Turning over a new leaf
By J. Chambless
Karen O’Lone-Hahn in her studio, with some ceramics in progress. (Photo by John Chambless)
By John Chambless
For the past decade, Karen O’Lone-Hahn has been “The Cow Lady” in the regional art world. Her instantly recognizable, candy-colored cows have cavorted across countless paintings, earning the artist acclaim and sales and a reputation for having a lot of fun with her art.
But there was nothing planned about the enigmatic cows. “I was born in Trenton and grew up in Buffalo,” O’Lone-Hahn said recently at her brightly painted studio, behind her home in Landenberg. “But I got to be done with Buffalo, and I had family over here in New Jersey, so I came down here in 1990, met my husband and married him in 1991. So I’ve been in this area for 20 years now.”
She had grown up admiring the work of Van Gogh, the raw imagery of Rousseau and the iconic paintings of Frida Kahlo, and earnestly tried to emulate their styles. The result – after a few art education classes at Buffalo State College – had turned out to be “primitive,” O’Lone-Hahn said. “So I’ve never taken painting lessons from anybody. I just do my thing.”
She had her first exhibitions in this area in 1997, coached by her husband, a local musician and “my biggest cheerleader,” she said.
“The cows came about because I was pregnant at the time with my daughter,” O’Lone-Hahn recalled. “I felt so big. In my first cow paintings, I was shooting for realism, but the eyes came out looking more human. My imagination just started to take off. I thought, ‘What if these cows were different colors? What if they could do all kinds of crazy things that humans can’t do?’
“All of my work is about stories. But being self-taught, I try to take a serious approach, but I really just don’t have the skill. So my work comes out kind of quirky and funny.”
The sometimes humorous, sometimes enigmatic goings-on in the cow world culminated in a book O’Lone-Hahn wrote and illustrated as “a letter to myself,” she said. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of adults and art teachers who tell kids they can’t be an artist or some other thing. But I wanted to tell kids that, ‘You can do it. Don’t listen to other people.’”
While she was happy painting acrylic cows and other creatures in different situations, her career took an unexpected turn in 2011. “I love my paintings, but I was kind of feeling pigeonholed, she said. “And my daughter, who was 17, was taking painting lessons at Absalom Jones Community Center in Wilmington. So I asked if I could go into the clay studio and mess around with the clay while I was waiting for her. Gosh, it just spoke to me in the biggest way. My daughter was getting ready to leave for college at the time, too, and clay really taught me to let go.”
She started taking classes and workshops, learning from professionals about the intricacies of glazes and how to structure a piece so it did not crack in the kiln. “The thing about clay is you let it go and hope for the best,” she said. “When I started out, I knew zero about it. But I’ve been doing it since 2011 or 2012, and now I can’t stop. I just love it.”
On her work table were unpainted clay honey pots with incised surfaces embellished with black slip to make the designs show up. They will later be painted and fired. There’s a tray with three of the cats that have crept into her style recently, as well as one with elephants.
“Each piece is different, with different designs,” she said. “I don’t make two of exactly the same thing.”
“Of course, clay can break your heart,” she added, taking out a platter with shattered hollow handles that failed during firing. “It’s so much work, but it’s so fun,” she said. “It’s solving problems all the time, and I really like that, too.”
O’Lone-Hahn made her money early on with local outdoor art shows, a time-consuming and strenuous way to sell her work, which is something of a specialized taste. “People just don’t get it. They just don’t understand how hard artists work. I was doing one outdoor show in York, when this guy came by and said, ‘$800? Can you believe it?’” she said, laughing. “And his wife elbows him and says, ‘That’s the artist, you idiot!’
“But I’ve also gotten so many great comments. That’s the aspect of doing shows that I enjoy. I just love the stories people bring to my work. I might have intended one thing with it, and people always bring their own story. I am so humbled when people buy something of mine.”
But the clay is taking over. O’Lone-Hahn’s apron is embroidered with the words, “Still plays in mud.” She tries to work every day, sometimes from 3 to 11 p.m. or later. “I tell people that clay is like having small children. You can’t leave it on its own for too long, or bad things happen.”
With her schedule filling up for the fall and holiday season with several area craft and art shows, O’Lone-Hahn is ready to bring her pottery to a wider audience. The style is much less cartoony than her paintings, with a delicacy that many wouldn’t expect from the artist.
And, while her work is unfailingly happy, O’Lone-Hahn shared her home art collection, which includes her earlier paintings. They use black and white primarily, capturing people from her past, such as her mother and her oldest brother, painted from a photo. “That’s my first painting, from about 1985,” she said.
There are paintings of her sister’s wedding, a first Communion, and other events, but there’s a somber tone to them. One shows the artist surrounded by people from her past, their angry faces pressing in on her. “There are a lot of personal stories in these,” she said. “There’s more to me than silly cows.”
In another, she shows herself sitting on a sofa, holding hands with Frida Kahlo. “I did this when I had Lyme disease. And she was so ill through her life. So I was feeling the similarities of us being artists and working through pain. Art has saved me throughout my life. It helps me cope in so many ways.”
The early work has a raw quality that led O’Lone-Hahn to be featured one year at the prestigious Outsider Art Fair in New York City. She has also been exhibited at other outsider and folk art fairs in years past.
But her turn to colorful cows was a turning point, she said. “The goal for my art is to make me happy, and other people happy as well. That’s what it means to be an artist. You’re just forever exploring and trying new things. It’s an honor and a privilege to get to do what I do.”
For more information, and online sales, visit www.karenolonehahn.com. Upcoming show dates: Stahls Fall Festival of Pottery, Upper Milford, Pa. (Oct. 5, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.); Hagley Craft Fair (Oct. 19 and 20, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.); Christmas Makers Market, Christian Life Center, 125 Saginaw Rd., Lincoln University (Nov. 15, 7 to 9 p.m., Nov. 16, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.).
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].