A rare beauty seems to encompass Iris Karuna. You can feel it in her art and her words – as she shares thoughts and visuals you won’t want to forget.
Iris Karuna is a visual artist, arts educator, and freelance floral designer, originally hailing from Hamilton, Ontario. She is a graduate of the OCAD University BFA Printmaking program, and has taught children’s art classes at the Avenue Road Arts School in Toronto, Ontario since 2009. Her artistic practice explores the intersections between interpersonal relationships and cultural phenomena, referencing songs, stories, social media, and pseudoscience. Karuna works primarily with collage and installation.
The Iris Karuna Interview
Hi, Iris! Tell us about yourself.
I grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, and both of my parents were artists, academics, and activists. This means I’ve been interested in making beautiful things, thinking conceptually, and tying my practice to the world around me since my preschool days! Obviously, it has taken a lot of education and practice to refine my skills, but the willingness to engage with these ideas has always been there.
As an educator, you’re often teaching others but what lessons would you say you’ve learned from the youth?
Something I’ve learned in working with kids is that we all have different needs, and that it’s impossible to predict what someone else’s needs will be. I try to provide consistency for my students, but I am also careful to ensure that each child knows they can approach me with concerns they have and receive an honest and thoughtful response. I also encourage them to do the same with one another, and I find it creates a wonderfully nurturing environment when I collaborate with my students in this way.
Where does your attraction to floral design stem from?
I believe floral design and collage are one and the same. Taking disparate pieces and combining them to form a new whole is a skill I have always been interested in strengthening, and in applying in new ways. I am also attracted to the transience of a floral arrangement. It takes days (or sometimes weeks) to get a flower to its optimal showiness, and then within hours (or days) it has faded. But when you catch a flower in the right light, at the right moment, you can see in that flower how generous our world truly is.
Flowers have so much beauty and fragility, much like nature itself. Did your love of nature influence your love of flowers or did your love of flowers draw you to nature?
Flowers are nature! I am very interested in how, as human beings, we are just as fragile and beautiful as any other element of nature. We are susceptible to the same difficulties that threaten a flower — genetic programming and environmental factors — and we, like a flower, have little control over either factor. I am drawn to the ability of both humans and plants to overcome, problem-solve, collaborate, and communicate their way out of difficult situations. And I’m intrigued by the fact that even in death, a plant is able to give back to the planet — something I hope humans will soon master.
I love what you’ve done with Aries Pisces Cusp Baby. Let’s discuss!
My mother’s specialty is English Literature, so I’ve always been interested in writing, and in language in general. I created Aries Pisces Cusp Baby during my thesis year at OCAD University, when I was exploring “the human condition” and the ways we narrate it. There are stories we hear from others, stories we tell ourselves, and stories we tell others, and they all come in different forms — oral, written, visual, and experiential. My hope, as I created Aries Pisces Cusp Baby, was that I could narrate narrative, and discuss the importance of communicating rather than focusing on the messages themselves.
What specific elements of modern society currently influence you most as an artist?
I am extremely interested in #BlackLivesMatter and #IdleNoMore, in environmental protections, and, on perhaps a more personal level, in teaching children how to trust themselves, participate in their own way, and support their communities. I was raised on the idea that it is my responsibility to use the power I have to the advantage of others, and I believe strongly in this principle.
From an artist’s perspective, would you say today’s technology and social media makes us lonelier as individuals? Is the human connection we all crave being lost in translation?
No, I don’t believe that technology and social media make us lonelier at all. While they can have the (negative) effect of creating an echo chamber, where no viewpoint is seen by anyone who doesn’t share it, I think one of the strengths of the internet is in its ability to facilitate community-building. If you have an interest, you can pursue it online, and you’re likely to find like-minded people to share your experience with.
In Gestures, we come to see how the hands alone tell so many stories. Which would you say is most intriguing to you … smooth, young hands of innocence or worn hands that come with maturity and life experience?
Personally, I don’t have a preference, and none of the hands in this series were chosen based on their wear. I played mainly with the idea of silent communication, and the tension between what is said/shown, and what is implied/understood. I really enjoyed discovering hands — perhaps in an ad for cufflinks, or an old cookbook — and then considering their gestures in isolation, without any contextual clues. Often, it was immediately obvious to me that there was another connotation the gesture could communicate, so I played with those new meanings.
The images and objects in trust / fall easily bring up a variety of emotions. Over the month of creating this work, how did the process make you feel? What were some of your thoughts?
A lot of this work was about process. I see trust / fall as having evolved out of previous works (Brief or Fleeting; Pretty Little Thing; my 2014 poem golden girl) and the residency at the Drake Lab allowed me to push myself toward a cohesive body of work. As the gallery space was open to the public while I worked, I felt motivated to be decisive and created a large amount of work in a relatively short amount of time. Conceptually, these works are also about the tension between what is perceived/what is real, what is said/what is felt, the parts revealed/the hidden whole.
After studying the series of Brief or Fleeting, I’d love to know if these pieces represent emptiness or lost moments?
Brief or Fleeting is an ongoing series, and one of my least-well-defined projects. I tend to think of each moment, created and undone, as an experience I feel able to understand even without having experienced it myself.
The arrangement of Pretty Little Thing was so pleasing to the eye. I found that it was also very structured. Was this done intentionally or was it a bit of a random process?
This series was definitely created in a very structured way. I spent months cutting out all the little pieces, laying them out, gluing supports onto them, and pinning them in place. This is in contrast to my tendency, which is to work intuitively, building while I’m discovering. I tend to work with pins so that I may undo and rearrange, but in Pretty Little Thing I considered fragility from the perspective of the entomological specimen. While I am definitely happy with the resulting aesthetic, at the time I was in a relationship that I allowed to stifle my true nature, and the piece reflects this both conceptually (a “Pretty Little Thing” is not a participant but an object) and visually, through its caution, planning, and tight structure.
From THE DEAD-STOCK PROJECT to teaching nature art, I’m curious to know at what point you realized the importance of being an environmentally friendly artist?
I have always hoped to be an environmentally friendly artist, but it is, actually quite a difficult thing to achieve. I went to school for printmaking, and I kept coming up against the difficulty of paper – even if I could print by hand, without electricity, in a communal space that asked that members avoid using solvents or powerful chemicals, with eco-friendly inks, I still needed paper to receive my print. And papermaking uses a lot of water, so it wouldn’t necessarily resolve my dilemma to create my own from scratch. Eventually, in a collage class led by artist Susy Oliveira, I was introduced to the idea of working without a paper matrix — and I began taping, sewing, gluing, and pinning individual pieces together directly.
Do you have a favourite piece or series?
It’s a bit of a cliche to say, but my favourite piece is always the one I haven’t imagined yet, the next thing that’s on its way into the world. And just as I’ve integrated floral design into my artistic practice, I tend to consider my other projects – like teaching – as part of my practice as well. So perhaps my next favourite will be a collage, a floral design, or even a lesson plan!
Iris will keep inspiring you at her website. Visit her at iriskaruna.com.