Point of View

Get to know Karen Kiefer’s artist life, Kailua style.

Tucked in the back corner of a narrow pipe-stem street, nestled under an old kukui tree, just beyond a tiny gurgling fishpond, slippers lay strewn at the door.

Through the old-school sliding window, Karen Kiefer can be seen giggling with a young girl as she mixes paints while a teenage boy sits close by picking through colored glass, looking for just the right shade of orange for his sunset mural on a once-forgotten glass frame. In the shed to the right of Karen’s bright red truck, surf racks on top, the potter’s wheel sits quiet, but the shelves are lined with creations in progress, waiting for the next glazing.

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Ask the students of Karen’s Art Studio, and they’ll tell you it’s a place where magic happens, where they rediscover their creative muse and get to do whatever they want. Ask Karen, and she’ll say she’s finally found a way to bring her passion to her students, just the way she believes it should be done.

Born and raised in Kailua, Karen grew up in the art studio of Daunna Yanovyak, a friend and neighbor in Maunawili. Karen’s mother sought out Yanovyak when it was clear that 6-year-old Karen needed something more to do. “Mom put together the neighborhood kids and that was Daunna’s first class,” Karen laughed. A stubborn student, Karen remembers crying if she couldn’t do what she wanted to do, not from anger, but from sadness that her vision couldn’t be brought to life in that moment. Yet it was from Yanovyak that she gleaned the formal training to pursue art, to find her passion.

Karen thought she’d found her dream job as the art teacher at Le Jardin, back when it was still a little school on Kapa‘a Quarry road. But when budget cuts left her without a contract for the 2004-2005 school year, that dream job seemed forever lost. “I’d put a tremendous attachment to the emotional stability of a job,” Karen says. She owned her home in Kailua, a rarity for someone making her life as an artist, and the mortgage loomed. “I realized that the stability was an illusion. It wasn’t real.”

Karen spent the next few months piecing together work and figuring out what to do next. Then came the dream. “A message, really,” she says, as she recalls it. “My hair was on fire, burning around my face, but in the dream, everything was calm, okay.” Over the next three days, she painted the dream, her hair on fire, a piece that still hangs in her living room, a reminder of that time. She calls the painting “All is Well, as She Well Knows.”

“It was a big lesson moment for me,” she recalls. “The thing we want we hold onto so hard thinking we need it so much, then we let it go and realize it’s all okay on the other side.”

She calls these moments “oopsortunities,” a realization that is now a big cornerstone in her work with her students.

"All Is Well, As She Well Knows" by Karen Kiefer

“All Is Well, As She Well Knows” by Karen Kiefer

Every student at Karen’s Studio hears the same question: “What do you want to do today?” From that prompt, students glide between paint and sculpture and mosaics and pottery, following their muse. “We’re all artists,” Karen tells them. “It’s just a matter of not stopping.” Karen’s curriculum hinges on giving students room to find their inspiration and pursue it. She reminds parents not to tell their young kids how much they like the dog painting. “It might be a duck,” Karen says. “Ask instead, ‘Tell me about your painting.'”

The studio included a glass-etching machine for a while. “Sometimes it’s good to have a big, growling tool that rumbles,” Karen says, sharing the story of a little girl whose three big brothers teased her about art classes. One day they showed up with mom for pick up and found her in the etching studio, gun in hand, protective goggles on her face, compressor roaring as she etched her mug. “I’ll never forget the look on those boys’ faces, their eyeballs popping out,” Karen laughs.

Today, Karen’s life is a potpourri of creative endeavors with her students, the local theatre scene, and even the fi lm industry. When “Lost” star Ian Cusick decided to write and produce his short fi lm, “dress,” he asked Karen to be the set designer for the project. Hawaii Theatre for Youth counts on Karen for its sets, props and costuming, where she most recently created intricate rabbit puppets for their production of “peter rabbit.”

“I feel very blessed to live my life as an artist,” Karen says. In her studio with her students, freelancing with her various film and theatre gigs and fastidiously making the time for her own creative pursuits, Karen feels like she’s found her groove. “I’ve learned that letting go of things is fabulous,” she says, “because awesome always comes after.”