Local Sewanee painter enthralls and inspires in Stirling’s art show

By Frances Marion Givhan

Executive Staff

Walking around the main room of Stirling’s Coffee House, people awed at work by local artist Karen Tharp. The paintings inspired the community members, faculty, and students who attended the showing, with some expressing how it made them feel as if they had their own artist inside of them. “These paintings are a culmination of personal and geographical transition for me,” Tharp says on the description she wrote for the show.

Landscapes and geography influenced Tharp’s work. One painting, Study: Coming Home, captures the sensation of watching a storm, with complementary colors meeting in a whirlwind of brushstrokes. Various textures exist together on the canvas. On one side, blue and white paint appear like clouds, while the other side has fiery colors painted with defined, straight brushstrokes. Hints of green, purple, yellow, and turquoise mix with the main colors in unexpected but beautiful ways. The painting acted as a preliminary piece for a larger work that Tharp painted after flying around a storm in Haiti.

“I’ve seen these paintings, but it’s cool to come and hear about the stories behind them,” says Amanda Liford (C’16). “They all evoke so much feeling.”

An art class in high school introduced Tharp to painting, but “I didn’t know that’s what I’d want to do,” she says. She later pursued her undergraduate program in art, but many of the patrons at Stirling’s admit that they did not know the full extent of her talent.

Tharp’s work does not reside in one particular style of painting. She used oil and acrylic paint as well as mixed media to create the paintings on display. Except for two paintings named Judgment 1 and Judgment 2, none of the artwork felt the same. These two paintings used red, black, and white paint, with a smudged background that looked like fabric. Seeing them next to each other felt shocking after seeing the other paintings, which used blues, yellows, and oranges. They stood out from the rest, and by the middle of the show, both had a red dot on their titles; someone claimed them.

A particular favorite piece caught many patrons’ eyes, the smallest and least expensive piece in the show. I Thought I Knew had a dynamic quality to it. The brushstrokes and colors created the sensation of a wave crashing down on the ocean. Tharp beautifully balanced the darks and lights in the painting, and the creamy top of the wave complemented the deep green-based turquoise in a powerful but delicate way.

Tharp titled the show “Who I Am,” which she described in her show write-up as “a fluid and transient process that I thought would become more definite as I got older.” She further elaborated, “This work has been a way of exploring the tension of my willingness and unwillingness to allow the soft parts of who I am… to come forward as the self I bring to the world.”