Karen Conrad knows just how powerful art can be.
Years ago, she painted a friend’s young daughter as part of a series of angel-themed works. The painting was on display in the building where Conrad was teaching at the time, and it caught the eye of a man who’d come to pick up his son from a different class. He showed it to his wife.
When the wife saw Conrad’s painting of a mischievous, blonde angel holding a basket of flowers, she burst into tears. Conrad learned that the woman had lost a daughter —her son’s twin.
“She felt like this picture was what her daughter would’ve looked like,” Conrad said. “The fact that it touched her that much and evoked that emotion within her gave me chills.”
Conrad was recently selected as the Artist of the Year for 2018 by the Coeur d’Alene Art Association.
“It was very humbling to be around so many great artists and to be selected as the Artist of the Year among that group,” she said. “I’m honored.”
Primarily self-taught, Conrad said she carried her love of art with her through her years of service in the Navy. After retiring, she decided to pursue her passion for painting full-time.
She began tole painting, the folk art of decorative painting on tin and wooden objects, and soon expanded into landscapes, with the help of other artists and groups like the Coeur d’Alene Art Association.
“That community of artists has always been supportive,” she said. “They’re really helping me push toward the future. I feel like it’s a great group to grow with. We all recharge each other’s creativity.”
Conrad works with a limited palette in oils, acrylics and watercolors. She’s passionate about painting “en plein air,” a French term for painting outdoors. It’s a challenge to capture a moment in changing light.
“You have to be quick,” she said. “You have to make decisions fast.”
In some ways, Conrad said, she feels that she doesn’t find subjects for her paintings so much as they find her. Any object might spark inspiration: a vintage truck, a bunch of flowers, a doorway.
She’s especially interested in the contrast of shadow and light, as well as in using paint to tell stories.
“I’m fascinated by people’s stories,” Conrad said. “I always want my painting to tell a story of some kind or evoke an emotion.”
Conrad said she strives to learn a new skill each year. Recently, she experimented with abstract painting. Though it was far outside her comfort zone, it was a fun exercise and she learned from it. In 2019, she plans to push herself even further as an artist.
“It’s a constant goal of learning,” she said.
The Coeur d’Alene Art Association meets every third Thursday at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 501 Wallace Ave., in Coeur d’Alene.