Jill Karlin, Visionary Artist
Dr Lasha Darkmoon
Though I have never actually met Jill Karlin, I am perhaps better qualified to write about her than almost any other person alive today.
This is because I myself, a one-time artist turned art critic, have written extensively on cultural matters both academically and on the internet, and I do have some knowledge of Ms Karlin and her work.
Karlin wrote to me about a year and a half ago in response to one of my online essays on art. We struck up an almost instantaneous friendship and have been corresponding ever since.
I fell in love with Karlin’s art almost at once, detecting in her visionary paintings the influence of some of my favorite painters: Matisse, Gauguin, Henri Rousseau and Grandma Moses. From the study of these great artists Karlin obviously derived great benefit, but in no sense can her work be described as derivative. It has a unique freshness of its own. Perhaps the quality that distinguishes her work above all is its chaste and childlike simplicity—its rare innocency of eye.
It was clear to me right from the beginning that Karlin and I were in a sense kindred spirits, and that she inhabited the same world of imagination that I did: a world known to me and my personal friends as “the realms of gold” — or Exotica Fantastica.
Reminiscent of Henri Rousseau’s evocative The Dream and Manet’s Dejeuner sur L’Herbe, not to mention Goya’s La Maja Desnuda, this superb example of semi-surrealistic exotica fantastica was offered to me as a gift by Karlin in October 2009, only a month after our first exchange of emails. Convinced that the painting would one day be worth a lot of money and not wishing to take advantage of the artist’s impulsive generosity, I was forced to decline her kind offer. The charming nude reclining in the bathtub, incidentally, is the artist herself — the purple-haired princess of the Forest Primeval.
Broadly speaking, Karlin’s art and life run parallel courses and can be divided into two significant periods, each with its own subdivisions. The watershed event that separates these two periods is the climactic meeting with the most important person in her life, the man she was to marry: the architectural genius Lee Porter Butler, founder of Ekotecture.
It could be said that there are basically two periods in Karlin’s artistic evolution: Before Lee and After Lee.
It is in the earlier period that Karlin was particularly prolific, turning out a vast body of work and enjoying exhibitions all over the world, while she lived a peripatetic life of Bohemian adventure in Paris, London and Rome—doubtless with the occasional jaunt to sunny Florence where the great Renaissance masters accomplished their finest creations.
Karlin’s second artistic period appears to have involved, initially at any rate, less painting and more inward exploration: more meditation, more yoga, and, above all, with her husband Lee Porter Butler, the birthing of a revolutionary new ecological concept known as Ekotecture. (See here, here and here).
Let me now review some of the highlights of Jill Karlin’s fascinating and eventful life.
After graduating from Rhode Island School of Design in 1976, Karlin embarked upon her career with her first one person show at Boston Center for The Arts. At this time, she was teaching art at an exclusive prep school, a post she retained for several years before setting off for a stint of art study in Rome. She then returned to America where she took her Masters degree at Boston University School of Fine Arts. Here she was to learn traditional techniques under teachers imbued with an innate admiration for the Renaissance masters.
It was during this period that Karlin began experimentations with egg tempera and completed a series of large oil paintings called The Peaceable Kingdom. She had been inspired by American naïve primitive painters who had visions of an arcadian paradise world, a sort of bucolic Utopia, in which swords are beaten into plowshares and the leopard lies down with the lamb.
In 2000, Karlin was to win the prestigious Philip Hulitar award at the Society of Four Arts in Palm Beach for her controversial and imaginative painting, What Does A Dolphin Dream About? This was painted in a similar style and delved into the same set of preoccupations: the interface of the real world with the world of dreams and reverie.
Here was a serene vision of a world at peace with itself: a theme that was to play an integral part in Karlin’s subsequent life and career and which was to serve as the hallmark of her deliciously psychedelic ‘Dolphin Dream’ paintings in later years.
Karlin’s art took off in the 1980s. In 1981, she was to receive a grant as Artist in residence at Villa Montalvo. Here she was to paint a series of monumental landscape paintings in oils, inspired by the beautiful countryside in which she was living. She would strap 5′ x 9′ stretched canvases onto the roof of her VW bus and wander the country in search of vistas to inspire her imagination. This process brought her into contact with a vanishing America. It was heartrendingly sad.
She was to meet farmers who were selling their land for a pittance in what would later become “Silicone Valley”. She was to paint the last patches of precious green earth. The peach and cherry orchards that John Steinbeck wrote about so movingly, the verdant vistas that were rapidly being swallowed up by the voracious new monster of technology: she was to paint all this evanescent world from early morning to late at night—sometimes working feverishly by moonlight, with nothing to sustain her but her will and the desire to capture on canvas the fleeting moment.
Sadly, none of these otherworldly paintings, painted in a Van Gogh state of heightened sensitivity, have survived. They were lost to posterity when a mysterious fire broke out and destroyed Karlin’s home in the Santa Cruz valley. This was to happen just a few months after her well-received exhibition at Villa Montalvo.
