Karen Roehl, known for her layered paintings depicting horses of different colors and patterns, has made her mark in the Denver art scene for years. She participated in the esteemed Coors Western Art Show & Sale for her sixth consecutive year in January. In late 2019, Roehl had a one-woman show at K Contemporary art gallery in Denver. Now Roehl’s horse paintings are represented in Santa Fe, N.M., by Tierra Mar Gallery on prestigious Canyon Road.
“I have a couple of collectors in the Santa Fe area, but I’ve not had my art represented by a Santa Fe gallery before,” says Roehl. “Canyon Road is an especially good location because it’s famous for its many galleries that one after another line the entire mile-long stretch. It’s the destination within Santa Fe that visitors and collectors make sure to include.”
For Roehl, having a Santa Fe gallery exhibit her horse paintings is a career milestone.
“It’s hard to get into a gallery in Santa Fe,” says Roehl. “I’ve long wanted representation in that market because it’s one of the top art markets in the country, attracting collectors from all parts. And it’s an introduction of my work to an entirely new audience of art collectors.”
Roehl was recruited by Brenda Renner, owner of Tierra Mar Gallery. Although Tierra Mar is a contemporary gallery without a southwest theme, Renner notes that in Santa Fe, equine art sells well.
“My husband and I have known Karen for a while and have a couple of her abstracts in our personal collection,” Renner says. “I am happy to add Karen and her abstract horses to our premier collection.”
Roehl’s horse paintings combine and contrast abstract and representational influences. Roehl’s herd is both realistic and otherworldly. Renner first saw Roehl’s horse paintings a few years ago at a gallery on Santa Fe Drive, a Denver art district.
“I wanted some equine art at the new gallery that represented something fresh in the mix of abstraction and realism,” Renner says. “I loved how Karen started with her abstract base and then layered in the realism of the horse image.”
Roehl’s layering process includes strokes of serendipity that the artist compares to the surprise of opening presents on Christmas morning.
“I get excited by happenstance: things coming together beautifully without planning—by ‘accident,’ ” says Roehl.
In addition to being a highly regarded painter, Roehl is a popular instructor of painting at the Art Students League of Denver and in a Colorado correctional facility, as well as giving an occasional private lesson.
“I started teaching at the league 11 years ago. Working alongside other professional artists was a huge draw for me,” says Roehl, who also values the discipline required to translate her artistic process for her students.
“By doing so, I remind myself of certain fundamental practices and ‘rules’—elements and principles of art and design: line, shape, color, value, harmony, balance, composition. These tenets have been collected over generations by artists and scientists who have studied how we human beings perceive the visual world,” says Roehl.
Teaching keeps her own painting primed.
“As one journeys down their creative path and develops their own style, we tend to focus on certain things we like to do and gloss over or neglect other things we don’t like to do. This can lead to bad habits and/or a painting falling short of hitting the mark. But when I review these concepts for students, I’m reminded to put them into practice myself which creates a better chance for a successful painting outcome,” says Roehl.
Brenner has taken several of Roehl’s abstract painting classes at the Art Students League of Denver.
“If you are one of those people who looks at abstract art and says ‘my 4-year-old can do that,’ take one of Karen’s classes,” Renner says. “She’s a good teacher and certainly imparts to her students that creating her abstract work is a deliberate and thoughtful process. I particularly enjoy how she builds a composition by adding and subtracting with her mark-making.”
For Roehl, making a mark—a positive mark—on her students is another reward of teaching—especially when instructing incarcerated individuals in a program sponsored by the Art Students League of Denver.
“The thing about the prison classes is that most of the folks who participate are only mildly interested in art. They’re more interested in having something to do,” says Roehl.
“But, I thoroughly believe in the therapeutic and transformative powers of creativity. So, while the prison ladies—“offenders”—may attend classes just to get out of their units and have something to do, I think they really do walk away having experienced something unique and satisfying,” says Roehl.
“Feedback includes words like ‘meditative,’ ‘relaxing’ and ‘calming.’ Those are all really good terms coming from people who are in a highly stressful life circumstance,” she says. “Art classes can be therapeutic, for sure, and maybe transformational down the road.”
Roehl’s artistic road includes a left turn: She’s been experimenting not only with new subject matter—landscapes, some with horses—but also with a new style.
“I want to go even more abstract,” says Roehl.
The artist lists a legion of famous painters as influences and inspirations. She’s also a fan of street art, graffiti, kids art, outsider art and folk art.
“Outsider art is basically folk art created by self-taught artists passionate about expressing themselves with little if any adherence to the ‘rules.’ Outsider artists are wildly inspiring to me,” Roehl says. “Their fearlessness and passion speak directly to my soul.”
Colleen Smith, a longtime contributor to the magazine, writes about arts, culture and gardening for many publications. She met Karen Roehl through their book club.
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