By Kate Garcia
“Maybe next time I’ll go with little, tiny heads,” Karen Wippich confesses as we sit in her Southwest Portland home that doubles as a studio. Open and well-lit, the space more like a sunroom than an art studio, with every inch of the walls plastered with thick, wooden-framed images of big, haunting heads. They exist among shocks of colored paint and collaged words, and they’re all staring back at me. Wippich says she’s drawn to the big heads, using them as a focal point for her mixed media pieces, but her affection for them transcends this description. Deftly curated and enlarged cutouts from old photos, Wippich adds each one to its respective piece with a level of thoughtfulness not usually reserved for scraps of paper and old pictures.
In addition to the heads on the wall, Wippich keeps a bag of them tucked under an easel in the corner, casually poised to rummage through for inspiration. At some point during our time together, she walks over to the bag of heads (a reusable grocery bag, much less gruesome than it sounds) and begins to sift through, pulling out a distinctly masculine face that she’d used in a piece from her most recent show in Telluride, Colorado. A guest thought the head belonged to Elvis. “It’s a woman, actually,” Wippich says, offering me a snippet of her exclusively feminist counternarrative to more traditional interpretations of gender and the body.
It’s not only the big heads that define Wippich’s signature style. The images in her work are intentionally absurd, with enlarged prints of heads attached to rigid bodies set against backgrounds indicative of labor, whether industrial or domestic. The cheeky titles she employs—like Pussy Power and Fatbo—represent how acutely self-aware her paintings are, often making explicit statements about politics or society.
On the topic of politics, Wippich is used to having an unpopular opinion. “I’m a black sheep in my family,” she says with a conspicuous hint of satisfaction. These days, her politics have become synonymous with her vision as an artist, and much of Wippich’s most recent work focuses on deconstructing labels that she finds problematic. Androgyny reigns among the figures in her pieces—the head of a mustachioed man atop a feminine figure in a dress, the bodies of two young lovers with the heads of mid-century Wall Street-esque men exchanging flowers. The heads are all big, of course.
“I like [when the audience is] not sure if it’s a male or a female. Or sometimes it is a female, but it looks male or has a male body but a female head or vice versa.”
Wippich’s focus on political and social issues in her art is no accident; in fact, it was an integral part of her transition from graphic design to painting. As someone who “fell into” a 40-year career as a graphic designer, Wippich took a veritable leap of faith about a year ago, after nearly two-and-a-half years of experimenting with painting on her days off. Her evolution was a gradual one, characterized by projects that allowed her to deploy her skills as a graphic designer in conjunction with her more unorthodox artistry. One project was her work with Manifest Justice, a community-based initiative to advocate for racial and economic equality across the country, in 2015. Another was her 2015 self-published book, Driving Strangers, created in partnership with writer Tom Vandel. The book is a collection of stories gathered from Vandel’s work as an Uber driver, paired with paintings of faces done by Wippich, and masterfully produced with her professional graphic design experience.
Something shifts in Wippich when I ask her about her transition to full-time painter; a childlike giddiness threatens to boil over onto the concrete floor. She’d dreamed her whole life of being a fine artist before making the terrifying jump, a move that was “super scary. I had to believe in myself, which is hard to do.”
When our conversation (inevitably) turns to the uncertain reality of being an artist in Trump’s America, Wippich expresses a measured anxiety about cuts to the NEA and, more broadly, a lack of education about the importance of art. “Creativity is everywhere.” As someone who has spent the better part of her life confined by the limits of client-driven graphic design, Wippich is acutely aware of how liberating unfiltered creativity can be. Now that she finally has a personal creative platform to speak from, Wippich has a lot to say. “The political stuff [in my work] is just my frustration or anger or whatever showing,” even if just subconsciously. She says that, in those insular moments of creativity, she runs on pure feeling, often forgetting exactly what she was thinking while creating a piece. For this reason, Wippich strongly encourages her audience to be a part of the process, offering permission to interpret her work in a way that’s meaningful to their own lives and experiences.
Self-described as an outsider all her life, Wippich is still amazed at the warm welcome offered by this city’s art community. After living in nearly 30 different homes throughout her life, she’s somewhat of a modern-day nomad, entering the art conversation of this city as a newcomer with an indispensable take on mixed media artwork. This role Wippich inhabits, as a fresh take on an old scene, colors everything about her, from her domestic aesthetic (retro mod meets Scandi style) to the 19th century handbills she deconstructs, picking out distinctly “weird words that nobody uses anymore” to incorporate into her collages.
“I don’t really know the normal stuff.” Wippich cites Edward Hopper as an inspiration and muses that her style as an artist may come from her adult reverence for Rick Bartow. Bartow, another Pacific Northwest artist, is known for his refusal to be contained by a medium, producing intense and colorful paintings and sculptures of ordinary animals made mystic, something Wippich applies to her work. But ultimately, as she settles into her rhythms and rituals, Wippich seeks to be unapologetically herself, abnormal stuff included. Much of this process relies on the value of instinct, of gut feeling. This in-the-moment creative mentality, planning be damned, inexorably results in mistakes, something that Wippich has had to learn to accept.
“I’ve let go of that. I’ll paint over a painting. That painting right there has five paintings underneath it,” Wippich says, gesturing to a finished piece leaning up against the wall. This process of layering, of every final piece existing as the result of a stratum of not-quite-right, serves as a perfect (if cheesy) metaphor for the life of an artist, a life that Wippich is still trying to navigate. “I still have my moments of, like, is this gonna end tomorrow?” The fear persists, Wippich says, even as she gains more praise and recognition for her work, even as she builds on each layer of herself with something better.
So what’s next for Wippich?
“Out of Portland.” Maybe California. Maybe somewhere else. She’s still a young artist, constantly on the precipice of a new idea or project, and she has the itch to explore and expand her work. Wippich identifies as an “adventurous person,” someone who isn’t afraid of embracing unexpected paths and is ever ready for the next thing to come along and inspire her. Case in point, the cover art she created for Artslandia.
“I got to stretch a little,” Wippich says. Blending graphic design and painting to create a piece both timely and altogether out of time, a celebration of womanhood, and a special tribute to the city of Portland, Wippich says she challenged herself with the project. This merging of styles—graphic design, collage, painting—has become characteristic of Wippich’s work and a broader outlook she has on life. My conversation with Wippich ended with her reflecting on how she got to this point. According to her, she’s living her “own reality,” the result of identifying her passion and nurturing it with focus, even as an outsider, even as a black sheep, even as a collector of heads. On my way out, while I tentatively approached Wippich’s 18-year-old, understandably-crotchety-for-her-age cat, I noticed a small bust of Elvis sitting on a coffee table in the corner among other knickknacks and books, staring in my general direction. Wippich was right, the photo in her bag of heads looked nothing like that guy.
Karen Wippich grew up moving across the U.S. Most of her adult life has been spent working as a graphic designer. A few years ago, her focus changed to something she had dreamed about as a child—becoming a working artist.