Portrait of the Artist

Karen Hackenberg

Divine detritus

By Margaret Foster | April 10, 2017
Karen Hackenberg, Stranded Vessel, oil on canvas, 24 x 36 inches, 2012
Karen Hackenberg, Stranded Vessel, oil on canvas, 24 x 36 inches, 2012


Karen Hackenberg grew up on the Connecticut coast. Now living in Port Townsend, Washington, she paints what washes up on the shore near her home.

I walk a lot on the beach. I swim and kayak down there. I see odds and ends of detritus that wash up, and all sorts of stories come to mind about how it got there. I find a lot of irony in some of the branding and the ways that the things that wash up mimic sea life.

There’s all sorts of ways these things end up in the environment, some negligence and some just by accident. They do have a certain beauty when I find them late in the day, glowing in the light. The things we make are quite stunning, actually, but our attitudes about their value are questionable. We make these beautiful things and make them disposable, and that intrudes on the natural beauty of the environment. I’m talking about how we’re all in this together. I’m not trying to point fingers, but to talk about the dilemma and what our legacy might be in the future as a generation or as an era.

Because I paint hyper-realistically, people are drawn in by the light and beauty of the whole scene and then are shocked and either laugh or groan about what it is I’m saying in the piece—the monumental way that I’m approaching the composition, by getting in really close so that the trash I find is really big, so you can’t avoid it.

The beach is a place for me to walk and get ideas, and this stuff is right there as inspiration—darkly humorous inspiration, but that’s how my personality works.

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