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Rising Stars: Meet Karena Massengill

Today we’d like to introduce you to Karena Massengill.

Hi Karena, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today?
I am originally a small-town girl from Ukiah, California. My first art experience was when I was eight at the Mendocino Art Center. We were in a tiny chicken house structure where we got to make piggy banks out of clay while the adults made art elsewhere! I fell in love with clay. I threw a small vase and centered it right away! My mother was convinced of my artistic genius from then on! My mother pursued her own artistic path. We would go to the local town dump bordering the beach where we collected melted, broken glass for her to utilize while creating artworks with polyester resin. She was an amateur artist commissioned to make abstract artworks to be installed next to the front doors of peoples’ homes being built near Mendocino. They allowed light but maintained the home owner’s privacy. In retrospect, I realize her work with glass influenced me years later as I worked with fused glass and some of my current work with epoxy resin.

As an adult, I attended California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland before transferring to Temple University, Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Art in 1975.

After Tyler, I immigrated to Canada. Paid by the Canadian government at George Brown College, I trained as a welder-fitter alongside convicted felons. They were seeking a job on the pipeline being constructed to bring crude oil from Alaska down through Canada to the US. I was working to perfect my craft. It was very challenging as these men were not familiar with Rosie the Riveter and I had to be better skilled than them to earn their respect and decent treatment! During that year of welding 8 hours a day, my inspirations were Nancy Graves and David Smith. After this, I worked for Eutectic and Castolin Canada teaching specialized welding techniques to maintenance repair workers in different factories while selling their welding products for a year.

I then traveled to South America on a cargo ship, up the Amazon for 1000 miles, then Rio de Janeiro and all over Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia by bus. I painted landscapes and portraits during this period. I was invited into people’s homes to share a meal when I was spotted with my easel in the streets, giving me an in close and personal experience with the locals.

Upon returning to Canada, I continued to work as a professional artist on large-scale public art projects as a welder fitter. As an artist, I received numerous grants exhibiting my work and creating public art projects for schools and other public institutions.

I received an Ontario Arts Council grant to teach drawing and painting and create a large indoor steel and plastic landscape of Toronto at St. Andrews Junior High School, where I met my Australian future husband Graham Robertson. He convinced me to go back to school to the University of Toronto. In 1983 I earned a Bachelor in Art Education and Industrial Technology. We were married by Reverend Ray from the yellow pages, a hypnotist as he said, “You will be happy forever!” We were on the warehouse roof of my studio, overlooking downtown Toronto, where “The Fly” was filmed, before moving to Long Beach, California in 1986.

In 1993 I graduated with Master of Fine Art in Sculpture from California State University at Fullerton.

Over the years as an art educator, I taught woodshop, metal shop, drawing and painting, 3-dimensional art, digital art and imaging, and graphic design to middle school, high school, and college.

My public art experience includes indoor, outdoor, painted and fabricated murals and sculptures. I love the challenges of working with governmental and private agencies. As the statewide winner of the public art competition: Rosie Dog Beach in Long Beach, I learned to navigate around the coastal commission and other governmental agencies and was also selected to create public artwork for the Gateway to Downey.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
Living the life of an artist is never easy. Earning a decent living while being a creative and productive artist requires tenacity and stamina. When I freelanced in Canada, it was feast or famine!

Teaching Art provided a regular income. By the time I went back to graduate school to earn my MFA, I had been working for Long Beach Unified School District for several years. I was not willing to move around the country to get a job teaching college. Later I had an opportunity to teach Graphic Design at Harbor College. I was recruited to work with at risk adults who were focused on returning to education to improve their job opportunities.

I create works as a sculptor, most recently, that never feel like they fit in exactly. As an outsider, it is challenging to find gallery representation. I have been fortunate that sales often result when given exhibitions. However, as there are probably 1000 artists for every gallery in Los Angeles, this is a challenge!

Making Art is what keeps me alive and whole. I am grateful that I have always managed to have a studio and give voice to this life necessity.

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
This changing body of work reflects emotions and ideas occupying my mind at any given time. Life’s many challenges inspire my artworks to become a conduit for my emotional and intellectual expression. My work often begins with a drawing I create while attempting to engage my subconscious, accessing both visceral, instinctive and at times, emotional ideas. Reflecting life’s difficult and fun stages, I often salute specific people and accomplishments, abstractly presenting them from a vocabulary of lines in steel.

From the drawings, I “draw” in steel using the drawing on watercolor paper as a pattern upon which I subsequently weld the structure and witness the burning and controlled destruction of the image, using a spray bottle to prevent too much damage!

It becomes a reincarnation for me to use as a painting canvas to further explore the concept in color or monochromatically. For people to have their own private experience of my work is important to me. When shown together, the steel sculpture and its burned “echo” tell a story of evolution and spiritual discovery, inviting the viewer to reflect upon their own life and its challenges.

I am impacted by the damage we are doing to our planet. The people least responsible for climate change are suffering the most. Their lifestyle and culture are forced to change in order to survive. Many resulting works are meant to give accolades and respect to their unique and very special relationship with nature.

I am currently exploring these ideas working with resin and other materials while hoping to communicate my passion and concerns about climate change with a larger audience. This has allowed me to work in a more intimate scale. It is my hope that while making art that is beautiful, it will capture further interest and awake a caring attitude from the viewer as we are all in this together.

Contact Info:

Image Credits
Karena Massengill photographer

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