Karen Melvin

Karen Melvin


Karen Melvin uses photography, drawing, text and paint to construct images that examine our relationship to the natural world. The work challenges our perception of the idyll of nature, bringing up issues around sustenance, consumer culture and a disposable earth, the hidden violence of a polluted world. 

Recent ongoing work, Marginal Extinctions, reflects on the loss of species and habitats. Dead birds, little scraps of nature and found debris are merged with drawings from sketchbooks and found images. Finding and tracking the small insignificant deaths of birds in a garden, domestic “memento mori”, mirrors the complexity of environmental change and catastrophe. 

Space in a picture tells a story in different ways. Her work is domestic, starting in the garden. She reimagines this space, literally deconstructing, separating onto white paper, isolating details from their context. She uses space with no single perspective point, to allow free flowing associations between multiple view points and media genres. The long scroll format of Marginal Extinctions allows a sense of narrative time that includes fragments of lost moments, gathering memories from a continuum, choosing images of flight, journey and death.

“I rarely see a honeybee these days. If I find a dead bird I feel I need to record its feathered beauty and then, even its decay. What kind of associations does it call up? What unique narrative? The fear that wild creatures will be a rare event is overwhelming. Our fast changing environment is rapidly running out of balance.” Karen Melvin

Career path:

I studied Fine Art at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne (BA Hons), lectured in photography at Newcastle Polytechnic and most recently at Cleveland College of Art and Design for fifteen years, was three times adviser on photography for Northern Arts and was a founding member and arts adviser for the environmental project, Ladycross Nature and Art. I was photographer in residence for the Middlesbrough 2000 Millennium Festival working with community groups, using environmental and dramatised portraiture. I received a Northern Arts award and an A4E Lottery grant in 1996 for the project Fairy Tale, Myth and the Landscape, resulting in exhibition and performance, The Seal Woman, and a Visual Arts 1996 grant for The Four Winds Stone Circle, a collaborative environmental art project. With "Frocks in the Cupboard; Life is a Series of...." I created a series of portraits and stories of women in clothing with a transformative significance.

I have returned to woodland, the garden, and the northern (and contrastingly the deep southern US) landscape as subject and background in various guises from my early documentation of hill farmers to the representation of ancient woodland and how it relates to the psychology and setting of fairy tales and mythology. "Rapunzel" looks at ecological struggles and conflicts of protection and freedom. I photographed four friends in ancient woodlands along with woodland floral carpets and trees, installing the images across the wall in a non-linear way. "Constellation " represents the night sky in a still life setting resonating with mythology and domestic narrative. In "Down South" and "Sisters" I look at my family roots in the USA and my relationship with my sister and how the sub tropical environment affects my understanding. "Paper Dolls" incorporates portraiture and self-portraiture in a still life setting. Paper dolls were part of my childhood play of fantasy and social exploration. The use of scale and juxtaposition of figures and objects creates an imaginary space, a collision of different realms, throwing light on dynamics between parent and child, male and female, youth and age.

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Location Hexham, North East
Activities Practice-based research, Workshops, Private commissions
Artforms / type of project Digital, Drawing, Painting, Photography
Website http://www.karenmelvin.co.uk

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