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The Art of Learning to See: An Interview with Karin McDonald

Elizabeth Maske February 15th, 2024
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Karin McDonald 2023

Karin McDonald joins me for a virtual interview from her home studio, where vivid memories of Taliesin linger on freshly painted canvases. For Karin, the combination of painting and the architectural marvels of Taliesin was the compelling draw to this year’s plein air workshop: “It was the feeling that Frank Lloyd Wright immersed himself in this landscape and the way he captured his artistic slant with the buildings, how he laid it all out. As an artist, to come in, and just have that feeling that he was right here in this place, and to consider how he developed the whole concept, that’s really what drew me in.”

Connecting the workshop to one she had experienced before, Karin reminisced, “About 30 years ago, I studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France, at The Leo Marchutz School, where Paul Cézanne lived and worked.” The experience laid a foundation for her appreciation of immersing in the environment that shaped a profound artistic journey. She describes, “It was putting myself in a place where a master studied, where he grew up, immersing myself in the landscape with his paintings and subjects, which I feel was similar to Frank, in the way he immersed in landscapes with his designs. I liked that correlation.”

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Karin Painting Near the Taliesin Hill Crown

Over the course of the weekend, Karin found herself warmly embraced: “I was drawn to the combination of practicing plein air painting on location at Taliesin, with some instruction, but also the ability to have a tour, to roam around. I definitely felt really important while I was there. And that’s a confidence builder, too. That’s part of plein air painting, developing confidence.”

The intimate group size and exclusive access to the inner workings of Taliesin left a lasting impression: “When [the instructor Jan] said we could go anywhere to paint, I thought that was a treat.” Behind-the-scenes tours and the meticulous care of the gardens furthered Karin’s appreciation for the effort involved in preserving this historical site.

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View from Taliesin of Tan-y-Deri and the Romeo & Juliet Windmill

While staying at Tan-y-Deri, Karin relished the breathtaking view of the valley featuring Taliesin in the distance. The tour of Taliesin provided an alternate and equally beautiful perspective.

The farm below Tan-y-Deri and the Romeo and Juliet Windmill became subjects of her art, each revealing their unique charms. “I didn’t know what to expect, but staying right there was lovely. I enjoyed all the farmland and buildings around us, too. Those were special because that’s where I was staying.”

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Karin McDonald 2023

Favorable weather allowed the outdoors to become her studio, though Hillside, Karin observed with the keen eye of a true plein air painter, would offer shelter in inclement conditions. Knowing the timeframe for the weekend in advance helped her ensure she was intentional with her time. “I woke up early to see the sunrise and started on the second morning, painting before breakfast. I would have liked to fit in a twilight, end-of-the-day painting, but didn’t get that figured out. Sometimes, you have to take a break, too.”

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Jan Instructing Participants in the Hillside Drafting Studio

Along with sharing reference materials and insights into her creative process, the instructor’s teaching style enriched Karin’s learning experience. Witnessing fellow artists’ interpretations reinforced the idea that there are countless paths to artistic expression. “For this, I wasn’t a true beginner. I had some experience, so I was building on it by working with Jan. She was the artist in charge, and I appreciated her guidance. She shared some reference books and tools of the trade, and she shared her mindset when she’s getting ready to engage. I feel when you engage with an artist, you learn something new. There is no one way to do something. Another thing was the other artists there. I love to see how that transpires. No one looks at the same thing identically.”

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Karin Painting en Plein Air

For Karin, the weekend at Taliesin was a reminder that painting serves as a means of deeper observation. The concept of ‘learning to see,’ which she first encountered in Provence, has become a guiding principle in her work. “When I was circling back to what I was learning in Provence, that’s what they try to teach you. The art of seeing through your eyes what’s right there in front of you. It was such a strong influence, though in a short amount of time. That’s what I’ll be seeking out moving forward.”

As Karin looks ahead, she’s eager to continue her artistic journey. She expressed a desire to travel to new locations, emphasizing the importance of taking the time to truly observe and connect with the natural world. “I just want to have fun with it, witness more places within the US and abroad. Painting helps you focus and look at something longer. A regular tourist is taking photos and looking from one thing to the next. But when you really sit down and observe the nature around you, it’s taking that time. And you can do that in a number of ways: poetry, sketching, photography. Just to be there and be quiet and experience what’s right there before you.”

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Karin Mixes Paints in the Hillside Drafting Studio

Karin reminds us of the boundless parallels between past and present, the inspiration gleaned from standing in the same locations as icons, and the importance of surrounding oneself with people who see the world in their own unique way. She shows the beauty of slowing down and making a conscious effort to truly take in all that surrounds us.