Opening of Karen Wohlberg's show: "Dreams Left Behind"
Seated in his studio on Payne Road, island artist Ben Wohlberg spoke with a mixture of pride and sadness about his late daughter, Karen Wohlberg, who was herself an artist and sculptor. In loving detail, he describes the show that he, his wife Katherine and son-in-law Chris Fortunato are mounting in tribute to her life and her work.
Ben lingers fondly over memories of Karen and Chris’s meeting on Block Island in the early 1970s, and clearly seems to enjoy telling “their love story.” They met, he said, while she was a chambermaid and he a bartender at the Narragansett Inn. “It was then they fell in love,” he said.
Karen was studying at Bard College, followed by some time at Simmons College in Boston, but after they got together, Ben said, they both “ended up in Berkeley.” It was there, later in 1977, at the University of California, that Karen received a bachelor of arts degree in graphic arts.
After graduation and a return to New York, Karen and Chris, as Ben says, “went their separate ways.” However, he points out that he and Chris had always had “a great rapport,” and after a number of years he received a call from Chris asking where Karen was living. She was in Chicago at the time and shortly thereafter, Ben received a call from his daughter, who said, on the other end of the line: “Dad, someone’s here who’d like to speak with you.”
She put on Chris, who asked Ben, “What would you think of me being your son-in-law?” That was in 2008, and they soon married. “That was the good part,” Ben said. He noted that Karen “was finally feeling good about herself and her life,” happy about her marriage and living in Providence where the couple had settled. They had three happy years.
Chris was working in publishing and she in graphic arts, and she was just about to fix up an art studio when the financial crisis struck, sending them back to Chicago. At the end of three years of marriage, they learned she had cancer. “It was a very sad ending to the story,” Ben said. Karen died in 2012.
However, that was not the end of her story or her art, which, through the efforts of those who loved her, will live on. Of her work, Chris writes that it “was mostly abstract, but she draws recognizable objects in odd juxtapositions. Her use of colors is often rich and when she depicts people in her drawings, the emotional component is dreamlike and arresting.” This becomes obvious when viewing her painting “The Wedding Dream,” featured in the upcoming show.
Karen Wohlberg worked in multiple media: clay, fishing nets, burlap and found objects for her wall-hangings and sculptures. “She loved working with burlap. She had closets full of it,” Ben said. Katherine points with pride to a hanging on the wall in their home on Payne Road. It is a composite of burlap, into which strips of tin and a series of red high heels are embedded at angles.
Ben and Katherine beam as they note the work as a “one-of-a-kind,” and the only one using the unusual materials with which Karen was most recently excited about working.Looking back on Karen’s childhood, Ben said she was “always very inclined toward art and with a lot of art ability. She was always interested in sculpture, from very early on.” He explained that she only did graphic art to support herself, and stressed, “She was successful because she was incredibly meticulous in everything she did.”
Karen’s many smaller pieces “were discovered after her death. They had been wrapped in a portfolio for 20 years,” Chris said.
Karen Wohlberg spent many years working as a graphic artist in both Manhattan and Chicago, and her art work was exhibited at two group shows during her lifetime in Chicago. The new show, which opens at the Aurora Gallery a week from today, will feature work in mixed media: acrylic, pencil and oil sticks on paper.
While the loss of their daughter and wife is immeasurable to Ben, Katherine and Chris, it is clear that she continues to be a vivid presence in their lives through the gift of her art. It is that gift that they wish to share with the island community.
The show, entitled “Dreams Left Behind,” will open with a reception on Saturday, July 12 from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Aurora Gallery (located above the Post Office). It will run from July 13 through July 18, and will be open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The public is invited.