Sonoran Arts Network INterview
Karen Hymer is a Tucson artist working various photographic processes. She recently was designated Faculty Discipline Lead in Photography at Pima Community College.
SAN: Karen, you are unusual among the artists interviewed for Sonoran Arts Networkin that you are a Tucson native. Despite having traveled and lived elsewhere, why did you decide to make your home in the place where you were born and grew up?
Karen Hymer: I returned to the Sonoran desert after attending college in California, Massachusetts and New Mexico. I missed the light and landscape and also my family. Though I do not make landscape images, my work is informed by the desert and influenced by the light. I fell in love with the culture in New Mexico and the light there is similar, but the Sonoran desert is unique and my family is very important to me.
SAN: Your website explains that your photographic work involves explorations of “the blending of photosensitive materials, digital media, printmaking and encaustics.” We see terms like cyanotypes, lumen prints, and photopolymer gravures. For those of us doing point-and-shoot photography and who are pretty clueless about all those options, can you tell a little more about the techniques and processes you use to create images?
KH: Most of the photographic processes I use originated in the 19th century. These early processes (cyanotypes, van dykes, palladium and gum dichromate) all involve the use of light sensitive materials and are “contact processes” which means the photographic negative has to be the same size as I want the final print to end up.
So I make photographs with a camera or scanner, load them into my computer and then, using an ink jet printer, print a negative the size of my final print, usually 8” x 10” or larger. I mix up light sensitive chemicals, use a brush to coat watercolor paper, let it dry, then lay my digital negative on the coated paper and exposure it to ultraviolet light. The photogravure process is a bit more involved. It also originated in the 19th century though the methods I use are contemporary. This process combines photography and printmaking. I make gravures using a steel backed plate with a light sensitive polymer surface. I make a digital positive from my photographic image, lay the positive on the plate, exposure it to ultraviolet light and then develop (etch) the plate in water. The plate is then inked (like other etching plates), covered with a piece of watercolor paper and run through a printing press. The print is considered an etching (or gravure) and editions can be made from the plate.
This all is sounds quite technical - I am not seduced by technology and often wonder how in the world I became a photographer and not a painter - but the real attraction for me is the handmade qualities involved. I use digital technology but find it most rewarding when I can get my hands involved: painting emulsions on surfaces, mixing ink colors, applying color and other alterations (like wax) and experimenting.
SAN: What is the relationship between making photographic “prints” and “printmaking” as we typically think of the various methods of printmaking? (wood/lino cut relief prints, intaglio techniques, stencil prints, etc.)?
KH: In general, traditional printmaking involves the inking of a plate, screen or other substrata that is then placed in contact with paper (or other material such as cloth) in order to transfer image. With photographic images there are handmade prints made with light sensitive materials (van dykes, cyanotypes, gelatin silver, etc.) and there are digital prints from a computer and printer. Digital prints are often called Giclee prints or pigment prints, and usually are made from an image on a computer. That image could have been originally made using light sensitive materials such as film in an analog camera or could have been made with a light sensitive sensor in a digital camera. The exciting thing for me is the fluid movement from digital to analog and back – it is simply a matter of using the tool / process that works best to convey your imagery. The older, handmade photographic processes are experiencing resurgence. Many artists are blending techniques in new and exciting ways.
SAN: Among the processes available to you, do you have a favorite? Why is this your favorite way of working?
KH: At this time my favorite is photogravure. I love the look of etching ink on paper and the rich and varied tones it produces. I am seduced by the way photographic imagery is translated in this process – it is simply beautiful! Mixing the ink color, inking the plate, choosing from so many wonderful papers and then working the surface is very rewarding.
SAN: A theme that runs through your work in recent years is human aging, in particular female aging. Let’s start with your series Skin. You explore the aging female body in a cultural context in which the aging female body is viewed as anything but beautiful, and worthy only of being stitched, tucked or botoxed. Your images are almost abstract, and it’s no longer possible to tell if the skin belongs to a male or female. Since there is such a strong negative cultural view of aging female bodies, what kind of response did you get to this series? What did you learn about “the mysteries of the aging body” by doing this series?
