Karen Stackow is a self-avowed “tree-hugger” and free spirit who can sit down for six hours a night, like clockwork, to work in her studio; an inspriational artist with a devilish streak; and a devoted mom and daughter who nonetheless is reveling in a new period of life when she can focus most of her time and energy on her artwork. A Rhode Islander since age nine, Karen grew up within hailing distance of Moonstone Beach, surrounded by trees and gardens, surf and sand. Naturally handy, she was blessed to have a father who “let me do what I wanted when I wanted,” which included working with power tools at a young age, fixing cars and helping to build houses.
A degree in art and art history from URI didn’t lead to the career in art therapy she’d originally envisioned, but art remained a part of Karen’s life through phases that included the birth of her two daughters, owning a restaurant in Charlestown and more than two decades of tending bar at nearby Theater by the Sea. A job developing an arts integration program at the Kingston Hill Academy, a K-5 public charter school in Saunderstown, was richly rewarding, but ended when Karen had to take time off to care for her aging father. Somewhat out of the blue, a friend who had recently built a post-and-beam house asked Karen to create a sign with a family name on a leftover piece of cedar. Considering the project, Karen decided that painting the wood wouldn’t be satisfactory, so she decided to invest in a $20 solid-point burner (similar to a soldering iron) and engrave it. From this modest beginning grew a passion for pyrography — literally, “writing with fire.”
“I found I had such a need to burn,” she says with a laugh. “I was hooked from there on in, and started burning different stuff just for fun.” Using simple tools and mostly found materials, Karen designs everything from inexpensive wooden keychains and refrigerator magnets to garden signs, picture frames and wall plaques. Burned onto cedar, pine, cherry and occasionally mahogany or driftwood, her designs frequently include images of trees and leaves, suns and yoga symbols, boats and anchors, and phrases like “Be Nice” or the geographic coordinates of various locations in Rhode Island – the latter a favorite of sailors.
Text is usually burned in Karen’s own unique, curlicue font and each piece is “signed” with the yoga symbol for fire. Karen balks at the term “folk art” to describe her creations, and says “crafts” doesn’t quite fit, either. “Some are crafty, some are works of art,” she decides.
It all sounds very wholesome and earthy, but there’s more of an edge than you might expect to Karen’s work. One garden sign, for example, says “Psycho Path” (a group of therapists recently purchased several as inspirational gifts for clients); another new piece says “Calm Down” on one side, but “Bitch” on the other. “I’m looking forward to offending a few people and making everyone else laugh,” she says mischievously. Just as when she was a child, Karen needs to be outdoors working or playing in the sun whenever possible, so she sets aside time in the winter and at night to work in her studio, which is currently being expanded in the garage attached to her home.With her daughters out of the house with work and school, she’s once again free to “do whatever I feel like.” And despite joking that nothing in her life seems to last more than seven years – “relationships or jobs” – Karen seems intent on pursuing her pyrography career for the long haul.
“The hardest part of doing art is being disciplined, but I could do this all day,” she says while standing in her modest work space, surrounded by slices, chunks and slabs of wood awaiting the application of her heated touch. Self-taught at her craft, Karen’s next goal is to get more educated on dendrology (the study of trees) and how different types of wood burn. “I need to learn trees, work with more wood,” she says excitedly. “‘New’ is what keeps me engaged in anything.”
Find her at these farmer’s markets: URI East Farm Saturdays 8:30am-12pm Marina Park in South Kingstown Tuesdays 2-6pm