A highly lucrative period of commercial success was to follow for Karlin which was to compensate in some measure for the destruction of some of her finest paintings.
An art dealer was to commission a series of large floral watercolors for placement in the presidential suites of luxury hotels in Dallas and Atlanta. Karlin spent several hours a day working in the greenhouses and arboretum of orchid fancier Walter Hunnewell, president of Horticulture magazine. It was in fact the artist’s love of orchids that finally brought her to Palm Beach where she became widely known for her beautiful orchid paintings.
Karlin’s watercolors from this period are extraordinarily detailed in spite of their huge size. She was to experiment with paint in audacious new ways, letting the paint drip, squiggle and coagulate into bizarre and unexpected shapes on the canvas. Her Miltonia orchids positively bleed, like flowers crying blood.
Some time during this period, Karlin was to read an account in Esquire magazine about seven Cosmonauts who reported seeing, from the porthole of their spacecraft, an angel with leviathan wings gliding through the ethereal spaces.
Inspired by this article, she embarked on a series of handmade paper pieces called “The Cosmic Garden”. Dramatic and powerful, bizarre but beautiful, these abstract floral forms had a mystique about them that gives the sensitive viewer a little frisson—as if these were personal decorations worn by the angels themselves.
During this prolific period, Karlin was supporting herself with commissions of her well-known “House Portraits”. These meticulously executed works of art commemorate the history of a place, a building, or even a boat, in Karlin’s distinctly American naïve primitive style. Here we have a patchwork quilt in the border, with the central image being the focus of the eye. A multiplicity of images help to create the story in the border. These paintings were snapped up at once by museums, civic centers, 5-star hotels, and private buyers who knew they were on to a good thing.
Perhaps a high water mark in Karlin’s art career was her trip to India and Nepal in 1988. She had decided to visit the Indian subcontinent to learn advanced yoga techniques under the best oriental masters, but she was to be sidetracked from this pursuit. She was to spend most of her time painting. India was vast, and it had a lot to offer in the way of variety and intellectual stimulation. India, after all, is where it all began.
A fortuitous meeting with multimillionaire Biki Oberoi, owner of the Hotel Oberoi chain, and his future wife, Mirja Jogic, was to bear fruit. Impressed by her paintings, Mr Oberoi decided he would like to exhibit Karlin’s paintings in one of his numerous hotels. After extensive travels in Egypt with Biki and Mirja, Karlin was to exhibit 108 of her Indian and Nepalese paintings in New Delhi.
These works are among her best, reminiscent in many ways of Gauguin’s Polynesian paintings: sprightly and vibrant canvases in which the colors literally scream at the eye and the sun burns in the hot sky like a brass furnace. Electric green fields pulse with an eerie light. The scarlet and orange robes of the people bludgeon the eye like a sledgehammer. The azure sky resembles a peacock’s wing, shining brighter than the most cerulean blue ever seen. How it was possible for Karlin to gain these uncanny effects is a mystery to me. Few artists I know possess such a variety of versatile talents.
I have said enough about the versatile talents of this relatively unknown artist. I will not labor the point. I won’t speak of the subsequent years when under the benign influence of her beloved husband, Lee Porter Butler, a consummate genius in his own right, Karlin was to plow a lonely furrow…not always achieving the acclaim I feel convinced she deserved. She was to see herself passed over and upstaged by a number of shallow pretenders and bogus practitioners of the art of painting. These tatty works fill the galleries now, leaving most visitors bemused if not disgusted. It is only publicity that sells these pretentious works, not merit.
An exhibition of Karlin’s paintings is to take place at the Ross Gallery in Palm Beach at 8.30 p.m. on Friday, February 11. This could well be an historic occasion, a day to remember for art lovers. If I were a Floridian, I would make a point of visiting this exhibition, if only to pick up a bargain. Artists like Karlin are not born every day. And I do believe her paintings will appreciate in value after her death, if not in her lifetime.
This is a painter who has broken her back and mended it herself with remedial yoga exercises. She has swum with dolphins in the Atlantic Ocean and traveled in many strange lands. Like Pater’s Mona Lisa, she has been a “a diver in deep seas”—both in the real world we see around us and in those realms of gold I have referred to previously as Exotica Fantastica.
Who knows…I who live in cold and rainy England, and have yet to meet Karlin, may decide to invest in a plane ticket and fly over to sunny Florida this February for her forthcoming art exhibition.
I will sneak up to Karlin as she stands on one side of the exhibition hall, her skyblue eyes gazing wistfully out of the window. And I will lean over and whisper in her ear, “Hi, it’s me! The stranger you know but have never met! I’ve come to buy one of your paintings!”
And Karlin will turn to me and say, “Take any painting you wish, dear friend. I give it to you free!”
And this is the painting I would choose — if it were not already owned by one of the richest art collectors in India.