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A spring interview with Sketchbook

By Isadora Pennington

Mar 16, 2023

THE CHAOS OF A GARDEN AT NIGHT: the art of Elizabeth Hautau Karp

Isadora from Sketchbook stopped by the studio one sunny morning to talk about my art, my process, and why I can't stop painting. The article below was published in its entirety by Rough Draft Atlanta.

With the swipe of her brush, artist Elizabeth Hautau Karp brings forth vibrant, joyous blooms that seemingly burst out of the darkness of a canvas. One recent sunny morning I stopped by her home studio to check in on her current projects, learn about her process, and see her workspace. 

Tucked behind a temporary wall in an area that would traditionally be home to a breakfast nook or dining table sits an easel with a large painting in progress. As is common with most of Karp’s works, the dark background of this piece gives birth to the flurry of life and offers a glimpse of the freedom of motion one would expect from a field of wildflowers. 

“When I try to describe them, it’s that I’m a small child and it’s midnight in the garden, and I’m on my hands and knees crawling through, just being an observer,” said Karp. She explained that she appreciates the way that children look at the world and the magic they find in that which is often considered mundane.

image of artist studio with painting of flowers on studio and artist paint palette and tubes of paint and brushes

A work in progress at Elizabeth Hautau Karp’s home studio. (Photo: Isadora Pennington)

Those familiar with Karp and her works may not be surprised to learn that she comes to this love of flowers organically. Karp was born and raised on a flower farm in Northwest New Jersey. Growing up in the countryside of the Skylands Region of New Jersey in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, Karp describes her childhood as being rife with opportunities for freedom and exploration in nature.

“There was a lot of running wild like a banshee through the woods, and being around so many types of flowers,” recalled Karp. Some of the flowers her family grew to sell at the New York City Flower Market included chrysanthemums, spider mums, snapdragons, and carnations, just to name a few.

“The smell of a purple carnation sends me right back,” she said wistfully. “Those kind of spicy smells are so awesome.”

Over the years, her family had to adapt to changing demands from the market, and in the 1920s her grandfather began growing calla lilies. When the family moved out to Sussex County, her dad had left the calla lily bulbs in a box in a greenhouse. Over time, mice carted the bulbs away and buried them across the property, which led to a burst of blooms on the property. 

“One day during the 80s someone at the market was looking for something different, so my father brought in the calla lilies,” said Karp. The huge heirloom blooms were an instant hit, and Karp credits their popularity with being part of what saved the family farm. In fact, that flower farm is still in the family, with her mother living there and the farm operations handled by her brother following the passing of her father twenty years ago. In addition, one of her sisters also has her own field-grown organic farm that Karp describes as “gorgeous.”

A couple of times a year Karp heads north to visit the family farm and is reinvigorated with inspiration from all the fresh blooms. She comes home and gets to work, churning out whimsical portraits of lush fields of flowers in her Avondale Estates home studio.

“That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, to be an artist and create,” she told me. “I would draw on anything and paint on anything, and I have a vivid memory of myself as a four year old on the top of my parent’s bed with a pencil as I drew a very large mural with big gestures. I was so proud of the work I had done.” Her parents, on the other hand, were less pleased.

For Karp’s family, finances were always a concern. She recalled times when she wanted to try things like taking piano lessons, but they couldn’t afford them. While she wasn’t discouraged from making art she was left to explore the medium more or less on her own. Her mother would save scraps of any materials she could find and Karp would then turn them into art. 

Karp went on to attend Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia where she received her BFA in Graphic Design. From there, she worked as a freelance designer in Boston, Massachusetts, and later in Dallas, Texas. Then she took the advice of her brother who lived here in Grant Park and relocated cross-country once more. “I just kind of landed here, met my husband, and we have since raised our child here,” said Karp. 

After some time living in Decatur and then in Clarkston, she found her way to Avondale Estates around nine years ago. Today, Karp works full time as a Senior Graphic Designer in Marketing and Communications for Emory University and is responsible for designing the Emory Alumni Magazine, also referred to as their flagship magazine. 

