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Karen Safer - capturing stories of the world

Playa del Rey, CA / United States

Karen Safer is a photographic artist, documentarian, published writer and poet with a musical bent. As a fifth-generation native Angelino, she was given a camera and crayons at three and exposed to dominant California motifs: light, palm trees, the ocean, music and vernacular architecture that helped define and influence her left-handed aesthetic. She was influenced by her dad (educator and calligrapher), who developed black & white photos in their back washroom/turned darkroom and by her mother's thirst for knowledge and travel.

She was fortunate to begin a life of travel as a pre-teen, which shaped her love of the exotic paired with an eye for the formal, accidental and unusual while subliminally seeking the "beautiful" that jiggles the lens/frame of her eye. From the onset, she documented her surroundings and family and friends' events. During COVID, she photographed from her balcony and was dubbed the "Monet of Playa del Rey."

She has been in over ten solo shows and 200+ juried and group exhibitions in London, Rome, Glasgow, Zurich, Budapest, Barcelona, Athens, Prague, Paris, Amsterdam, Belgium, Hawaii, Canada and from California to New York and from Minnesota to Santa Fe, to Florida, winning 150+ Talent, Merit, Honorable Mention and Special Recognition Awards. She has traveled and photographed in over 230 countries (and territories). She is a member of many art organizations.

Initially, she began painting and printmaking alongside art and architectural history before wholly embracing photography with influences from Mesopotamia to Vermeer/Matisse and Atget to Cindy Sherman. She is a self-described "romantic soul" with intellectual cravings.

She received a Bachelor's and Master's degree with honors in art from UCLA and CSULB. Her career includes work in design and architecture firms, and she is the principle of ArtFocus International.

Your artistic journey started at a very young age when you were given a camera and crayons. How do you believe these early experiences influenced your creative development as a photographic artist and poet?

The early experiences influenced everything! I began my artistic journey of "seeing" the world through a frame/lens and recording it - eye to brain, hand to paper - from a very young age. I started experiencing the world by copying images from newspapers (LAT), postcards, toy boxes and magazines that also included text. With a camera, I could "capture" anything. In my formative years, at the age of 4, I began drawing and painting (portraits, architectural drawings, LA scenes); when I was 8, I started playing the piano; at 11 choir. I played piano, sang in the chorus, and performed in school musicals. By 18, I wanted to be Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday or Janis Joplin. From the very beginning, I knew I wanted to be an artist and a singer.

Being a fifth-generation native Angelino, you were exposed to dominant California motifs that shaped your left-handed aesthetic. Can you share how your surroundings and heritage continue to influence your artistic vision and choice of subjects?

I was always influenced by the California landscape (especially palm trees) and, of course, the sea as we would go often. I was destined to be left-handed; my mom was. Art surrounded me - my dad was a calligrapher, my Uncle Lou was an art professor who brought me art supplies, and my aunt was a musician who played piano while I sang – it was a gift and my heritage. I also watched a lot of old black-and-white movies that influenced my aesthetic. And my dad took black-and-whites and developed them in our back washroom. Nothing is separate from me, my environment and the world I create around me – all is one. I am forever influenced by my surroundings, music, the built environment, and architectural details; they are all part of me wherever I go in the world.

Travel has played a significant role in your life, and you've documented your experiences through photography. How has traveling to over 230 countries influenced your artistic perspective and allowed you to capture unique and diverse images from around the world?

I began a life of travel begrudgingly at 12 years old, and it changed my world and awareness forever. I didn't want to leave my "jr. high boyfriend" but soon realized a whole new exciting world awaited me beyond any schoolgirl crush, and it would beckon me forever to explore at any cost. The world of travel is the world of knowledge. You gain so much and make so many mental connections when you travel – it is a classroom of continuous world education on so many levels – not just visual. I have been, seen, smelled, tasted, listened and experienced so many different cultures and people that have delighted and begged me to be incorporated in my work. I have a huge inventory of imagery that canvases the world. I seek the unique and/or the "exotic" (before it disappears) and even the ordinary when I am traveling and connecting with humans in any form possible – usually sign language. Each photograph has a story.

During COVID, you found creative inspiration photographing from your balcony, earning the nickname "Monet of Playa del Rey." How did the limitations of the pandemic impact your artistic process, and what did you learn from this challenging time?

Actually, I was energized during the pandemic as the world went quiet. The limitations became positives that forced me to STOP, evaluate and organize all my imagery and edit my poetry. I had taken a hiatus from exhibiting due to extensive travel, and then COVID hit. Soon, I noticed that galleries started online exhibits, and some even offered printing and framing services across the globe, making it easier to show anywhere.

Before digital, I began serious photography with an SLR and film camera. I would dance around my subject and frame it. Get that best shot (proven correct only after developing the film), but usually the first one. DIGITAL changed everything. You could shoot thousands of images, and then the task was in editing. One didn’t have to be so precise. However, I still noticed that the first shot was usually the best one framed by the eye.

BUT, like breathing, during COVID, I also needed to capture a NEW image or two daily. I have a spectacular view from my balcony and literally snapped images as the weather conditions changed or remained the same – from sunsets to storms, fauna blooming to decay. I felt like Monet painting his haystacks in all different weather conditions from a single viewpoint.

