Artist Interview: Introducing ARC resident Karen Moe

As pre-lude to the Eastside Culture Crawl this upcoming November 2011 (mark your calendar!) I'd like to share with you some of the amazing resident artists here at The ARC at Powell @ Commercial in East Vancouver ... Join us here and visit this blog from now until November and each month I will feature a new artist. See what we do, where we live- inside our studios, and what we create. Hear our stories. Join us in our journey here at the ARC and leading up to the Crawl.

For August I'd like to introduce ARC Resident Artist Karen Moe. Please note that all images included in this interview are copyright (c) Karen Moe and you must have her permission to use them in anyway.

Karen, please share with us your journey on becoming the artist you are now.

I started taking pictures when I was 20 when I bought my first SLR, a Nikon FE. I took some darkroom classes, but it was mainly a hobby. I went to university for English Literature and Critical Theory and planned to be an academic. In 1999, when I was doing a very ambitious Honours project (basically, a Feminist deconstruction of Western Metaphysics!), I was reading everything from Plato, to Althusser, to Judith Butler. One day, while reading, I was distracted by one of my images that I had printed that year and was hanging in my apartment. It is from my first series that is called ‘Heuristique’ which is a play on words from ‘heuristic’ which means to find and technique: a technique of discovery. Heuristique is a Feminist gesture where I turned the camera onto my own body, reversing the male gaze in the tradition of Laura Mulvey. I stared at this image for a good half hour, watching the play of light across of its surface. In that time, I realized that looking at that image gave me more pleasure and satisfaction than any essay I had ever written. I called my Honours supervisor and told her I am an artist and decided to dedicate my life to Art.

Did you already have skills in photography so that this transition was easy?

I am a self-taught visual artist, photographer and performer. I take classes whenever I need information and skills to realize a vision. I have taken fine art printing, studio lighting, alternative photographic processes and Photoshop. I also led a band (MIZMO) in the 1990s and have performed solo.

Please tell us about how you have been supported in your journey of being an artist.

I have never had any grants or funding. All of my projects I have funded personally. Of course, this is very costly when you are a visual artist. But, it is what we do. You have a vision and you must realize it! My friends (who aren’t artists) and family often think I am crazy and recommend RRSPs or something … but, when you see it in your mind and have researched a project, you have to really SEE it.

I have exhibited across Canada and in the U.S. Canadian poet Catherine Owen has always been a great supporter of my work and has written essays about it. It seems sometimes that she understands my work better than I do!

How would you define success for yourself and what has been a key factor in your PROGRESS towards you vision of success?

Like many artists, success for me is the ability and economic means to support myself making my Art, to completely dedicate my life to it. Success is also about believing in yourself and your vision no matter what hurtles (of which there are many) come your way. With fine art, when you are making something that has never been made before, maybe never even thought of in that way before, there is a very good chance that people will not know what to make of it of how to incorporate what you have created and all that it signifies into how they see (and have been taught) to see the world. Successful art to me is that which offers and provokes alternative ways of seeing, and, thus, alternative ways of being in the world. And, this kind of Art is often not embraced by its contemporenaity. So be it! A key factor in my success as an artist is my dogged determination and my belief in what I do as important. It also helps to be very stubborn and thick-skinned; despite the inevitability of rejection, I always fulfill every vision and carry on to the next. I usually have projects planned years in advance.

How do you get beyond being stuck or blocked during your art making process?

I never get stuck or blocked during my Art making process. The only thing that ever blocks me temporarily is lack of money. My projects are all planned and I have a general idea of what I need to do before I start. All of my big projects are also researched. This also gives me parameters and ideas and the project develops through the research process. This is not to say that I do not or am not open to discoveries along the way. Far from it! In my experience, the artist gives life to the project, and then it takes on a life of its own and you end up chasing it. All of my Art are series so this may not happen as much when artists create singular works. I don’t know. I have never done that.

Basically, Art making is an obsession. It is a Beautiful madness. It goes against how the majority of society has been taught to lead their lives. You make it regardless of whether it brings you money or recognition. You have no choice but to make it. It is what you do.

What in your opinion is the best thing and the most challenging thing about being and artist?

