Karen Hartmann’s passion for art goes back to a memorable day in February 1963 when her father hauled her onto his shoulders so she could see, over the heads of thousands, a very special painting exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in her hometown, New York City.
It was Leonardo da Vinci’s “La Gioconda,” more famously known as the Mona Lisa. Brought to the U.S. from Paris’ Louvre museum at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy, the wife of then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy, an estimated 1.7 million people queued for hours to see the 450-year-old work, one of the world’s most famous paintings.
Perched on her father’s shoulders, Ms. Hartmann got only a brief look at the painting, but it was enough.
“I got one glimpse at that painting…. That left an impression on me that was unbelievable,” she recalled on Sunday.
This spark of inspiration was nurtured by her father, who wanted her to develop an appreciation for art and insisted that she sit and draw at home.
While Ms. Hartmann would go on to have a career as a runway model, she never lost her love of painting and continued to grow as an artist, gaining quite a following. Over the years, her artworks have been acquired by a vast range of people, including U.S. actress Whoopi Goldberg, legendary jazz musician Dave Brubeck, fashion designer Betsy Johnson and the novelist Toni Morrison.
Ms. Hartmann is now based in Cambodia and a selection of her work will be exhibited from Wednesday in Phnom Penh, featuring 63 pieces that the prolific artist has produced since last year. Titled “Panta Rei,” Greek for “Everything flows,” it showcases mainly abstract works.
It’s an apt name for a series that includes an array of styles and themes, capturing different eras. And yet, it also reflects harmony, with a sense of movement animating each painting.
“I’m into shapes and colors and things having a feeling of moving,” the artist said.
Ms. Hartmann seems to pay homage to the various art styles since the 1900s.
“Back Stage,” for example, seems to have Cubist inspiration, with its elements of a large hand and a person’s face with sunglasses to a building’s dome in the distance, all in sharp lines and muted orange, yellow, blue and black tones, painted in oil.
“True Love Forever,” featuring a couple in an apparent embrace, is reminiscent of 1960s psychedelic art, while “Ratanakkiri,” in which multicolored ice crystals seem to stand against a black background, is a timeless abstract work.
“I’m not really trying to say anything at all,” Ms. Hartmann said. “I like to find interesting ways to present ideas to different audiences through my art.”
Ms. Hartmann moved to Frankfurt in the 1980s. “I worked as a runway model for Hermes sometimes in Paris and Germany, and when I wasn’t working, I took classes in folk art styles,” she said
“When I moved [back to the U.S. in the 1990s], I started painting on furniture in different folk art styles for ABC Carpet & Home on Broadway [a New York institution],” Ms. Hartmann said. She also took classes in portrait painting and learned Khmer, she added.
Being a lifelong member of the Christian denomination Jehovah’s Witnesses, Ms. Hartmann moved to Battambang City as a missionary in 2012.
Nowadays, she said, “I paint every single day.” Asked what she attempts to express, Ms. Hartmann said: “Layers of life and experience.”
As to what the public should expect from her exhibition, she said, “I don’t tell people what they should feel. I ask them ‘What do you feel, what do you like?’…. It’s always refreshing the comments that come back.”