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Karen Karnes, 1925-2016

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We've lost another icon.  I didn't realize that Karen Karnes had passed away until I read the following tribute from Ann Bailey (of Bailey Ceramic Supply) earlier today.


Karen Karnes

1925 - 2016


Karen Karnes left this world last week after a long and prolific career as a clay artist. She was 91 years old. Known early on for her functional casseroles, cups, and jars, she was later admired for pushing the boundaries of function to explore the realm of clay as sculpture. Although referencing function in her later work, she was clearly stretching her expression in clay to speak metaphorically about the human form and human emotions. These intimate and very personal pieces reference the male and female form; they are works that lean in and caress each other like lovers, like old friends. 


Karen was a major influence in the studio pottery movement in America. A force to be reckoned with, Karen was a very influential person in my young life when I was an aspiring salt potter. Known for mentoring young potters struggling to make a living, she offered me her spot to show my work (12 place settings) at the Whitehouse in the 70s during the Carter administration. "I don't make dinnerware; why don't you do it!" she said. I was all of 23 years old. I'll never forget it. Needless to say, my life as a potter flourished from there. I participated with her and a small band of potters in The Old Church Cultural Center Shows for many years and made many friends. We'd always go to Mikhail Zakin's house for a pot-luck dinner. It was fun, and we all felt sheltered and encouraged by Karen's big spirit. Sadly, many of those friends are no longer with us.


Never afraid to speak her mind, Karen was very disappointed that I didn't continue making pots. She wrote to me often to try to get me back into the studio. Life can be complicated as she came to understand. We had many great conversations back in those years. Conversations I will never forget.



Karen helped so many young potters throughout her life. She presented a viable pathway for all of us to consider. Always a determined and very independent person, she pushed hard and worked hard to be recognized and respected as a clay artist. And she was. Many strong bonds were made around her commitment to inspire and educate the world about beautiful, well-made work.


Karen was an artist and a mentor and friend to many. She will be missed by everyone who knew her. I feel lucky to have had time with her during my life. Our deepest sympathies go out to her lifelong friend, Ann Stannard, and their many friends and family members around the globe. We have lost a great one.


-Anne Bailey


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though i never met this fine person, i was dumbstruck when i encountered a PILE of her work on the floor in a department store in virginia.  they were incredible, i had never actually touched such alive pots.  i sat on the floor and picked up one after another, caressing the surfaces and feeling the weight of these big spherical pots. with lids that fit and finished off the pots beautifully.  perfect.


i am sure i was looked at strangely by people walking past as i sat surrounded by these pots, but i just pitied the people who only saw pottery, not poetry.

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