The best thing about being an artist is the joy and thrill of making Art and have fulfilled your vision, of succeeding in making something from nothing. The most challenging thing is having the inevitable constraints of having to survive in the world, in a world that often does not understand or embrace what you are doing and have dedicated your life to. And, sending off proposals is also challenging (because it is tedious and you would rather be making something, or reading something) and handling the inevitability of rejection. One time I got a rejection that didn’t even contain the rejection letter! I didn’t even know which gallery it came from! That was a bit difficult. But I ended up laughing about it and enjoy telling such an absurd story.

It seems as though your passion for research and [feminist] activism fused into your bodies of art work. Can you share with us your three epic projects and their meaning?

Here is my latest artist statement:

My photography and performance is a fusion of Art and Activism. My major focuses have been gender and animal issues. I strive to create entry points of playfulness and beauty in order to activate the viewers’ emotions and empathy. I am interested in unearthing some of the contradictions and lost realities that exist outside of the dominant narratives of Western Culture and strive to expand modes of seeing. My images blur boundaries between self/other and taker/taken in the power binaries of Western Culture and, through the utilization of photography and it’s tradition of documenting ‘the real,’ my work participates in the politics of representation by contributing alternative photographic ‘evidences.’

I have three main projects that I call my ‘Epic Projects.’ The first is ‘Lethe: a mock metaphysics’ that was made between 1999 and 2005. Lethe is a series of 12 ‘self-portraits’ where I embodied three archetypes (Constable-Hold-the-Tits, Poopsie and She-doggy). It is a series of 12 images and a performance piece. This project was influenced by two quotes: “The mask is the meaning, in so far as it is absolutely pure” (Roland Barthes) and “Let them hate so long as they fear” (Cicero)

Lethe is a ‘mock metaphysics’ where contradictions, absurdities and horrors surface in a system that is strangely recognizable as our own. Named after the river Lethe that is drunk from in order to instill forgetfulness before one descends into Hell, Lethe addresses constructions of reality and cultural memory based upon what hasn’t been remembered. This project emerged from a feminist desire to articulate some of the silences at the core of patriarchal culture. Lethe is also a response to my own rapes and abduction, serving as both a protest against systemic violence and as a testament to the un-killable and un-corruptible spirit. Inspired by Christine de Pizan’s Fifteenth Century re-writing of Western mythology based on the overt differences between what Pizan read and what she observed in the world, my disbelief in the naturalization of a social system that molests, oppresses and kills in order to maintain its hegemony resulted in a desire to delve into my own social psyche and see what silences I could voice.

Ironically, “Lethe” ended up being the Honours thesis that I didn’t finish when I realized that I am an artist! It was performed and exhibited in Victoria, Toronto and New York. Strangely, it was never given an exhibition here in Vancouver!

My next big project is “Wilderness” which was created between 2008 and 2010. “Wilderness” is a series of 15 photographic collages of food animals, wild flowers, metal, lace, chicken wire and hand-written text by Canadian Eco-feminist poets, Di Brandt and Catherine Owen. Created from digital photographs, film and scanned objects, the images are Black and White with hand-painted wild flowers. The animals were photographed in both meat production contexts and farm animal sanctuaries.

Through the use of portraits, the lambs, pigs, chickens and cows in the Wilderness images are valued beyond their conventional uses to humans. The process of seeing and noticing converts the object to be consumed into a subject to be acknowledged. In this project, farm animals, as our most ubiquitous Others, often meet the viewer eye-to-eye and invite us to revise our relationships with them. Part of my praxis is to attempt to photograph the farm animals as creatures in their own right existing outside of the human realm and to document their existences alongside the human as ‘presences among presences, where human and animal are, quoting philosopher Thomas Berry, a “communion of subjects.”

Six of the Wilderness pieces were exhibited at Gallery Gachet in 2010 in a group show called “Animal as Subject: Exploring the Complex Relationship between Human and Animal” and I led and presented a paper at a panel discussion in conjunction with that exhibit.

My latest big project is “Princess” and is another series of ‘self-portraits’. The series will be 10 large pieces framed ironically (after the Old masters) in gold gilt frames. I have completed 5 so far. Speaking of challenges! This project is extremely challenging as I dress myself as a little girl (even binding my D-cup breasts) and fitting into altered little girl dresses. Photoshop also comes in really handy here to make a 44-year-old woman pass as 8 or 10! But, it seems to be working. With Art, anything is possible. That is the magic; and the obsession.

