Artist Bio


Karen Wheeler PortraitKaren was born with a form of Muscular Dystrophy known as Spinal Muscular Atrophy, and she has been drawing since the age of five.  Her favorite subjects were trees and female faces.  Most of her early works were in watercolor, but she began working with oils when she was mainstreamed into regular high school.  An instructor there encouraged her to keep up her artwork and suggested that she try taking art in college.  Karen followed his advice even though she found new challenges besides her disability.  At the handicapped school no student was forced to study.  In college Karen not only competed with all able-bodied students in the art department, but she also had to work extra hard to catch up to her required grade level.  During her sophomore year Karen also struggled with several art instructors who felt she could not complete the work offered in their classes.  She worked around these instructors, though, and transferred to California State University, Fullerton.  She received a Masters degree in art in 1981 with a 4.0 grade point average.  In 1981, only 3% of all women in the United States who received an were disabled, and that’s not even counting her excellent grade point average.

Karen found the challenge of watercolor much more intriguing at the university.  Her emphasis in graduate study was illustration, and she developed her own unique style of painting by using a very small brush creating an effect resembling the work of a pencil.  Part of her technique is something she likes to call “layering” in which she totally completes a small section of a painting at a time by adding colors in very thin, dot-like strokes.  For example, if she is working on the beak of a bird, she may add layers of green, blue and yellow besides the typical golden colors.  Karen believes this technique not only creates a sense of volume but also adds a luminous effect to other aspects of the piece.

Most of her subject matter revolves around animals, and she tries to capture the life in their eyes and textures.  She incorporates her strange sense of humor in her current works in which an animal that may not even exist is created because of a play on words, such as Mousequito.  In this case wings and a stinger were added to a common mouse creating an entirely different creature.  It’s pieces like this that bring her the most pleasure and she enjoys the reactions of others who view her work with a smile or laughter.

Karen hides or places a rose in every painting completed after 1986.  It represents her in her work, and it is one of the most loved and accepted flowers in societal and visual terms.  When she relates the rose to herself and her life, she also considers the strength and the thorns. Therefore, when people view Karen’s work they not only feel her presence, they accept her and enjoy her work for the pleasure it brings.

Each painting takes Karen approximately 100 to 500 hours to complete.  She begins usually with a title that interests her and then she envisions the painting completed in her head.   She then acquires visual references from her massive library of photo resources. Once all resources have been collected, she cancels-out pieces that do not match the vision she has formulated in her mind.  The remaining images will be used for color, composition and details until the entire painting is finished.  The completed image is usually very close, if not better, than her original mental picture.

From 1985 to 1991 Karen was the only disabled artist on the Board of Directors of VSA Arts California, a non-profit organization dedicated to integrating mentally and physically challenged adults and children into society via the arts.  She not only coordinated and participated in major statewide exhibits and programs but also held the position of Vice President for 1½ terms.  She is still on the Honorary Board.  Karen was selected Disabled Professional Woman of the Year by the Pilot Club of Southeast Los Angeles in 1990.

Karen now resides in Henderson, Nevada and is currently the only surviving professional artist in Southern Nevada with a neuromuscular disease.  She has work in one gallery and her greeting cards are in 5 different locations throughout the West Coast.   She has collectors who live all over the world, a list of which includes Julian Lennon, Phil Collins, Shadoe Stevens, Justin Hayward, Joan Rivers, Damon Wayans and Steven Seagal.  Another organization Karen likes to involve herself with is the Spirit of Art group where she is the founder.  She served three years on the Nevada Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities and considers herself an advocate for those less fortunate.

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