Earlier this year, after travelling many miles and relocating for the umpteenth time in my life, I was lucky enough to be on the receiving end of a lovely act of kindness.
It happened when I met Australian collage artist Karen Lynch in person for the first time.
I’d recently moved to the “southern creep” of Adelaide, Karen’s home city. On a sunny day in May we arranged to catch up in one of the sleepy seaside villages between our respective suburbs that only ‘the locals’ know about.
We’d been ‘virtual’ blogging buddies for 4 years, encouraging each other and interacting as co-members of the very first intake of Pip Lincolne‘s ‘Blog With Pip’ (an online “how to” course for bloggers), first run in February 2014. We were ‘foundational’ “Pipsters” – or “Pippies” as I like to call us. It was fun – and special.
A veritable whirlpool of creative exploration and support, energised by a community of women constantly taking leaps of faith, this very blog grew out of it. More importantly, it coincided with Karen’s pivotal decision to move towards a creative career as she carefully built what’s now become her thriving collage art practice and business, Leaf and Petal Design.
With the Gulf of St. Vincent as our winking blue backdrop, we met up and downed several coffees, warming ourselves in the mid-Autumnal sun and conversation.
After exchanging life stories and discovering a mutual love for pub rock (!), when we said our goodbyes Karen shyly handed me a package. “I thought it could go into the new meditation room,” she smiled, Facebook-familiar with my hopes of establishing my first-ever solo meditation teaching business, now back in Australia and in a new home town.
It was one of her beautiful collage prints, resplendent with wondrous women and the stillness of the natural world. I was sincerely moved and grateful, and shed a wee tear on the drive home. This is it below.
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One of the nicest things about being part of this online blogging/creative community has been the opportunity for ‘IRL (“in real life”) meetings to come about for many of the Alumni members. And to bear witness to their confidence and creativity blooming over time.
We seem to have such nervousness around creativity: comparing ourselves to others, thinking we’re not worthy of such pursuits or that it’s somehow ‘selfish’ to act on these impulses. I’m with Liz ‘Magic Lessons‘ Gilbert on this: every one of us has a need to be creative, whether it’s applying ‘why, what, when and how’ decisions to everyday activities like making dinner or sending emails, to designing and painting a giant mural on the side of a silo at the behest of a local council. Fundamentally the process is the same.
Whether we do it for love or money, I believe creativity – making something from nothing – is a pillar of both health and happiness. It’s life-giving. Necessary. And, if we acted on our creative impulses more often, the world would likely be a better place. (Less stress = more joy = happier, kinder and more connected people).
Of course, moving away from what we know, reinventing ourselves as creative workers, making big changes, is anxiety-provoking. It takes a lot of consideration and planning to make it happen, let alone become a going concern. And success isn’t guaranteed especially in such a noisy world where everyone expects to be a rock star, fast.
But the anxiety, and yes, even harm that comes from remaining stuck inside a job/a life/a habit that takes away from our sense of purpose – where we don’t get to put our skills to best use, where our hearts and minds languish, where we don’t thrive – is equally if not more scary. Worse, it can make us sick, bitter and suffer terribly.
When it comes to this creative stuff it does take courage to reinvent our lives away from what we know: we have to go against our instincts by embracing uncertainty and unfamiliarity, to allow failure and to learn from it – often. Then, on top of all that, to find a way to keep going and remain resilient in the service of our dreams and our ‘bottom line’. I would also argue – as someone who now teaches mindfulness and how it relates to creativity – in the service of our wellbeing.
It’s a delicate dance between ‘all or nothing’, ‘success or failure’ and ‘luck and opportunity’. Not everyone works out the steps to it.
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An artist with a crafter’s heart, Karen still “pinches” herself at her success and how far she’s come. Her Instagram is followed by over 78K people, she receives a steady flow of commissions and she releases new prints weekly. This is serious mum.
So Karen’s creative story is an inspiration. Her celestial, surrealist collage work and animations are not only fun and beautiful – literally a sight to behold – they’re now sought after by some of the world’s biggest publications (Playboy), brands (Mercedes Benz) and musicians (Bernard Fanning).
Her penchant for the medium grew out out a love for design, colour, vintage aesthetics and a desire to preserve – and subvert – images of times gone by.
She taught herself – and backed herself – over and over again. It’s hard work. And it’s a fascinating tale. Thanks Karen.
Circus Folk: Do you remember your first creative impulse? And how that made you feel – making something?
Karen Lynch: No I don’t! However I can remember the first time I sold a collage and dancing around saying “I’m a real artist!” The euphoria and validation that someone was actually going to pay me for making a piece of art was unbelievable.
CF: What was your very first collage? And did you make them when you were young?
KL: My first collage was a mix of geometrical shapes, and sewing pattern catalogue images, glued on a canvas. When I was younger, I preferred to draw and paint, and then in my teenage years I was obsessed with photography.
CF: Can you give us a bit of a snapshot of how you made your way to making a career using your creativity, as a collage artist? Because you weren’t always a ‘creative worker’ were you…
KL: It all started when a family member passed away; I had all these photos and I wanted to make [them] into a special album.
A friend suggested I go to a scrapbook shop to look at ways people had mounted photos and decorated the pages in the albums. I was blown away at the types of paper, tools, everything!
Around the same time, I came across a stack of old Australian Women’s Weekly magazines and Australian Home Journals from the 1950s and 1960s.
I started doing mixed media type greeting cards and journals using the vintage imagery. These were embellished with buttons, ribbons and stitching. I spent so much time on them that they were each little pieces of art.
A businesswoman friend who ran a craft website suggested I make them on a larger scale, so I started making a few collages on canvas. I was just really dabbling until I joined in with the worldwide 100 Day Project, where you do something creative every day and post it on Instagram. I chose to do collage.
