JOSHUA TREE — Karine Swenson is a painter who believes in the art and craft of painting. Her work varies from realistic to abstract and she is constantly looking for new avenues to fuel her imagination and test her abilities.

Growing up in small towns in South Dakota, Swenson developed a strong connection with nature. The studio is where she can explore that relationship, and a significant part of her work is painting animals from photographs she has taken herself. A favorite subject is rabbits.

“When I first started, I wanted to make a distinction between a desert cottontail and a jackrabbit. I couldn’t believe the ears,” she said.

To Swenson, those paintings are self-portraits and an extension of her personality. “We all have a connection to the natural world; it’s a part of our soul.”

Swenson is intrigued by the unpredictability of the wild. It’s what draws her to her animal subjects. Sometimes she renders them realistically and other times she has them dancing on a painterly background, or standing obstinately on an abstract. There is always something of the soul of the animal caught on the canvas and captured for eternity.

“When you see a wild animal … there is always an amount of unexpectedness. Just watching them in the desert is fascinating,” the Joshua Tree resident said.

She likes looking at the rabbits in the yard. “They eat everything. I tried to plant flowers when I first came here. I would put something out there and water it tenderly and lovingly and be excited about the prospect of flowers and it would be gone. I went to the garden center and was told, ‘They eat everything’. You can’t help but admire their tenacity and desire to survive.”

Swenson’s paintings give the animals an immortality. They live on the canvas in the viewers’ imagination, and her unyielding respect of life and the planet is obvious. “Painting wild things in their environment is something I’m preserving,” she said. “It may not be around forever.”

Asked about her art process, she hesitates at first. “I don’t come alive until the afternoon. Once I’m in the studio, I really do get lost in there. It doesn’t matter what I’m painting. I need to have that time. If I’m working on a large painting, it could take a number of days. I don’t try to control what I’m working on. To me, it’s more important that I keep my enthusiasm for the work alive. I have to be doing something I want to do. If I’m not excited about the work, it’s not going to turn out; it’s not going to have that spark.”

Swenson paints abstract and figurative, watercolor, gauche, and mostly oil. Currently, she is exploring encaustics. Always she is pushing herself to discover something that for her resides between real life and the canvas.

“Sometimes the ideas I want to explore has to do with the painted surface — what the paint does,” said Swenson. “The abstract work is the most personal because every decision that is made on the canvas is my decision. There is a misconception about abstract being easy. There is no clear path. I can’t always see where I’m going. The direction you take is all up to you. It’s like how we walk through our lives. It’s exciting that the process of painting mirrors the process of your life.”

Swenson’s newest abstract work began in watercolor and gauche. She will finish a smaller painting, then translate it into oil on a much larger scale, working to achieve the same quality and look. What she discovered was the patterns she was seeing were the same patterns she sees in the desert after a burst of rain.

Painting, for Swenson, is precious. It’s tradition, skill and interpretation. You can be a proficient painter and still discover new things. It’s the idea that you can take a tradition and craft and elevate it in that way that excites her. She will always be working to explore more, learn more and advance her art. It’s just the way she is.

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