Artist Karen Piovaty deconstructs wickedness–and a whole lot more
When I first discovered the work of Karen Piovaty nine years ago, I was thrilled–and a little scandalized. It was as if someone had finally had the nerve to express all the frightening, taboo thoughts I couldn’t even admit to myself. Karen’s take on stepmothering is provocative, but never merely so; it is also thoughtful social commentary and a sophisticated riff on families, stepparenting, and stereotypes. Karen’s “marriage” of visuals and text unsettles, amuses, and reveals.
Karen has a show in Brantford Ontario that opens on Friday, June 12. Check out her website, www.othermother.com
An Interview with Karen Piovaty
Q: When and why did you start your other mother project?
I had to do something with all the anger, frustration and disappointment I was dealing with in my stepmother situation and four pivotal things happened at about the same time: 1. My (ex) husband and, to a lesser extent, I decided that it was in everyone’s best interest if my stepson lived with his mom full time (for the prior ten years he lived with us every other week);
2. my (ex) husband’s taxes had been subpoenaed by his former wife so three years of **MY** business and personal tax returns walked out the front door since we filed joint returns;
3. my mom had an (undiagnosed) stroke which made me realize what a REAL crisis was — in comparison to a decade of relentless, manufactured crises;
4. and the Arizona Commission on the Arts had a looming deadline for submissions to their Traveling Exhibitions Program and I’m a graphic designer that thrives on deadlines!
Q: Talk a little about your background and training as a visual artist, please!
I have a BFA in Fine Art, emphasis in graphic design, from the University of Arizona but I was always involved with art (painting, illustration, crafts). For a while I thought I might be a medical illustrator but I can’t stand the sight of blood! My parents are European so the arts were always a big part of our lives and my mom was a textile and interior designer.
My graphic design background has a lot to do with the text in my art… I always come up with the “headline” first and then work on the visual. Also, I want people to KNOW what I’m talking about and get people (hopefully) thinking. I don’t put myself in the league of Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer but I very much admire their work and how it gets people thinking.
Q: Did you find creating this art therapeutic in any way? Please explain.
The artwork was very therapeutic in that it got me focused on my art as compared to distracted by something I had no control over. Women like to fix things and there was no fixing that broken record.
The “first phase” of Other Mother had 16 pieces and I hadn’t really thought about the internet as a source of camaraderie for stepmothers until I started to search for places that might be interested in my artwork. I quickly discovered “The Second Wives Club” and contacted the editor. She was kind enough to upload “Other Mother” and I started to get incredible feedback from other stepmothers. I also had my own site and women were welcome to upload their comments (and over 320 have!).
I also started to show my circle of friends the artwork and they said things like: “Oh, you need to talk to my sister…. friend… brother (about his ex)… ” Instead of feeling like an isolated island in a sea of dysfunction, I realized that I was in the midst of an epidemic.
Stepmoms said things like: “Could you do a piece about ruined holidays and vacations and how OUR special occasions are never celebrated?” And I would respond: “Oh, yeah, thanks for the reminder. I’m so used to all the ruined holidays and vacations that I didn’t even think about it.”
So, I sat down and did another nine pieces. In some ways I didn’t want to dwell on “Circus Maximus” but, on the other hand, there was a lot of ground to cover and I was definitely encouraged by the stories of others and their reaction to the original “Sweet 16.”
Q: Did this work start conversations with your partner, your partner’s ex, other women with stepkids, etc?
My (ex)husband didn’t discourage the artwork but asked that it not be shown in the city we lived in and that was fair enough. For better or worse, I had not spared him ANY details of how I was feeling throughout the years. I have no idea, to this day, if his ex-wife as seen the artwork. The artwork absolutely started many conversations with other women… and men. Most men ask: “Have you MET my ex-wife???” That always cracks me up.
Many stepmoms thanked me because my artwork helped them explain their feelings to their husbands. So many, many women told me that they thought they were the only one dealing with all these emotions and crazy-making situations and my artwork helped them feel less alone. What greater satisfaction can I ask for than knowing that my artwork really helped someone?
Any woman who criticizes a stepmother has obviously never been one. We’ve all heard the old adage “kids don’t come with a manual.” I can assure you that stepkids REALLY don’t come with a manual. One great thing about using reality as my subject matter is that it’s easy to defend things that actually happened. This artwork is not easy to look at. It doesn’t depict the best that people have to offer. It’s a little too much reality for some and they “blame” the artwork instead of looking at their behavior. Most people attack the art and not me personally. I don’t have the toughest skin but I guess that’s part of the price of admission.
Q: Where do you see your work going in the future?
As I mentioned, I like working with headlines and “hot” topics but I’m trying to make art when I’m happy and not (just) when I’m about to implode. I want my art, humor and sarcasm to shed some light on the human condition in these contemporary times — that’s what it’s all about (it’s really NOT the hokey pokey).