Featured photo: Karen Archia’s new show at the Center for Visual Artists is her first solo exhibit. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)
Towards the end of 2019, Karen Archia cried a lot.
She had just closed her beloved neighborhood coffee shop, the People’s Perk, putting her into a new chapter of her life.
“I cried a lot at the closing,” Archia says. “And a lot of people cried with me…. That crying was an emotional investment in everyone’s, including my, healing. If I had just closed up and disappeared, that would have been super traumatic for everyone.”
From that pain, the artist explains, was born her Fragile Heart series, which takes up the most space in her portfolio. At this point, Archia says, she’s done about 135 pieces for the series.
Using singular drops of paint which she then guides across thick sheets of paper by tilting them, playing with gravity, the lines come together to form abstract ovoid shapes. Sometimes they intersect, creating pockets of negative space. Other times Archia adds in splashes of colors for added complexity. The idea came to her while she was watching another artist play with the dripping technique.
“I said, ‘That piece looks like it’s crying, but it still looks joyful,’” she recalls. “I wanna cry in my pieces.”
At this point, Archia had just started her Public Art Practice, in which she made art in public spaces like the café area of Deep Roots Market, inviting others to create with her. Then the pandemic hit. As the world began to shut down, the extroverted artist found that she had to be creative by herself. She still found time for collaboration through interviews with artists on Instagram Live, but for the most part, putting ink to paper had become a solitary endeavor. Then, in December, she landed a residency at the Center for Visual Artists downtown. And for the next six months, the opportunity offered her time and space to dig deeper into her practice. On Tuesday, seen|through, a show of Archia’s work from her time at CVA, opened in the organization’s gallery.
The exhibit contains with some of Archia’s earlier works, including pieces from her Fragile Heart series. She uses skull motifs, an American flag and pairs of eyes in several works. A lot of the art was influenced by the pain and chaos of the last year, she says.
“That grief and trauma of Black people being killed by police and the double pandemics of police brutality and COVID just merged with my own personal story,” she says. “I want to elevate tearful release. I think we need to grieve in community and grieve out loud.”
On one of the main walls of the gallery, three large, sprawling scrolls span across the width of the space. They are stacked one on top of the other and display Archia’s signature black-and-white markings. Each measuring almost four feet tall by 36 feet wide, the works are the artist’s largest pieces to date.
“Their studies; they’re called ‘Black Lives Inspire,’” she explains. “I drive by this sign in Lindley Park every day that says, ‘Black Lives Inspire,’ and it’s impacted me because that statement means so much to me…. And so I’ve been wanting to do larger works since I had access to this space.”
And while much of Archia’s work is visually abstract, there’s intentionality in how she creates and the tools she uses to make her art. She says she spends time just looking at many of her pieces as she creates them. The process allows her time to commune with the works and feel when they are close to completion.
“To me, it’s a process and I know, for myself, it’s not a science; I go by how I feel,” she says. “I know that the work is enough because I am enough.”
That’s a core essence of Archia’s work. While her pieces aren’t figurative in nature, and she only has two traditional self-portraits in the show, Archia views all of her work as a kind of extension of herself. Even her use of Black sumi ink is a reflection of her identity and her love of Black people.
“I love black, I love being Black, I love Black people,” she says. “I want to say things about the universality, the fundamental nature of black and the diversity of black and the physical output of it is just an expression of my love. You put energy into the things you love.”
Lately, Archia has been putting her energy into mentoring Black women artists. For the month of July, Archia helped curate a new show at the Kernersville Public Library featuring three Black, female artists. As part of her CVA show, she features fellow artist and activist April Parker, who she painted on commission to commemorate Parker’s residency at Elsewhere.
Centering her identity, creating community and championing others are the core tenants by which Archia lives through her artmaking. For the foreseeable future, Archia says she’ll be focusing on the Black Women’s Art Collective that she’s started and working as the city’s liaison for the new Neighborhood Arts Residency Program. After that, she’s going to take a break from making art. But that doesn’t mean she’ll be gone for long — creating is part of who she is.
“I feel like this is the most soulful work I’ve ever done,” she says. “I’ve spent more years on this Earth than I’ve got left, so I want to do soulful work.”
Seen|through will be on display at the Center for Visual Artists until Aug. 15. A First Friday celebration will take place on Aug. 6 from 6-9 p.m. The Black Women’s Art Collective show will be on display at the Kernersville Public Library until July 31. To learn more about Archia, follow her on Instagram at @scrappyunicorn or on her website at karenarchia.com.