By Helen Martin
Kaukapakapa artist Karen St John was raised in a single-parent family by her father, a practical man whose own upbringing gave him the skills to build his own houses and furniture, to make Karen a dress for the school dance and to teach her how to sew. Working around fabric has been a theme in Karen’s life – her first job was in a Wellington sewing factory, later in Auckland, sewing for a friend who had a clothing label took her to the level of a professional, and when she worked in a costume hire shop she took her first steps towards becoming an artist by going to night school to learn pattern drafting.
Travel overseas to places like Korea, Hong Kong, the Phillipines and Great Britain came next. Time spent in Japan teaching English sparked the interest in the Japanese language that saw Karen studying it at university back in New Zealand and then in Sydney, where she lived, worked and partied for a time. Returning briefly to Hong Kong she became increasingly aware of issues facing the planet. “Someone I knew was working on a fundraiser for Belize Rainforest and I began to learn about what was happening to the environment,” she says.
Back in New Zealand, Karen volunteered at Greenpeace and was hired to help them set up and run their first telemarketing operation, before being employed as a fundraising manager, overlooking the direct marketing and telemarketing. Skills gained in that job came in useful when, as the partner of chef and café owner Peter Brennan, Karen fell into doing the bookkeeping for his business, enhancing her knowledge by studying accounting papers through the Open Polytech.
Looking for a positive lifestyle change Karen and Peter moved with their son Buster to Kaukapakapa over 20 years ago. For seven years Peter ran Porcini, his popular Helensville restaurant, while Karen found bookkeeping work. They spent many hours on their land, establishing extensive organic orchards and gardens to supply the restaurant and their own needs.
After the move to Kaukapakapa, Karen began to paint. “Painting is a wonderful meditative thing and I found it came easy to me,” she says. But eventually she became “bored with the flatness of it” and wanted to explore ways of creating forms in 3D. This year, joining a group of women doing wool felting got Karen working with three-dimensional forms, creating animals from felt. A suggestion from Arts in the Ville organiser Kura Geere-Watson that she exhibit some during the Labour Weekend festival became the catalyst for the direction Karen had been working towards – she wanted to work with clay in a way that would also use her sewing and painting talents.
Enter the critters, anthropomorphic textile sculptures which are fantasy creatures with human-like bodies made from a combination of clay and textile, wire and wood. Everything - the forms, the clothes, the little leather boots - is made by Karen from scratch. “I make a wire armature for the body, covered with batting, then I make a cover for the body. The heads are sculpted out of air dry clay, and other components, like the lasts I use for the leather boots, are made from baked clay,” she says. You’ll see some at Arts in the Ville.
Karen works from home, creating her art work and running a business; after completing a diploma in pattern drafting and design at the New Zealand School of Fashion and a couple of courses in tailoring, she set up her business de Saint Tailoring, specialising in pattern drafting, made to measure alterations and repairs. She also spends time in the beautiful garden she and Pete have created. “We make sure we have fresh greens and we know where they come from and what was used to grow them. But while the property started out as a place to grow food, it’s no longer just about that, it’s also about being in a beautiful environment. The enhancement to your life is hard to articulate but it’s a holistic thing, being a part of it as opposed to what we can get from it. Being serenaded by a tui is a priceless moment.”
By Helen Martin