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Culture Maker: Karen Azarnia

Karen Azarnia is a Chicago-based painter, curator and culture maker. She has taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and ran the Riverside Art Center’s Freeark Gallery for several years. Her accolades include being the recipient of the Illinois Individual Artist Grant and the CAAP Grant from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs + IL Arts Council. She is in my mind a total badass, though her demeanor and poise is that of a truly graceful creature. Karen is a supporter of the arts in many ways and a champion for other female artists through her work as a curator, juror and educator. She is the mom of one majorly cute little boy and lives in a cute bungalow in Forest Park, IL.

Karen and I were in a show together about 3 years ago called Graft, at Comfort Station in Logan Square. We had both recently had babies; our sons are one month apart, and it was cosmically aligned that the show was about motherhood and female artist identity. I knew of her work for some time, since she graduated from the painting department the year I started the Post-Baccalaureate certificate program at SAIC. We have a lot of mutual friends and she started a successful exhibition record right after graduating with her MFA. It’s no wonder I follow her work. Her paintings are dreamy and soft, subtly illustrating the human condition with moments of dark and moments of light. They are moody and earnest and I can stare at them for days and always see something new. I included her work in the powder room install at the Lake Forest Showhouse, as you may remember, from visiting or seeing the posts on Instagram. I am now the lucky owner of the blue piece in this photo.

Lake Forest Showhouse (photo by Dustin Halleck), “Heart On My Sleeve”, 2017, 24″ x 20″, Oil and acrylic on canvas.

This is why I chose Karen as the first artist in a series of posts I’ll be doing called Culture Maker. The following interview is a series of questions I asked her because I really wanted to pick her brain and see what makes her tick.

EMC: How did you get to here?

KA: While I have many interests, I was born a maker. Early on I developed a keen sense of observation of the world around me and loved world-making, so it was a natural step to become an artist. After attending the Rhode Island School of Design for my undergraduate work, I worked as a graphic designer for an educational company. All the while still painting, I ultimately pursued an MFA at SAIC to hone my painting practice and teaching skills. I currently exhibit my work, curate exhibitions, and am a Lecturer in the Painting and Drawing Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

EMC: What advice do you have for other female artists/makers?

KA: Follow your passion. Find your voice and stay true to it. Especially in the creative field, there are many different paths to achieve your goal, and no two are the same. Find the one that’s right for you and work hard. Say “yes” as often as possible. Embrace the unexpected. Drown out the naysayers. Be generous and help fellow creatives. Above all, take time to celebrate milestones and enjoy the journey.

EMC: What drives you/motivates you?

A love for making and culture. A love for expression of our shared humanity. Small gestures of intimacy between people. Light fragments abstracted through hazy panes of glass. My family, husband, and son. Especially my son, as I want to provide a strong role model for him, and to teach him empathy. My amazing students, who continue to inspire. Poetry by Neruda.

EMC: I love Pablo Neruda. His work has always resonated with me for embracing the insignificant. What do you love about his poetry?

KA: His imagery is incredibly rich, through a lens of unconventional beauty. There’s an honesty to his work that speaks directly to the human condition – including love, longing and loss. I especially love his descriptions of landscape, and have often considered making a whole series of paintings based on that alone.

EMC: What is your work about? How does that relate to you and who you are?

KA: My work explores the dialog between memory and painterly gesture. Based on an archive of personal photos and videos, the paintings fluctuate between abstraction and representation, a reflection of the fluid nature of perception. It’s a way of processing memories and emotions I have related to my childhood, motherhood, the mental illness of a family member, and my relationships with family and friends.

EMC: If you had to quit being an artist, what would you choose to do instead? (Imagine there was no limit to money or certifications or geographic restrictions).

KA: First off, it would be impossible to quit. But if I had to, I would likely end up in scientific research and development or psychology. And I’d travel everywhere.

EMC: You know I love to travel. Where would you love to travel?

KA: My father is an Armenian immigrant. He came to this country in his youth with his family. I grew up visiting them almost every summer absorbing the history, foods, language, and music. I love the rugs! Great pride is taken in having beautiful woven textiles in the home. While I know some of the basics, I wish I was fluent in the language. I do consider myself fortunate to have experienced the best of both my Armenian and American heritage, which has given me a rich sense of identity and broad worldview. As I’ve never been, I’d love to visit Yerevan and the Armenian countryside.

EMC: Okay, I want to ask the expert this question: What’s your favorite art gallery in Chicago?

KA: It’s a tough question, there’s so many! I love the programs at 65Grand, Andrew Rafacz, and the Mission. Some of my favorite alternative spaces include Goldfinch, Adds Donna, and the Franklin.

EMC: Who is a cultural producer that you wish more people knew about?

KA: Lindsey Hook. She is an amazingly talented artist and consummate craftsman. I have huge respect for her painting, textile, and text-based work. In 2014, she mounted a stunning two-person exhibition at the Riverside Art Center with artist Altoon Sultan that has stayed with me. She also runs her own business for calligraphy and hand-made pens. Check her out at

EMC: You two have a show coming up, right? Can you share the details?

KA: The show is called “A Life Lived” and it’s a two-person exhibition exploring the intersection of experience, memory, storytelling and mark-making. In today’s cultural climate we obsessively document public events and personal moments through photographs, video, and social media; presenting curated facades for ourselves and the people around us. Here, both of our work serves as a vehicle for deeper, more reflective interpretation and expression of personal life experiences.

August 27 – October 7, 2017
Reception: Sunday, August 27, 2 – 4pm
Abryant Gallery, Mana Contemporary #607
2233 Throop St. Chicago, IL 60608

Facebook Event Page here


EMC: What is one book that you think all artists/makers should read? Or, what is something you’d wished you’d learned early on in life (or in school) but only found out later?

KA: I highly recommend Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: Essays by 40 Working Artists by Sharon Louden. It has honest narratives from working artists about what it means to commit to being a creative.