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.
Here are two slideshows of Karlin’s artwork which I have only just discovered.
The first will take the reader on a visit to the exhibition at the Ross Gallery of Art in Palm Beach where Karlin’s most recent paintings went on display earlier this year, much to the delight of her many admirers.
The second slideshow is perhaps even more interesting. This brings together Karlin’s most memorable work from the past—her India and Nepal paintings—all set within a background of hauntingly beautiful mantric music. See here
Editor’s note: the following 4-part poem, purporting to be a transcription/ translation of a new “undiscovered” poem by Osama bin Laden, forms the centerpiece of a political article. The article can be read in its entirety here:
Here is the poem by itself:
Death to America
Do what you can, and so shall we. Just wait!—we too are waiting.
— Qur’an XI. 121-22
1. The Great Satan
The inhabitants of the earth
With the wine of your fornications!
You have given birth
To terror, hatred, hysteria!
Your people are sunk
Darkness has come upon you.
You think you live in the light.
Your eyes have been blinded.
Your people stumble in darkness.
Greed has undone you.
Pride and lust are your blight.
God’s sees, and has minded!
Miserable crew, forever whining
About 9/11 and your precious virtue!—
As if you alone had known pain
And the world were under obligation
To kiss your feet and court you
And approach you with shining
Eyes—you blot, you stain!—
You object of utter detestation!
Country of murderers and thieves,
Bloodsuckers of the Third World,
Devils with smiling faces—
My curse on you for ever!
May your land be reduced to a wild
Desolation, may all that lives
In your tainted spaces
Never know peace—or joy—ever!
2. The Coming Doom
Where your people once lived
Secure in the illusion
Of their superior virtue,
There the bison will roam
Again, the frog spread confusion
Over the marshes, the vulture thrive.
There’ll be none to hurt you
There, buried beneath your slime!
Another people will possess your land
Taking your place, a race
From beyond the sea, superior
In virtue: one that practises
What you only preach, showing a face
Of kindness and compassion and
Care for mankind: a race far dearer
To God, and less prone to vices.
You brew trouble, you foment wars
So you can peddle your arms.
From the mouths of children so
That your hatchers of harm
Can trinket their whores
And live the American dream.
That way lies hell, and there you go!
You defile all the regions you rule,
You scatter your bases and rob
The lands you begrime and bescum!
Who helps to kill children for kicks
In Palestine? May Abu Ghraib
Gnaw away at your inmost soul
Like a maggot! The time will come
When your backs will be beaten by sticks!
3. The Holy Land
Israel!—an American colony
Disguised as a Jewish state,
Deliberately planted to destabilize
And drive entire races demented!
A country whose main product is hate,
Whose raison d-être is to make misery,
Where peace would be the only surprise!
A country not owned, but rented
From the Arabs temporarily, by force
—Where the rent is always in arrears.
America, the day will come
When the rent will have to be paid
With compound interest. You’ll reap in tears
What you sowed in joy! At the end of this course,
You will pick up the tab and become
Chief debtor for the monster you made!
See, the betrayer of the Jews—
The Jews themselves! Or rather
Those who call themselves Jews, the pseudo
Ashkenazi Jews with their blue eyes
And blonde hair! Could any race be further
From the true Semitic Jews whose
Blended blood has been poured into
Other bloods under alien skies?
These are the ones, the hocus-pocus
Imposter Jews, who now blow the trumpet
For Zion, stigmatizing
Their critics, and heaping abuse
On those who object to the rank armpit
Of Israel!—Oh, how we loathe these bogus
European Jews whose devisings
Were all learnt from Hitler’s hellcrews.
4. The Day of Reckoning
September 11? That was just
The beginning! Prepare for more
Of the same!—for further contingents
Of “cowards” hell bent on suicide
Flying in to your hated shores!
How can you win? You’ve already lost!
You’ve lost respect: the moral argument.
You are universally despised!
Invincible America, aren’t you glad
You’re so strong? What “courage” it must take
To skulk behind the clouds and rain
Cluster bombs on the weak, without peril
To your own skins! Yes, it’s a piece of cake
Killing women and children in Baghdad!
Congratulations, America! You win
First prize for shooting fish in a barrel!
Hear now my message: Depart
From our lands: you have your own.
Don’t steal our oil! It lies under
Our sands, and there it shall stay!
Get out of our sight! Leave us alone!
Practise the torturer’s art
On your own people! I wonder
What Christ would think of Camp X-ray?