That was probably the best learning experience I could ever have! Every day, without fail, I would make a collage. Even if I was tired and it was late, I forced myself to make something. Then I just kept up those creative habits and just kept making one a day.
The other thing was being brave enough to share my experiments – good and bad – on Instagram. I met like-minded creative people – a community who were encouraging and gave feedback.
Eventually I started getting noticed by the music industry and advertising agencies, and asked to do projects.
CF: It can be pretty painstaking to make a good collage: a lot of design goes into it, nutting out and matching images, not to mention sourcing and collecting the raw material from magazines and so on. What attracts you to this medium – what makes it so satisfying or rewarding for you to work in?
KL: Sometimes it can be painstaking but other times it can seem effortless. It’s quite possible to find two or three scraps you have laying on your table that somehow magically fit together and make the perfect collage.
The sourcing is all part of the treasure hunt – finding the perfect images that you just know are screaming out to be ‘collaged’! That may mean rummaging through filthy secondhand stores or sifting through piles at car boot sales.
I really love the idea that these beautiful images, which have been pretty much thrown away, or neglected for decades, can come to life again.
People used to ask me “How can you cut up that 1963 Vogue magazine?” But it was sitting useless in a box, on a shelf, not being appreciated. This way I’m giving it a second life. It’s all about the recycling!
CF: In particular, what kinds of images do you look for, to go into your work?
KL: I’m definitely drawn to beautiful colours, and architectural lines. I love vintage images, especially the ‘rear view’ of people and children, rather than face on.
There is more of a ‘timeless’ quality about them: you project yourself into what they might be seeing – like a surreal landscape or a gigantic hibiscus, or just gazing off into space…
CF: Yes – your ‘characters’ always seem to be “looking to” something: what might that be?
KL: I often think my vintage ladies are daydreaming or looking for escapes or pondering bad relationships! In some designs it’s like people are going about their everyday business: out on a boat, walking down the street, driving in their car… They are part of this surreal world around them, but whether they realise that or not is another thing.
Often I feel like it can be a way to convey mood. I know there are a few collages I’ve made when I personally felt overwhelmed by what was happening in my life, and I think it came through in the design – such as with “Fragility” for example (below).
CF: Collage art has had a resurgence in the last few years: do you think that’s come alongside the rise of “the handmade” as a response to how digital our lives have become? What are your thoughts on this?
KL: Collage art has definitely had a resurgence. My opinion is that it’s come from at least two main areas – the “green” recycling movement and social media.
People have heaps of magazines and books around. They can be cheap or free and somewhere like Adelaide where we don’t have humidity or natural disasters like flooding, we have stacks of perfectly preserved vintage material just filling sheds and bookcases.
As far as social media goes, Instagram is the biggest art gallery in the world – whether you like it or not, the good and the bad. People are such visual creatures and they are really insatiable for photographs, art, design, video.
To look at, to share and to make – whether it’s analogue or digital – images collaged or edited together really capture people’s imaginations.
CF: You mentioned earlier giving things a “second life” working in this medium. Given that you work with analogue images – real, physical objects, something that you handle and touch – do you see collage art as being a way to preserve the past, in addition to re-framing it?
KL: Yes, I definitely feel like I am preserving and reinventing images from the past, for sure. But I’m usually taking them out of context and putting them in a new somewhat retro-futuristic reality.
CF: And what’s your approach to working with colour – it plays such a central role in your collages..
KL: Colour is probably one of most favourite things – which is kinda weird as I often wear black!
I love how colour conveys emotion and affects people. I wish I could say I’m an expert at colour theory but sadly I have no clue as far as the technical side of it works. So it really is very instinctive, and learning through experience – experimenting to find what works. Colours like blue and red, pink and mint, purple and mustard just seem to go together…
I’m not overtly political or have an obvious social agenda. I’m a feminist and a strong believer in equal rights, but I don’t think that translates into my work. So for me collage is purely aesthetics.
CF: Who are some of your favourite artists – collagists or otherwise? Who inspires you?
KL: I change all the time but I love surrealists like Dali, Dorothea Tanning, and Leonora Carrington. Also contemporary pop art painter Ashley Longshore, and photographers like Diane Arbus and David Bailey.
Other things like Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, a colour scheme in a shop window or a 70’s album cover can all be inspirational.
Collage artists I love include Jesse Treece, Mr Babies, Andrew McGranahan, and Ventral is Golden, to name just a few.
CF: You have a massive fan base around your work, which also gets quite a bit of recognition internationally, as well as in Australia. What’s the best thing someone has said about your work?
KL: Scientific American said my work was “a fun jaunt into that other-worldly world” which blew me away! I still get a kick out of anyone saying that I’m talented so I really have to pinch myself sometimes.
CF: What might be your ‘dream job’ with your work – be it with a publication, cover art, animation, collaborating with an artist etc? Is there ‘one’ big project you’d love to ‘sink your scissors’ into?!
KL: It’s too hard to narrow it down! I have been offered a few gigs by big brands at international events that I’ve had to turn down for various reasons, but hope that these sort of projects might come around again.
A campaign for a brand like Gucci would be amazing!
Many thanks to Karen Lynch for the interview!
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- Interview: Karen Lynch
- Words/edit: Megan Spencer
- Collage art: Leaf and Petal Design
- Photos: as credited
- View/buy/commission: Karen’s work on the Leaf and Petal Design website
- Follow: Leaf and Petal Design on Instagram
- Like: Leaf and Petal Design on Facebook
- View: the making of “Civil Dusk” album art video.
- Read: my interview with Berlin-based collage artist, Lucy Dyson.