Karen Shapiro is an artist working in clay. Raku is her choice and it is a soft, glazed, hand-built earthenware having its origins in the tea ceremony of ancient Japan. Raku ware is unique in that the glazed pre-heated bisque is placed in the red-hot kiln with long-handled tongs. The glaze matures in 15 to 30 minutes (at a temperature of approximately 1750 degrees) and the ware is then withdrawn while still glowing. Look carefully at Karen’s pieces and marvel at her skill in the pure technique of this now refined medium.
Karen Shapiro derives her art from what's already there. It doesn't have to be studied, interpreted or understood. Her ceramic sculpture is what it is. Shapiro's ceramics represent items that are used, and they look it. Each piece speaks to an era or a season, an event or a time when the item belonged in the life of the viewer. Who doesn’t remember rousing games of Monopoly, your Mother’s ‘Evening in Paris’ cobalt blue perfume bottle not to be touched, the pumice laden Lava soap ever present on the sink for grubby fingers, Grandpa’s shaving brush and foam? Now, Karen takes these same objects, frequently larger-than-life in our memories and presents them to the collector as precious and now larger-than-life in person.
"I call them pop icons, except they have a little surface development and a patina that gives them a friendly, used quality," says one collector. "Some pieces, many of which are from the '30s, '40s and '50s, are quite nostalgic. They have an historical element but are still around, which gives them popular appeal. Collectors tend to buy two and three pieces and then put them on a kitchen counter or vanity, places where the actual items would go."
Although Shapiro considers herself a new kid in the ceramics circle, the techniques of kneading and forming, carving and cutting, baking and glazing are not new to the artist. For 30 years, she worked as a pastry chef, sculpting the ultimate edible art form. She enjoys the process of rolling out, cutting and forming her slab-built pieces, but it's the glazing and firing that takes the cake. "I use a high-fire clay, which I low-fire because I raku... The raku puts in the wonderful imperfections of real life... My work is fun, it's whimsical," she said. "I feel lucky I can make a living at it. It's not conceptual; it's literal. People don't have to understand it; it's already understood."
“My first recorded attempts at artistic expression were at the ripe age of 5 years or so when I painstakingly painted the adobe brick walls surrounding our house in Tucson. The records of these attempts are the scratchy old home movies taken years ago -- the painted images being executed in nothing but tap water and disappearing instantly in the Arizona sun. Years later I majored in art in high school where I began working in clay and continued in this medium as a design major in college. After college and continuing until a year or so ago, my medium changed drastically to a more edible art form in the shape of a long, hard career as a pastry chef.”
“I am now happily out of the kitchen and back into the ceramics studio where I am finding great joy in working in a sculpture style which is new for me. In earlier years, my emphasis was on abstract form -- believing, of course, that I was redefining the perfect form. Upon re-entering the ceramic studio at the College of Marin, under the tutelage of the ever-inspiring energy and talent of Anne Peet Carrington, I naturally tried to take up where I had left off many years ago. I was immediately frustrated and disappointed to see that those "perfect" forms would no longer come from my hands. Instead, I was drawn to the form of a milk carton, then to my espresso pot from Italy, next to an artichoke from the market -- in other words, I found an inexhaustible source of fascinating shapes and forms staring at me from all sides.”
”Now I find myself jumping around from vegetables to nail polish bottles and lipsticks, to crayons and on and on ... and in addition to these wonderful objects I have also discovered the raku kiln. The excitement of reaching into a red-hot environment with tongs, of the flaming bucket, even the choking smoke, and finding results I never dreamt of -- always changing, always so much to learn -- has given me back an enormous energy, appetite and passion for my work. It's an adventure I've just begun, and I look forward to many fulfilling years and ever more exciting results which I hope to share with as many people as may also find them interesting and fun.”