Nation of impudent parasites!—
Supervirus of the world!—
So you think you hold all the aces?
Hear now my curse: May all your bones
Be broken, your ashes all whirled
To the wind! May you who delight
In sowing tares in all places
REAP, REAP, REAP WHAT YOU HAVE SOWN!
that you will never belong to me
who were once my true love
in a past life.
I shall never walk with you
by the sea, or look into
the deep ocean of your eyes.
I shall never see you
smiling, never touch you,
never kiss your mouth.
that you are lost to me
forever, that our days
are already numbered.
everything, but one thing:
that I was there
when you needed me.
nothing more than this:
that we who never met
must say goodbye so soon.
TELL ME, STRANGER
Tell me, Stranger, why we met,
tell me who you are and set
your lips on mine lest I forget.
Tell me, Stranger, tell me why
you looked so deep into my eye
and what happens when we die.
Tell me, Stranger, why we’re here
on this far out wild frontier
and on my frozen cheek this tear.
Tell me, Stranger, tell me why
you slid your hand up my sleek thigh
like a slithering serpent sly.
Tell me why I ever let
you thrust your cruel sword erect
into my wound of wild scarlet.
Tell me, Stranger, why we met,
tell me who you are and set
your lips on mine lest I forget.
Golden girl on the train
I hope you’ve forgiven me
now that you know
I had good reason
to do what I did.
I’d hate you to think
I lacked motivation.
I did it because
you were irresistible,
and asking for it.
I did it because
of the blind rage
whipped up in me by
the wind and the rain
and the lonesome rooms
and the golden girls
crossing their legs
on the benches of summer;
like you, sweetheart,
on that train long ago.
I want you to know
only one thing now,
you who sleep so soundly
underneath the turf
on Fogmoor where
the wind howls
over the wild heather
and bracken forlornly:
I tried my best
to walk in wisdom
and do no wrong,
but I failed.
Accept these lilies,
left on your grave
to mark my sorrow.
The greatest gift
is the gift of forgiveness
for the unforgivable sin.
Receive then from me
this beneficence today—
the gift of my mercy.
I have taken from your shoulders
the burden of guilt.
Go on your way now.
See!—the cities of Satan
where the evil tree Zaqqum
offers its bitter fruit
to the lost. Spare a thought, friend,
for those who fester in chains
at the foot of the tree, gorging
the devilheaded fruits—
the fruits that feed
the appetite for more evil.
Love’s sacred sun is setting
And demonfall is here
And the time for forgetting
Your true love is near.
The time has come for aching
And losing what you had,
For leaving and forsaking
And for being sad.
The time is back for burning
Alone in beds of flame.
Hellvixen is returning!
— Hey Lady, what’s your game?
Listen to me now, Lethyn!—
I swear as the moon is new
I’ll give you one last chance
If you promise to be true.
I haven’t the least desire
To bind you to my breast
Or make you leap through fire
Or put you to the test.
You’re free to love or hate me—
To win life’s game or lose.
I’m waiting, dear, I’m waiting
To see which path you choose.
You do not understand
the ways I keep:
the sleight of my hand—
how I wind, how I creep.
Do you think I need you
to believe in me?
It’s I who must seed you
first. From my seed, your tree.
How can you understand
me, how can you find
me, unless my hand
reaches into your mind
and lights a lantern there
and does some deep mining?—
Until then, despair!
and total lack of meaning.
Stand fast, stand fast
in the love I give you.
Be not entangled
in the stranger’s net.
See, I forgive you!
Let this love last
the moon be strangled.
I have driven away sin
I have made
I have destroyed
your fetters. Be not afraid
the kiss of the unclean.
Out of the Wound these songs well forth
Out of the night of yearning
Out of the tears of lust and wrath
Out of the endless burning.
Back to the Wound these songs will flow
Back to the heart that’s breaking
Back to the blood and tears they’ll go
Back to the endless aching.
Let it finish, foolish lover.
Let these weeping sores heal over.
No more lusts and no more rages
No more cruel chains or cages
No more hunting in love’s jungle
No more whirling through that mangle
No more swooning moons or sighing
In Lilith’s silken meshes lying.
Write these words down in red ink:
If you can’t swim the lake you’ll sink!
If you can’t keep your cool and try
To ride your demons you will die!
If you can’t get a life again
It’s helterskelter down the drain!
Sing a new song! or plummet down
Into the Devil’s well and drown!