Juliet Karelsen- Origin Stories

My current work is a response to the Maine woods. It’s work that describes an experience of “being” in a more direct way than any art I have made in years. The parts of Maine that deeply move me visually and spiritually – the unique beauty, the stillness, the magic, the microscopic as well as vast views of varied landscapes –  inspire and encourage me to be present.

Juliet Karelsen, Ursula (head shot of my actress mother), 8″ X 10″, Needlepoint on canvas, 2016

After having been a painter for many years depicting figures (people, objects, landscapes and fantasy worlds in a broad range of styles and techniques), I took a stitching workshop at Haystack in 2015. Deer Isle is to me the most exquisite spot in Maine.

At Haystack, through stitching, I began to depict what for years on Deer Isle has blown me away – the mosses and lichen. Working with threads, floss and fiber did something to circumvent my “what I paint” brain and freed me to work with my imagination to describe what I was seeing in the forest in a way I could never have imagined. I experimented with various techniques and ideas, expanding on these first lichen pieces and then the following summer I took a second fiber workshop at Haystack that focused on sculpture. I had always felt intimidated by the concept of making anything 3D (I was a painter after all, right!?)

For the past year and a half I have been making large and small 3D sculptures of lichen-covered rocks, minerals and gems, and am now exploring further into the realm of sculpture.

Juliet Karelsen, White Rock, 30″x 24″x 12″
Paper, wool, thread, embroidery floss, wool fiber on felt stuffed with fiber fill and dried lentils,
2016


A new start. Although of course not brand new. All my years of painting inform my stitching. I couldn’t do one without the other.

My grandparents, my mother (age three) and her younger brother (my uncle) made a new start in America after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1935. My maternal Grandfather (Hans Levi) was Jewish and my grandmother Bridget Marqvart was not (although she later converted). My grandfather was studying to become a doctor and being inexplicably turned down for residences. My grandmother had two older brothers and one was in the Nazi party, quite high up, Goring’s right hand man, to be precise. He advised my grandparents to leave Germany immediately. They tried to convince my grandfather’s mother to join them and go to America but she refused, choosing instead to remain, in a small town close to Stuttgart called Muensignen, where she lived and where my grandfather had grown up. She eventually went into hiding in Muensingen where a young girl from the town brought her provisions. In return, with heartfelt gratitude, my great grandmother bestowed upon this girl items of her clothing, jewelry, cutlery and other valuable objects.

Eventually my great grandmother was discovered and then, like thousands of others, was killed at the concentration camp Theresienstadt. Meanwhile my grandparents and their two young children safely made it across the seas and eventually settled in Lindenhurst, Long Island where my grandfather developed a thriving practice as a GP doctor, and where my grandmother (despite having had her dreams dashed about going to art school in Germany) became a successful commercial artist.

Fast forward seventy years to 2005. My mother received a letter from a woman in Germany saying:

“I have been looking for you for many years. I was the little girl (now elderly lady) who brought your grandmother provisions while she was in isolation. We are having a museum exhibition in the town of Laupheim which commemorates the victims of the Holocaust and we are displaying some of the items your great grandmother gave to me. We hope you can attend the reception.”

Juliet Karelsen, Clown Figurine, 12 x 12 Gouache on paper, 2014

My mother and brother were thrilled, went to the reception and had an incredibly rich, moving and welcoming experience in the town that had turned our family away.

Two years later my mother, daughter (then seven years old) and I went back to Muensignen. We visited our new friends, the old house where my grandfather had grown up, the graveyard where my great grandmother had a stone, the museum at Laupheim, as well as art museums in Munich. It was beyond memorable and meaningful and felt like a timely gift to be with my mother and young daughter visiting our family history. Two weeks after we returned to the states my mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died two months later. We all marveled at the timing of our trip. Some of her ashes are buried in a plot in the small and charming cemetery in Muensignen and the young girl (now elderly lady) is to this day the one who tends my mother’s grave.

Several years before attending graduate school at The Art Institute of Chicago, I began painting psychological self- portraits. This was the focus of my work for many years and saw me through my graduate studies, pregnancy, post pregnancy and more.

Juliet Karelsen, Pill Bottle
7″ sampler hoop, Embroidery floss on linen
2016

The work I made during 2013-2015 (before beginning my lichens and mosses) is entitled “The Apartment.” It is the work that most directly connects to my family and where we come from. Symbolic and metaphorical, the work represents my grappling with the loss of the apartment I called home for fifty years. I grew up in this apartment in New York City’s Upper West Side and remained connected to it throughout my adulthood, the early years of my daughter’s visits there, through my mother’s death and then through my elderly father’s life until he died in 2013.

I loved the apartment tremendously and was very attached to it and when it came time to clear it out to sell, I took on the job. My sister was living in Los Angeles with young children and it was difficult for her to get to NYC, but truth be told, I wanted to lay my hands on every item there.

