her selections. The character of the shape is the first step in creating a one-of-a-kind piece that will inspire awe in its viewer. Karen initially sketches her plan on the gourd's surface with a pencil; using this basic pattern, she can develop a visual interest in the design using wood burning and carving tools. Color is added through various techniques using dyes, inks, acrylics, oils, watercolors, and colored pencils. The pop and wow factor in the design comes with the use of beadwork, stone inlay, metal conchos, seeds, bones, wood, and other natural objects to create unusual and unique textures.

Karen came to the Faberge-style eggs while working at the Cave Creek Museum. She took a class taught by co-worker Fran Hunold and fell in love with the process. Karen entered the White House Easter Egg Competition in 2008 with her piece “Monument Valley in an Egg ."Karen's Faberge egg won the privilege to represent Arizona in the White House exhibition. Subsequently, she was rewarded with a tour of the White House and a picture with First Lady Laura Bush. Karen's entry became part of the White House collection and now resides at the Bush Presidential Library. In 2009, Karen entered a Faberge egg entitled “1870 Western Street Scene" in the White House Easter Egg Competition. Once again, she was asked to represent Arizona at the White House. Her winning egg was displayed at the White House Visitor's Center in Washington DC during the Obama administration.

Today, Karen describes her process, “The gourds are progressed from an organic specimen to a work of art in my home studio in New River. I use the third bay of our garage for the dirty work of cleaning, carving, shaping, and sanding the raw gourds. Our oversized laundry room has been modified to serve as the design center where I wood-burn in the design and apply color, gold leaf, patinas, faux bead finishes, and textures." She gathers inspiration from her daily five-mile hikes through the rich flora and fauna of the northern Sonoran Desert.

Karen says, "The area is rich in color, pattern, form, and design; it's a never-ending renewal process for ideas."

Artist Karen Friend is active with the Sonoran Arts League, Southwest Gourd Association, the Arizona Gourd Society, the American Gourd Society, and the Arizona Art Alliance. Karen is a Legacy Artist at The Finer Arts Gallery in Cave Creek, Arizona, and provides instructions with a local group of gourd artists with the Maricopa County Extension Office in Phoenix, Arizona, as well as participating in artist retreats in Prescott, Arizona.


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