There’s a lot going on in the paintings of Tampa Bay artist Karen Tucker Kuykendall. “Outrageous Expectation,” one of the first artworks that visitors to the Boca Raton Museum of Art will see in the “All Florida” show, is elaborate and endlessly detailed, practically bounding from the canvas. Scrabble tiles shower over a cartoon family as it lunges after a gingerbread man. Humpty Dumpty is about to topple into a waterfall as a bass attempts to evade hungry gator. Plant life sprouts around distant buildings and signposts. Nine white starbursts overlay it all, suggesting both flashbulbs and snowflakes – the latter being ironic, given that Tucker’s paintings are imbued with the flora, fauna and humid atmosphere of her home state.
The piece is part of Kuykendall’s “Poetry” series, one of five collections available for view on her website (karenkuykendall.com). The series share the dazzling density of “Outrageous Expectation,” which is the result of a painstaking process:
“I totally complete the composition before I begin to draw or paint anything onto the canvas. I use photographs, and parts of photographs, which I take and find. I move them around and add and erase on Photoshop before I begin putting it down. When the composition is complete, except for the color and values, I draw it onto the canvas with pencil. I put in as much detail as I can. Then I do an underpainting, which is really a complete painting but not of the consistency of paint that I like, and the values and colors are not complete. But all the images are on it. I start painting at the top left and work my way down to the bottom right. Then I do the painting. That would be the third time around. I get the paint the consistency that I like, which is fairly smooth and opaque. I change colors and create areas of darks and lights – those kinds of things. This is my favorite part of the painting. Because, if I have done a good job on the drawing and underpainting, I do not have to really think. It is very intuitive, and I can paint for hours without realizing it.”
Kuykendall has said in our bio that “my paintings are cluttered and busy and frantic and loud … as is my life.” A Fine Arts graduate of Florida State University, Kuykendall has pieces in more than a dozen corporate collections and has been exhibited throughout Florida and beyond since 1980 – except for a 12-year stint from 1993 to 2005, in which she put her career on hiatus to raise her children.
Florida plays a big part in your work; you even have a series about the state. How does Florida influence your art, or vice versa?
Well, I am a Florida girl. I was born here, my boys were born here and so was my father, and actually my family is from the Hillsborough County area of central Florida from the beginning of the 1800s. And I think that is quite an attachment. I love to travel and visit other places and see other types of landscape, but none feel as comfortable to me as Florida landscape qualities. The light and the colors of Florida are important to me as well, and I think that is obvious in my paintings. Like writing what you know, I paint what I know, and that makes me happy.
Children’s games and pop-culture iconography from another time seem to play a large part in the Poetry Series, including “Outrageous Expectation.” Is there a degree of nostalgia in their creation?
Well, I don’t like to call it nostalgia because that sounds so shallow. But I guess it sort of is. But I think that these images – some disturbing, some fun, some just because I remember them or something about them – are just part of my story ... my life. So I use them. I can usually tell you why I thought of an image … how it relates to my life, etc. But truly, I just like the appearance of it and the fact that I relate to it is comfortable and nice for me, but not necessary to the painting.
The idea behind the Me and My Friends series, of painting clothing with its human wearers removed, is very inspired. Can you speak to how that idea came about?
Obvious symbolism. Those paintings were quite a while ago. These paintings were about relationships – friends and such. I like the movement or feel of fabric. And I like the idea that if you see a piece of clothing on the floor or just lying on a piece of furniture, it takes on its own personality. It can remind you of a real person. It seems to be alive. And if it is specific clothing, it can remind me of a certain person. Or it can represent that person. I like the idea that clothes represent specific people.
What was it like for you to take a 12-year break from painting, and how easy or challenging was it for you to jump back in the saddle in 2005?
It has been very challenging. Everything changed. Technology … how you enter shows… how you let people know about your work, websites, digital images. I also changed the way I put my compositions together. Before, I took pictures and came up with ideas the same way, but I actually cut, with real scissors, the images out of the photos. And when I wanted to make things larger or smaller, I had to estimate and then have enlargements made of the photos, and then cut again. I glued them down to the surface. Now it is easier, and because there are so many more options it actually becomes harder – too many choices. But oh so very much more fun.
Also though, I never really quit. I always painted, just not full-time. And I did not show my work. I have one painting – we call it the 12-year painting. I started it before I took my break, and it remained on the wall of my studio for that whole time, and I would work on it every once in a while. My sons actually took over my studio little by little. It became the computer room and the project room. But the painting hung on the wall all that time. One of them actually wrote a college entrance essay about it.