Live, Inspired

Art can inspire us to live our best lives—a wellspring well suited to the start of a new year. 

Making art is an inherently risky endeavor: when an artist releases a work into the world, they invite criticism as well as acclaim—a state of play personified in the courageous career of Karen Bezuidenhout, an artist we recently (elatedly) began representing. As she so eloquent admits: “It’s not easy putting myself out there; it’s like exposing a piece of my soul.”

Karen arrived at art later in life by way of her lifelong immersion in nature and discovery. Raised on a racehorse farm outside Cape Town, she grew riding. “My sister and I would have crazy adventures on our Welsh ponies, falling off and racing around.” As such, horses have always been a fixture in her life—a prominence apparent in her paintings.

Also present: her visceral and innate connection to art, reflective of her self-taught, self-actualized trajectory as a painter. One rainy night, in 1996, a thirtysomething Karen attended a show put on by a small art school in Stellenbosch where her sister was taking classes. “I walked in, looked around, and literally knew with every atom of my being that I wanted to paint.” The very next day, she enrolled in the school—set in an old wine cellar and run by artist Pieter Vermaak.

“In the beginning, when I would see a person looking at my paintings, I would run and hide. But I taught myself to talk about my work and realized that people really like to know the artist. All I do is tell the truth. I tell it like it is.” This clarity of vision was put to the test when several years later, she moved to San Francisco with her husband and two small children. “After leaving the autumn drenched wine lands of South Africa, it felt like someone had turned the lights off… Painting saved me. I would go into a different world.” Painting allowed her to continue exploring the colorful landscapes she loved, and a color course at the College of Marin solidified her escape through palette.

In a new country and culture, painting became her compass. “I paint from the sheer joy and love of painting. My style developed along the way. I didn’t have a style when I started.”

When her family relocated again, this time to the coastal enclave of Santa Barbara, she reconnected with her muse—nature—and met primitive painter Bill Woolway. “We adopted each other, and Bill became my mentor. We had a coffee date once a week for years, and never stopped chatting about colors and paintings we loved. Because of this, I became more and more confident with my art.” Over coffee, Bill proposed that she paint what she loved most: horses. So she went home and made a small painting of a horse, done from an elemental perspective. “I brought it back to him the next day. Bill was excited by my efforts. It was a brown horse with a very African blue sky in the background. Bill predicted that one day I would be painting horses on six-by-four-foot canvases. At the time, it seemed impossible.”

Flash forward two decades and ambitious canvases have become the mainstay of her painting practice (recent forays have even found her painting murals inside private homes: “I love challenges and never say no, so it’s rewarding when people appreciate my work.”) Even at large scale, her artworks maintain the rustic, organic approach of that first small equine piece.

Ensconced in Santa Barbara, most of her days begin with a hike and end on horseback. “I absorb the natural beauty. That sense of space inspires me all the time in a subconscious way.”

“It’s not only what I see, but what it does to my heart. I’m so enchanted by nature and my surroundings. I paint primitively from the heart, using colors and shapes in ways that give people a good feeling. They exude a peacefulness.”

May the inspired perseverance of Karen’s journey as an artist embolden you to take creative leaps in the new year.


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