The old Latin adage, “still waters run deep,” applies well to Canadian illustrator Karen Klassen. She terms herself “introverted” yet her easy laughter and friendly nature belie her claim. Though spending a couple of days with the 35-year-old illustrator, whisking around Calgary in her Japanese right-hand drive, four-wheel-drive truck causes some reassessment of first impressions. For Klassen seems equally at home cross-country skiing in the mountains that ring Calgary and riding her motorcycle as she does painting beautiful yet edgy fashion illustrations and stitching up a couture-worthy dress. There is much more to this slight young woman than initially meets the eye.
Klassen was born in remote Northeastern Canada to a large French-Canadian Catholic family: fourteen children on her mother’s side, eight on her dad’s. She remembers always drawing as a child, and enjoyed small town life. “Actually making things is really important to me. I come from a family of makers,” Klassen says. She majored in illustration, graduating from Alberta College of Art & Design in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in design; she later taught at the college for two years. Concept was king at her school, but while she carries this emphasis into her assignments, “Concept isn’t everything to me,” she says. “I also really enjoy making a beautiful striking image.” She likes living in Calgary, the largest city in the province of Alberta that lies between prairie and the foothills of the Canadian Rockies.
Klassen is pragmatic and practical about doing business and preparing herself for assignments. She seems to have created a healthy balance in her life. On her website, work is divided into two categories: Light and Dark. Her painted portrait of Typhoid Mary for an e-promo, is unsettlingly erotic with her decidedly ill come-hither gaze. And on the light side, her fashion feature for Avenue Magazine is elegant and whimsical, with its juxtaposition of antique and modern furniture styles. This year, illustrations from a Bankers Hall ad campaign were used in various formats including as a mural wrap on a commuter train that she enjoys randomly seeing as she drives around town on errands. “Call me, and I’ll make you something,” is the tagline on her short and succinct bio. This personalized approach has netted her an impressive list of “really nice” clients including Fitzgerald + Co., Anvil Press, Bridgestone Tires, Shisomiso Boutique and Gallery, Procter & Gamble and magazines ranging from Bitch to Texas Monthly.
Klassen has been an illustrator for ten years, first as a freelancer out of college, then as an in-house illustrator for Calgary publishing company RedPoint Media for a year-and-a-half before becoming a freelancer again. The independent lifestyle is a good fit for someone as industrious as Klassen. She starts work at 8:30 A.M., works until 6 P.M. and always takes a workout break. She is an active woman, with contained energy, who regularly culls her bookshelves, reserving some space for essentials, but welcoming a parade of inspiration into her studio. “Having a lot of things overwhelms me,” she explains.
Klassen and her husband, Vince, live in a stylish two-story house in Northeast Calgary, in one of over 180 distinct neighborhoods within the city’s limits. In the next few years, they hope to move to a home with a larger yard so they can grow vegetables and adopt a dog. Behind the house, across a narrow deck is a garage; through its windows is a neat view of carefully organized tools.
Eight in the morning is early for Klassen, a night owl. She begins each day by sketching in the natural light of her studio that looks out towards the distant mountains and the shifting clouds and weather patterns. Commercial work is done in a digital format, although she enjoys working with all artistic mediums. She calls her composite work “Frankenstein.” As for her work ethic, she alludes to her blue-collar roots and her enjoyment of “actually making things,” already evident in the stenciled pillows and the repurposed flour sacks in her French shabby chic style kitchen.
She tries not to work on weekends. “I need other interests to feed this,” Klassen explains. “I have a sewing studio downstairs. I love playing with fabric, making clothes and designing things. After a good day down there, I bring some of that into here,” she says pointing around the tidy and bright room.
“There’s the making of things, and the promoting of things. There are many aspects of it,” she says of her workday. Most weekends find her on the Trans Canada Highway on her motorcycle, heading to the Rocky Mountains, around 50 miles away. She and Vince enjoy riding off-road; last summer, accompanied by Klassen’s father, they followed the Continental Divide Trail south to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, over 1,700 miles (or 2,700 kilometers for Klassen).