“Of course it’s the ultimate design puzzle,” said Karp when talking about what she enjoys when completing the design work for the magazine. “It’s also the collaboration with illustrators, photographers, and the editor. A sneak peek into the amazing storytelling and visuals.” 

When she had her son Wyeth 18 years ago Karp took a step back from design to focus on her new role as primary caregiver. In the gap that it left behind, she picked up painting yet again to “fill the need to create.” She began participating in art festivals and selling her artworks. When it was time for her to return to work she continued developing her style and pursuing her artistic passions in her spare time. 

As we spoke about her seemingly endless desire to create new artwork, the passion she feels is evident. She explained that, like many artists, she has a need to express herself in visuals without words. And what she paints, when, and how she does so is not entirely up to her. It’s also due to her muse.

“I’m all for feeding my muse,” said Karp with a chuckle. “Whatever she says, I have to do it. If I don’t do it, she doesn’t come around so much. It’s very exciting when a new thought comes into my mind that I need to turn into a painting. I get this electric feeling and I have to do it.”

Given the distance between her home here in Georgia and her family’s flower farm in New Jersey, I asked her about what she finds inspiring for her artwork in her day to day life. She cites the restrictions of the pandemic as being part of the impetus to continue creating art.

With the pandemic-induced gap in her life, Karp felt compelled to fill it with something creative. She remembers taking the boxes that her Fresh Harvest deliveries came in and drawing the contents on the side. “Every week there would be these beautiful vegetables and fruits and I felt like I needed to paint them,” she said.

She then took up watercolors, opting for a medium that is nontoxic so that she can safely work from the table in her kitchen. After a time she began experimenting with gouache and instantly loved it. The delightful opacity of the paint, which she can pare down by mixing in water, was exciting for her.

Scenes from Elizabeth Hautau Karp’s home studio. (Photos: Isadora Pennington)

At that time Karp had been working on creating family trees. As someone who comes from a large family, and her sister’s interest in genealogy, had inspired her to reflect on her own family history.

When learning more about her maternal grandfather who passed before she was born, she became curious about his culture. He was Swedish and she was inspired when she saw examples of Scandinavian folk art. This is what first encouraged her to try painting flowers on a black background. 

“The responses that I get from people when I make paintings with that black backdrop are that they think it looks so vibrant. So, I’ve stuck with it. Now I’m pushing myself to explore color wheels and color palettes.” 

Though not formally trained in color theory aside from one class she took in college, she finds the process of selecting colors to be fascinating and enjoyable. “I’m interested in which colors to mix together to get that perfect color blend that makes almost a golden ratio of colors and proportions,” said Karp. “I want to know what draws the eye through a painting, and I want to do that in the chaos of a garden at night.”

For Karp, it’s not just the beauty of her finished pieces that compels her to create; it’s also the process. She enjoys the concentration that comes with working on a painting. “Everything else drops away and I am there with every single little detail of the painting. Every little brush stroke is just, like, so beautiful.” 

I asked Karp if she had any advice for young artists who wanted to pursue a career in the arts. The first thing she told me was that everyone is an artist, and that it is a matter of practice. She also said that painters ought not to give up on a painting, because just when she thinks something is not coming together it has a tendency to take a turn for the better.

“At the midpoint of every painting I look at it and think ‘this is the worst painting of my life,’ but then I just keep working on it and it turns around and comes together.’”

The freedom inherent in her pieces is a welcome respite from her otherwise orderly and meticulous graphic design work. She says that making a painting is much like birthing a baby; you make something beautiful and then send it out into the world. 

“I am trying to deepen my practice,” said Karp when I asked her about what she’s working on now. Part of this continued practice is an upcoming trip to Peru that she’s taking this summer. She hopes that she will learn more about the flora in the Amazon and use that to create a body of work exploring the flowers and plants that she encounters while on the trip.

While that’s her intention, she admits again that it’s not entirely up to her what she creates. She has to consider the muse, after all.

“You never know, the muse might want something else,” she said with a wry smile.

Isadora Pennington is a freelance writer and photographer based in Atlanta. She is the editor of Sketchbook by Rough Draft, a weekly Arts newsletter. 

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