“Princess” comments on the current revival of stereotypical girlhood through the “princess phase” which is being marketed as a ‘natural’ part of girlhood and, according to The New York Times book reviewer Annie Murphy Paul, “should qualify as an official development stage”. However, is this contemporary princess craze that is being gobbled up by girls and parents alike a product of the disappearance of Feminism through the “preference for stereotypical girlhood … [and] the increase in anti-feminist ideas” or a “new sexism’? In her 2010 book “Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism” Natasha Walter states, “this hyper-sexual culture is getting fiercer and stronger, and is co-opting the language of choice and liberation” of the late 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s Feminisms.

My princesses deconstruct the origins and reinstituted normalization of the precious child in the economically privileged West. They are a documentation of the contradictions that can exist within the psyche of femininity that is informed by the patriarchal constructions of the romantic girl-child. However, my hyper-feminine is playfully combined with irreverence and, exposing incongruity, works to complicate and transgress any reductionist and fixed notions of female identity.

Karen, I also noticed at your last open studio during the Uncommon Show 2011 two books out with your name on them as a contributor. Can you tell us about those books and your collaborative photographic contribution.

The first book is a collaboration with poet Catherine Owen. It is called “Cusp/detritus: an experiment in alleyways” and was published by Anvil Press in 2006. Catherine wrote incredible prose poems and a variety of other forms of poetry like lyrics and glosas about marginalized mentally ill and/ or drug-addicted street youth. I photographed discarded/ found objects in East Vancouver alleyways. I think it is particularly interesting that this book, created by two feminists, features primarily young men. It shows that men are also affected negatively by the oppression and violences of a hierarchical patriarchal system.

The second book is also a collaboration with two poets (Joe Rosenblatt and Catherine Owen) called ‘Dog’. It was published by Mansfeild Press in Toronto in 2008. ‘Dog’ originated with my series “Perros: Dogs of Central Havana”. When I was in Cuba in 2000, I photographed every dog I saw for a week. When Joe Rosenblatt saw these photographs, he was struck by how these dogs are all without humans (unlike in the First World where dogs are connected to their masters to such an extent that they almost become accessories!). Joe thought that these dogs represented the essence of dog and started to write sonnets about them. Catherine soon got on board and before you knew it, she and Joe were writing ‘conjoined sonnets’ where one of them would write the octet and the other would write the sextet. This had never been done before in Canadian poetry … if anywhere. Springing from my humble Cuban canines, the poets went wild and lunged out into Canis Major and Canis Minor and then down into Cerebes, the three-headed dog from Hell. It is a really fun and one-of-a-kind book!

(You can buy either book from me or from Anvil Press or Mansfield Press)

As your main source of lively hood you run a portrait business. Can you please tell us about that?

Yes. After exhibiting and publishing as a fine artist for 12 years, I decided to use the technical skills, sensitivities and insights to take portraits of people and, yes, dogs. I have developed a technique of photographing people where, though a process of conversation, recollection, memory and articulating beliefs and values, I am able to create portraits of people that document an authentic inner essence. And, with the dogs, well, I just love their personalities and aesthetic beauty!

I also do photo-restoration. Here are some before and after shots of a photograph I restored for a client:

I understand you are enrolled in the Self Employment Class at YMCA. What are the three top things you have learned about marketing yourself and promoting your business that you would share with our readers?

After teaching ESL for 10 years, I was given the opportunity to take a voluntary lay off and pursue my photography absolutely. I am currently enrolled in the New Ventures Self-Employment Program through the YMCA where I am learning everything about running my own business. It is helping me define and focus on what it is that makes me unique in the highly saturated Vancouver photographic portrait market and also learn how to market myself (and keep the books, of course, which is challenging for a distinctly right-brained person!).

What recent or upcoming shows/and or gallery representation can we look out for or go and see of your work?

Currently, I am focusing on my portrait business so don’t have any shows planned. But, of course, you can come and see me and my work at the Eastside Culture Crawl this year. My latest project, “Princess”, is still in process so I have no exhibits booked as of yet.

If someone reading this blog would like to see more of your work, visit an upcoming art show, hire your services or get a hold of you, how would they do so?

You can see my work and read more of my ideas on my Fine Art website

You can see my portrait work and commission me to photograph you, your family, your kids or your dog through or e-mail me at

Karen, Thank you so much for taking the time to participate in this interview!