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Different Strokes

By Martin F. Curry

Published in Alpenglow Magazine - Year 2000 edition

Karen Vance came out to Colorado’s Fraser Valley to decorate and furnish the new condo . . . She was on her own – with no one for financial support except herself. "I was terrified," she recalled. "I really started panicking because I didn’t have to make a living while I was married." She dreamed of becoming a bag lady who wandered through the back alleys of Denver picking food out of dumpsters. It was a pivotal moment in the life of this gutsy artist – a time for decision: sink or swim. Not only did she stay afloat, she became a rising star on the national art scene. "Looking back, the divorce was one of the best things that ever happened to my career," she said. "It made me take myself very, very seriously."

So seriously that she’s now winning awards left and right. She recently juried onto the C. M. Russell Western Art Show and her work was included in the Rocky Mountain PBS Anniversary Collection. She was Guest Artist at the Plein Air Painters of America Show on Catalina Island, California and was featured artist at the Denver Performing Arts gala "Saturday Night Alive."

Her studio is crammed with unpacked boxes, canvasses, and paints. A path led to her easel, where she rushed to put finishing touches on an oil painting of Byers Peak. She wanted to capture the early morning light just right as it splashed across the meadow in the foreground. The piece was a donation for the Grand County Historical Association, which would raffle it off to raise funds-and the public unveiling was only a few hours away.

Vance is always a small cyclone of high energy, but her pace on this day was even more frenetic than ever. She recently returned from painting in Vermont, then pumped out 26 paintings for a one-woman show in Niwot, Colorado. "I said, 'I can't do it,' And I thought 'Maybe I'll just do it.' And lo and behold, I've done it. I don't know where the time came from."  The following day, she would jet off to Catalina Island, in California for a two week painting sprint and show with the Plein Air Artists of America.

"Sometimes I do my best work under pressure because I'm not over thinking the painting." she said. "All the intuitive stuff just comes out."

Vance's introduction to the world of art began as a child in the family’s suburban Chicago home. On Sunday afternoons, her father, an accomplished painter and sculptor, taught Vance and her sisters how to draw trees in the backyard or draw boats in the nearby harbor. They spent rainy afternoons in massive galleries of the Chicago Art Institute and even today she remembers every square inch of the place. But even with her family's artistic background, she never believed she could make art a fulltime career. "I watched my dad making a living as an artist and I didn't know if I wanted that," she said. "It's the hardest profession in the world for making a living."

It took the divorce to jolt her to make the commitment and put the painting career into high gear. But as strong as a passion can be, it doesn't necessarily pay the rent or put food on the table. She held a lot of other jobs just to survive, like graphic artist, office manager, and meeting planner for an oil company. She was even the Winter Park town clerk for three years.

Even though her goal may have been a distant spot on the landscape, she never lost sight of the dream. "Sometimes I'd go home and paint until 3 or 4 in the morning because my right brain hadn't been working all day and was completely starved." she said.

She started by producing and selling what she described as "decorative art." "Pretty stuff that reminds people of somewhere."  But after a year or so, it just wasn't making it for her. She desperately wanted to produce fine art, the kind she take could take pride in, and make a living at the same time.  Her strategy was: learn from the masters.

"You can't get a Ph.D. in art - not in painting. What you have to do is find people whose work you really admire. And if they teach, you go seek them out. You watch them. You study with them," she explained

Quang Ho, the internationally known oil painter, accepted Vance into his professional-level study group in Denver. "She had more determination and thirst for learning than anyone I've known," he said, adding that Vance would drive from Winter Park to Denver through blinding snowstorms so she wouldn't miss one of the weekly sessions.

In addition to formal studies, Vance soon discovered the more she painted, the more she learned. "Every painting you do is a learning experience. It's on-going," she said. 'If you ever see an artist who continues to do the same thing over and over and over and over again-they're not growing. That's not art. Art is growing."

Vance has certainly grown, both personally and professionally. She's now happily remarried and she's doing exactly what she set out to do. Her work is receiving critical acclaim. She's busier than ever and happier than ever.

"I've never worked so hard in my life," she said with a broad smile. "It's so exciting. I feel so blessed. Passion for my work drives me all the time. I have paintings in my head all the time. I know the next ten paintings I'm going to paint. This thing drives me."

Quang Ho said Vance is emerging as one of the nationally known artists in America and he has no doubt she'll continue along a fast track toward artistic stardom. "She's making tremendous progress. I'm seeing her improve by the month," he said. "The thing that really impressed me about Karen was her ability to start with an idea and stick with it."

Vance will tell you that the secret of a successful career is to first set a goal. But, she said, "If you're not really going to sink yourself into it-dive in completely-you won't make it. You just got to do it."

While Karen Vance may be the quintessential success story, don't think for a moment she's ready to kick back and rest on her laurels. No, she's doing just the opposite by raising her goals to new heights.

"I have this other goal now," she said. "I'm going to become one of the finest living female artists of my generation."

You get the strong impression she's determined enough to do it.

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Last modified: October 16, 2011