Juliet Karelsen, My Father Dead (from The Sympathy Series),
7″X5″, Gouache on paper, 2013

As I sorted through things, the baby shoes, the pots and pans and plates and cutlery and silver and vases and tea sets, the broken blenders, the whisks and wooden spoons, the books and LPs, the once white now yellow linen tablecloths that belonged to my grandmother from Germany, the porcelain figurines, the paintings, the sheets and towels, the photo albums, the black socks my father wore when he worked as a lawyer, the old toothbrushes and pill bottles and unused Depends, the sweat pants and red fleece jackets my father wore the last few of his eighty six years, the candles, the hammers and screwdrivers, the saved toys for the grandchildren, the art projects my sister and I made as kids, the “important” papers and old bills, my dad’s framed diplomas and NYC Law BAR certification, my old diaries, my mother’s journals and stories she had written for her writing class at The New School, the saved newspaper clippings and black and white head shot photos of my mother as an actress, the Christmas ornaments and VCR tapes and on and on and on and on.

I took note of the items that resonated with me and either kept them, or took a photo of them. The pieces in the body of work entitled The Apartment are responses to these objects using various mediums. It was a powerful body of work for me to make and it truly helped me to let go.

Juliet Karelsen, My Father’s Custom Fitted Tennis Racquet, 20″x33″
Acrylic on canvas, 2015


Maybe it even allowed me the psychic space to make a new start with stitching, with making work that has no blatant psychological content, that is about translating what I see and experience when I go into the woods, that often doesn’t have a plan when I start out. As my teacher from Haystack said “You either make a picture, or you make a field.” After making pictures all my life as a painter, with fiber I am making fields. I am sure I will return to making pictures at some point, but for now I am enjoying being in the fields and forests.

Juliet Karelsen, Grass
2.5″ x4.5″, Thread on painted linen, 2015



There are many things I love about Maine – the woods, the coasts, the mountains, the wildlife, the small towns, a certain scruffiness in the landscape (that you don’t see in Vermont for example and is a different kind of scruffiness from the kind in NH), the resourcefulness of Mainers and their ability to understand irony (I have found, living in various states in America, that not everyone does!).

Juliet Karelsen, Gray Rock,
30″x24″x24″, Wool fiber, thread and embroidery floss on felt stuffed with fiber fill and dried lentils, 2016

I have been here on and off (mostly on) for twenty seven years and yet I sometimes still feel like an outsider. From away. It may be that I am one of those people who always feels a bit out of place no matter where I am. I think the combination of my NYC roots (my father’s side of the family is fifth generation from New York City and my father, grandfather and great grandfather attended the same school I did and my great great grandfather helped start it).  My maternal European ancestry, and the Jewish culture that surrounded me growing up have all contributed to a feeling that I am different from most Mainers – at least in Farmington where I live most of the time.

The Sandy River Players (the community theater group in Farmington) put on The Sound of Music a few years back. My daughter played one of the Von Trapp children and I played a nun. A dream come true as I had been (like many) obsessed with the movie for my entire life. Besides the wonderfulness of playing a nun, I also had the amazing opportunity to paint a 14′ x15′ backdrop painting for the show. I made a translation of an Oskar Kokoshcka painting that depicts a mountain, the sun partially hidden by clouds, and heavenly rays of light that stream down onto the dramatic landscape. It fit the spirit of the play – hopeful, spiritual, inspiring and grand. Like the Von Trapps and my own family, Kokoschka fled Nazi Germany and escaped to a safe land. While sitting with my fellow cast members in rehearsal I started to wonder whether there was anyone else sitting there (besides my daughter) who had a familial connection to the Holocaust and thus to the story of the Sound of Music. No one did. I ended up telling my story to the cast who were very appreciative and responsive.

Later that same year I had a show at The Jewish Museum in Portland, another experience that allowed me to connect with my roots but this time within a larger community with shared histories. 

Although at times I do feel like an outsider living in Maine, I also find a deep connection to those around me who treasure the beauty and quality of life (the way it should be!) that a place with fewer people, fewer strip malls and less corporate contamination offers. I knew even as a child growing up in New York City that I didn’t want to live in the city.

Juliet Karelsen, Gems, (clockwise from lower left: Turmaline, Rose Quartz crystal point, Rose Quartz, Jet, Amber, Emerald, Amethyst),
Varying sizes (fit in the palm of your hand),
Embroidery floss on felt filled with dried lentils, 2017

I remember a summer when I was about eight years old and my family had rented a house on Cape Cod. I would go out into the scrub oak forests and find trees whose trunks had hollowed out and fill them with moss carpets and acorn bowls and construct miniature worlds made of sticks and pine cones and whatever I could find. I was alone there in a way that I was never permitted to be alone as a child in the parks of New York City.

And I remember feeling how I was so NOT alone while there in the woods. That there was a kind of company, a silent, greater company that was with me. I encounter that company daily in the forests and on the coasts of Maine.