KH: The response to the work has been positive. The images were made with my iPhone, not looking through the camera, just aiming the phone at parts of my body. The act of photographing in this way was liberating – letting go of control, creating random images of my body. When I looked at the images, I could not tell what part of the body was pictured, and came to see them more as “bodyscapes”, abstractions of skin taken out of the cultural context in which I live. I enlarged the images to 32” x 32” and displayed them in grids of 4. So the final pieces were 64” x 64” – quite monumental in scale. The pigmented prints are floated on the wall, not framed, and the effect is somewhat unsettling. The images read as “of the body” but one is not sure if they are internal or external parts of the body. For me this group of images opened up a new way of seeing the aging process and myself. In a sense I am objectifying the body, removing all specificity of identity, including age and gender, and I found that to be liberating.
SAN: Another more recent series is Remnants. Here you continue your exploration of the aging human body combined with the “process of decay in the natural world.” The title of the series seems very meaningful. It’s not difficult to imagine dead desert plants and animals as being considered “remnants.” Do you think that we as a culture also think of aging humans as “remnants” as well? What do you hope to show us in this series?
KH: The Skin series was somewhat aggressive and confrontational. With Remnants I set out to make images that are beautiful and poetic, yet still talking about aging. I do think that youth is prioritized and overvalued in our society and aging humans are overlooked, undervalued and are, in a sense, remnants. I hope the work makes a connection between decaying elements of nature and aging humans, showing the cycle of life as beautiful, intriguing and mysterious.
SAN: Your newest series, Flesh and Food continues this concept. You photograph the aging body, this time combined with aging fruits and other edibles. Please tell us a little about this series, and what you are exploring in this work.
KH: Flesh and Food is influenced by the cookbook Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Sensesby Chilean writer, Isabel Allende. My images pair the body with foods believed to be aphrodisiacs. Allende states that food, like eroticism starts with the eyes. My eyes are drawn to fruits and vegetables past their prime and to bodies that display the evidence of age. I cannot pass up a decaying fruit or vegetable. I find them beautiful and sensuous. By pairing them with the body I hope to create images rich in texture, tones, and seductive in nature.
SAN: You are the Photography Program Specialist at Pima Community College, and you teach photography classes. Do you think teaching affects your artwork, and if so, how? How does your artwork affect your teaching?
KH: I am now the full-time Faculty Discipline Lead in Photography and have the pleasure of teaching a variety of classes. Teaching influences my work by requiring me to stay current in the field. I look at a lot of artwork in person and online. I make a point of visiting larger cities such as New York and Los Angeles to see work and encourage my students to do the same. I love teaching, and I would say my experience as an artist does affect my teaching. With my students I share my personal experiences as an artist. This includes working with different processes, marketing my work, exhibiting (submissions: acceptances and rejections) and the courage, fears and rewards involved with being an artist. I feel very fortunate to be in a work environment that is art centered and to interact with my talented colleagues and such diverse and wonderful students. I definitely learn from my students every day.
SAN: As a teacher, what advice do you give your students (if any) about how they might be able to continue doing their artwork, and at the same time, make a living?
KH: Making a living as an artist is very difficult. I always encourage students to follow their heart even if the path is difficult. But it is also wise to find a way you can support yourself and still make art. I recently heard that many businesses are now recognizing the benefits to hiring individuals who are creative and have liberal arts degrees, including MFA’s. They see value in individuality. So perhaps there is hope that artists can position themselves well in the business world. The advice I offer is simple: keep making art, don't stop. If you really want it(really need it), you will keep making work. I love this quote from Art &Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. “Teaching is part of the process of being an artist. The corollary here is that the greatest gift you have to offer your students is the example of your own life as a working artist.”
SAN: Do you have any ideas about what would make life easier for the artists of southern Arizona?
KH: Arts and education funding from our legislature would make possible more grants and workshops. I don't see that happening anytime soon.
See more of Karen Hymer’s art at http://www.karenhymer.com/