Downstairs, in the equally neat guest bedroom cum sewing studio, she displays a few aprons, tea towels and pillow covers, which fuse her drawings with her interest in textiles and fashion design; they are part of a product line that she has abandoned as too time-consuming to market. The layering of color and texture that define her delicate yet contrastingly bold illustrations, add dimension to her work. A series of what she terms “Pattern Portraits” combine expressively painted female faces with coiffures overlaid by colorful shapes and patterns. “I’m trying to come up with my version of what fashion illustration could be,” she says. “I also love to draw people and figures. There are people in all my work.”
While her paintings can be a pastiche of color and pattern, her environment is decidedly more subtle. Her works adorn the walls, along with art made by colleagues, but the palette is cool, tasteful grays and whites with painted frames hanging on naked walls.
She has created a studio environment that is conducive to work, yet it’s clear that she relishes the inspiration that nature brings. “Being out in nature clears my head. Just that break is super beneficial. I’ve also discovered a really important link with physical activity; it’s so important for me to get ideas.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m a kinesthetic person, but when I’m out walking or working out, being physical, ideas just come to me. It’s like popcorn,” Klassen says. “So I always have either my phone to take notes or I have a little notebook, because those times are very fertile creatively for whatever reason. That’s an important part of my day too.”
While she usually works in a small scale for client deadlines, her personal work has recently grown in scale. Currently she is working on a series of seven paintings based on Grimms’ Fairy Tales, those terrifying German tales published in 1812. “I chose this because up ’til now my work has been very light, bright, white backgrounds, very colorful. I felt like I wanted to explore darker themes,” Klassen explains. “Even though it is fashion, I wanted it darker.”
In addition to changing themes, she likes to explore new avenues for her illustration and has had her work accepted to the Pre-Qualified Artist Roster for Public Art, City of Calgary 2011-2013. Awarded projects include Public Utility Box Painting Project (2011) and Bridge Banners Project (2012).
There is no artistic medium that she doesn't enjoy and she likes combining them most of all. “Mixing them all takes quite a lot of time,” she asserts. Photoshop helps by allowing her to layer images and she has begun to add Corel Painter to her digital arsenal. “Clients expect changes to be able to be made to anything,” Klassen says, “and if it’s a painting I cut frisket, paint and let it dry while I do something else... It’s really important for me that the work looks as though it’s handmade.”
Once a week she meets an artist friend at their favorite coffee house to sketch for three or four hours. “I have some friends who need to have coffee once or twice a week, and I’m like, ‘Whoa, first of all I don't have that many words,’” she claims, with a hearty laugh. Many of her conversations are made through her compelling art. “What they don’t get is that I’m alone all day, every day, by choice. I spend a lot of time thinking. I need quiet time.
“‘Do what you do,’ those are my favorite words in the world,” Klassen says of the standard line one of her clients tells her after outlining a project. Anders Knudsen, creative director at RedPoint Media, says, “I never knew what I was going to get from Karen, but that is what I loved. It would always be exciting to see what she came up with, what techniques she would use and how she would use them.
“Her work is distinctive. The use of figure, splashes of color, line-work and collaged images all come across as being contemporary and fresh; the combination of all these techniques make her illustrations seem effortless and new."
Rick Thomas, art director at Juice Creative Inc. in Calgary, agrees, “Karen is a delight to work with. She always surprises me with where she takes an assignment. She has a great way of balancing the communicative need of the client with her own personal passion for art-making. Her blend of traditional painting and digital composition is seamless. Karen is a courageous artist—she’s not afraid to push her craft or be pushed.”
Despite her introverted nature—or perhaps because of it—Karen Klassen’s bold work continues to gain notice and fans far beyond the prairies of Alberta. ca