International Women’s Day: Karen Yee Discusses Family, Illness, Intimacy, and Painting
"I was determined to 'kick the cancer to the curb.' I wanted to express this emotion, and show that I was ready to do battle, in a self portrait. So I portrayed myself in armor after recently having lost my hair once again due to the chemo. I think a lot of people think the wings reflect an angel, and maybe assume that I am honoring a person that has passed due to their fight with cancer, but what I was hoping to reflect was that I was fighting the good fight, and maybe on the side of the angels."
To celebrate International Women’s Day, I chatted with Redbubble artist Karen Yee, a painter from northern California about her moving and quietly dedicated paintings of women. Yee took up painting after her cancer diagnosis as both a creative outlet and to document her experiences. Her work, featuring self-portraits and different women from life are both rich with symbolism and feature a deliberate tableau. We talked about being self-taught, fighting illness through art, and the moments of everyday intimacy between family members in our latest in our Featured Artist series.
Beth Caird: In your profile, you mention being born into an artistic environment, can you please tell us what your parents did, and was there a catalyst moment you felt opened up your creativity as a child?
Karen Yee: My father was in the Air Force, and was gone from home quite often. My mother was a stay at home mom. She had the artistic bent, and painted as a hobby. Our house was surrounded by her artwork, and copies of famous paintings, so I feel I grew up in a very artistic environment. As a child, I enjoyed drawing, and always felt delight if I could be successful in making my drawings look like what I wanted to draw.
Beth: Can you please tell us the story of the incredibly powerful painting, “Fight Like A Girl“? It’s moving and strong, I’d love to hear about it from concept to finished work.
Karen: In 2003, I was diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer. I underwent chemotherapy, surgery, more chemotherapy and radiation. I went into remission for a few years, but in 2009, it returned to my bones. In 2011, the cancer spread to my liver and lungs as well, and I had to undergo chemotherapy again. I was determined to “kick the cancer to the curb”. I wanted to express this emotion, and show that I was ready to do battle, in a self portrait. So I portrayed myself in armor after recently having lost my hair once again due to the chemo. I think a lot of people think the wings reflect an angel, and maybe assume that I am honoring a person that has passed due to their fight with cancer, but what I was hoping to reflect was that I was fighting the good fight, and maybe on the side of the angels.
Beth: You mention also that your mother is a painter, and that you have two daughters. Could you tell us about your experience of having a strong female influence in your life, and what influence you hope to be artistically (and otherwise) on your own daughters?
Karen: I first started painting when I was originally diagnosed with cancer. I had always wanted to try oil painting, but never did, because I was daunted by what I thought would be a high cost to invest, and the thought that oil painting was the “big league,” for serious artists. After my diagnosis, however, I decided it was now or never, and plunged ahead. My first compositions were things that were very dear and personal to me, so my two daughters figured prominently in my artwork. I also had a feeling that I wanted to leave something for them, in case I wouldn’t be around, a sort of legacy, or something for them to remember me by. Now that I have been surviving cancer for coming onto 11 years, I feel my artwork has stretched and grown. It has definitely influenced both my daughters in their artistic interest as well. My older daughter has studied art in college, briefly considering a career in that field. My second daughter has expressed a desire to pursue art as a secondary major, too.
Beth: As it’s International Women’s Day, what do you think the most important element is required for becoming a contemporary female artist at the moment? What do you think is the most important trait or quality of being an independent female artist?
Karen: This is a difficult question to answer, as I feel there isn’t one right path or element needed to be successful as a female artist. The most important thing to me, that I have always tried to uphold, is to be true to myself. Not to be influenced by what I feel is expected of me by others, but what drives me to be satisfied and feel fulfilled in my artwork.
Beth: I love your series of strong, dignified women in your artwork. Where do you come up with the ideas for your works? Where do you draw inspiration from?
Karen: Most of my portraits are done from real life models. So these are people I actually know. The process is usually loose and fluid. I ask a friend or relative if I may paint them, sometimes knowing what composition I want, sometimes not. Sometimes the composition comes from the modelling session, so I suppose at those times the essence comes from the models themselves.
Beth: Your work seems like an inspection and celebration of everyday intimacy between family, I especially love your work “Eavesdropper.” Is it from a rich emotionally close life that you create these narratives in paintings from? And how do you build character and stories in your artwork? Do you imagine the backstories and lives of your figures?
Karen: “Eavesdropper” is a painting of my two daughters standing in front of a painting at the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris. They were actually engaged in a close conversation, and didn’t notice the tableau they were creating. It was pure chance and magic. I do sometimes have the idea for a painting in advance. These ideas are exciting and fun for me to pursue, usually from inception to completion. Sometimes, as I say, the ideas occur spontaneously at some point in the process, which also gives me a rush of excitement. When I painted “The Reunion,” it was from an old photo of my sister dressed in Renaissance costume. As I painted it, I envisioned the scenario of a women being reunited with her lover after a long absence. She looks up and sees him far off in the distance returning to her. This brought the title to my mind.
Beth: When I look at your work “Chinese Bride” I am stunned by your skill and attention to detail. Can you tell us about any training you’ve had, and what was the biggest learning curve you’ve experienced in regards to your painting?
Karen: I am basically self taught. When I first started painting, I struggled with “painterly expression,” trying to be looser than was natural for me. I didn’t like the process or results as much as when I was true to my instincts, and painted as I saw things. When I finally gave in to my true bent, my paintings started to improve, and I felt much more satisfied with my work.
Karen: The other self portraits I have done are also allegories of my experience living with cancer.
One is titled, “Self Portrait.” It shows me sitting on a large throne with a cushion to recline upon. It represents my good life. The dagger hanging above me is representative of the sword of Damocles, and signifies the constant threat that the cancer could become active and overtake me at any time. My red heart necklace represents my hope and shows that I haven’t given up.
The other painting is titled, “What Lies In Wait“. It sprang from a conversation I had with my doctor about the medication I was on. I was having some rather bad side effects from it. He said he didn’t want to take me off of it because he knew the cancer would then become active again. I said I know the cancer is at the door, and I didn’t want to open it and let it in even a little bit. So that phrase stuck in my head, and I got the idea for this painting.
Thank you very much to Karen for taking the time to talk to us on International Women’s Day. You can check out her portfolio over here.