Additionally, being online, I could see what other artists were doing, and it stretched and made me grow in certain directions I might not have explored if left isolated. However, the “au currant” in photography has left me a little puzzled. What once was prized as an excellent photograph is now challenged by blurry, out-of-frame, shallow-focused imagery – the antithesis of my training. It has, however, stretched me to become more competitive, but I feel as if I’ve strayed from my true vision. Oh well, life goes on, and learning and experimentation are good.

Your artwork has been exhibited in numerous locations worldwide. Can you discuss how experiencing different cultures and art scenes has enriched your creative expression and broadened your audience's understanding of your work?

I am so grateful and appreciative that my work has been received so positively around the world. Having been to so many places, I can somewhat anticipate the aesthetic of a city or town and submit accordingly. And having stepped into the competitive online world, I can now more successfully determine what each venue might be seeking in that arena.

I am a citizen of the world. I truly believe that. As I started traveling very early again, I felt comfortable anywhere I was. When asked, "What is your favorite place?" I would answer, "Wherever I am at that moment." I think appreciating artwork is very personal, and I am always amused and amazed at how people receive an image. It really is up to the individual if the image speaks or does not speak to them. I am now primarily a street photographer but do abstract and digital work, and I am delighted that people respond to it all.

Your influences range from art history to contemporary artists like Cindy Sherman. How do you weave these diverse inspirations into your photographic art, and how do they contribute to the uniqueness of your visual storytelling?

As I've said, there is no separation between my life, my education and my art. I seek images that call to me. I don't usually go out looking for a specific subject. I am impressed by the "found object" or "vista" that captures my eye both formally (line, color, shadow, shape, etc.) and, of course, above all – by beauty.

By the time I was finished at university (Master's in art), I felt I'd studied every important artist, architect, musician, writer, poet, etc. I've been heavily influenced by the History of Art, which encompasses the whole history of the world. Over the years, I have continued my education either formally, online, or by travel. Like traveling at an early age, the world became my classroom, and more connections were made within my brain. Travel allowed me to meet people from different cultures, visit famous places, see architecture up close, visit museums, go to concerts worldwide, visit libraries, and eat all types of foods. I had an extensive formal education, but the world of travel made it all connect and broadened my life and artwork. You can't help what seeps in viscerally. We're here to extend love and knowledge.

Your career has encompassed work in design and architecture firms. How has your background in these fields influenced your approach to composition and aesthetics in your photographic work?

I think I'd learned all of those formal considerations and aesthetic conditionings prior to my professional career in design/architecture. I am sure there were influences, but I think I came to the jobs with a great deal of formal and compositional awareness. I was probably influenced as I watched and saw other people's work, but basically, I think one's sensibilities are formed early on. Of course, as Picasso said, "Good artists copy; great artists steal." So, I am sure I have been influenced and taken leads from other artists. I am still drawn to artworks that I first loved, but I am happy to include new pieces in my treasure chest when they come along.

In your condensed statement, you mentioned that life is still a mystery, and you continue to seek visual surprises. How do you maintain a sense of curiosity and wonder in your artistic practice, even after years of experience and success?

I thank my mother for this. She instilled in me a sense of enthusiasm and curiosity. I think curiosity and enthusiasm are keys to life. I’ve been in periods where it has waned, but the eye can’t help responding to what it finds “new” around the corner. There is always something that impresses the eye – color, line, light, beauty – the essentials. It’s like re-watching movies; you always find something you didn’t see before. The eye wants to be delighted. Many times, I’ve come upon an old image of mine and been so jazzed to rediscover it - and that excites me!

As a self-described "romantic soul" with intellectual cravings, how do these contrasting elements come together in your art, and how do they contribute to the emotional depth and complexity of your work?

I really don't know. I am an "old romantic" who was heavily influenced by movies (Film Noir to musicals), music (jazz ballads), art, literature, etc. But I am also a very intellectual person who seeks and craves knowledge; there is a term for this - informavore. I am both left and right-brained in one - creative and analytical. I think it's the balance of the two that is important. I don't know if my work is "deep" and complex, but I am. So, maybe the work is reflective. I really can't comment any further. I am my work, and it is me.

Your artistic journey has been a continuous evolution. Looking ahead, what aspects of your photography and creative expression do you hope to explore or develop further, and what aspirations do you have for your future artistic endeavors?

I've slowed down a bit on travel lately, but I'm very happy that I've experienced so much of the world and have no regrets. Right now, my local area has become of more importance and interest to me. I think one just goes on and develops in their normal day-to-day way. As I've heard, "Artists don't retire, they just die." You just keep going on because you do – it's like breathing – it's essential, and also, you need to keep experiencing your life.

I am focused on exhibiting in more group and solo exhibitions internationally and locally. Also, I am working on putting my images and poems together in photo collages and editing my World Poetry and Karina-isms (collection of sayings) for publication.

Where once my motto was, "To Travel is to Live" (Hans Christian Andersen) – NOW to CREATE is to live! I let my photographs do the traveling of the world for me.


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