Karen Karnes

Karen Karnes (1925 - 2016) was born in New York City to Russian and Polish immigrants. Her parents were garment workers and Socialist Union activists who were determined to give their daughter a better life. Karnes studied at the New York High School of Music and Art where she first developed her lifelong interest in the visual arts. She continued her studies in design at Brooklyn College where she met and married the ceramicist, David Weinrib.

Karnes was the only American studio ceramist to have both attended and taught at Black Mountain College. She took classes with Josef Albers and Molly Gregory during the summer session in 1946. In 1952, Karnes returned with Weinrib for a short residency to lecture and demonstrate pottery techniques, which turned into a duel positions for the couple as artists-in-residence and ceramics instructors. Over a two-year period, Karnes worked alongside ceramicists Shoji Hamada,Soetsu Yanagi, Marguerite Widenhain, Bernard Leach, Peter Voulkos, Daniel Rhodes, and Warren MacKenzie, as well as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, David Tudor, Paul and Vera Williams, and M. C. Richards. Reflecting the gender inequities of the era, the college only paid Weinrib despite Karnes’ status as an instructor.

Karnes was influenced by the model of intentional living espoused at Black Mountain College. After leaving the college in 1954, Karnes and Weinrib joined several of their colleagues to start the Gate Hill Cooperative in Stony Point, New York, a living experiment integrating art, family, and community. After Karnes and Weinrib divorced in 1959, Karnes supported herself (and the former couple’s young son) through sales of her pottery.

Karnes also developed a life-long attachment to western North Carolina’s artistic traditions. While in residence, Karnes and Weinrib visited Jugtown, the well-known Seagrove, North Carolina pottery studio (established 1917), and sold their pots at the Southern Highlands Craft Fair in Asheville. Karnes later returned to the mountains to teach at the Penland School of Crafts (established in 1929) and discovered a salt glaze technique that became a mainstay in her practice. Karnes was an important figure in the post-war studio pottery movement. She curated the long running annual pottery show at the Art School at Old Church Cultural Center in Demarest, New Jersey for over 40 years from 1974 until she died in 2016.