the he(art) of community
By Lisa Halpern, published in “The Cornish Magazine, InSight 2010”
There are people on the planet whose life is truly their canvas. Make no mistake, the art of living and creating a life in art are not the same thing. For those seeking a master class in doing both well, you might take a page from the book of Renaissance woman, Karen Guzak.
To begin with, her world is an adventure in alliteration. She is a painter, printmaker, public artist and politician. But those are just a few of the flowers in her life garden. She’s also an award-winning building designer, the owner of a successful yoga studio, and avid gardener, and the creator and host of a summer music series.
In short, Guzak is a force to be reckoned with and an amazingly creative spirit. Her passion for art became clear somewhere around the age of four.
I remember the day I was inspired to create my first painting. I wore a plastic apron and surrounded myself with tempera paints. I painted a giant sun disc and when I finished, I had this huge sense of Wow!
By the time Karen was ready for college she had other interests as well.
I have an abiding interest in science and math so I became a pre-med major.
Karen went on to receive a Bachelor of Science degree in medical technology from the University of Colorado in 1961. When her youngest child was in preschool Karen began taking art classes at night and on the weekends. The family moved to Seattle where she decided to deepen her pursuit of art.
Over the years Karen has exhibited extensively nationally and abroad; in galleries, museums, and beyond. She has been commissioned to create numerous public art projects for the King County Council Chambers in Seattle, Seattle-Tacoma Airport, Overlake Transit Center in Redmond and more.
Always drawn to leadership roles, Karen taught art at Seattle Pacific University, The Factory of Visual Art, and at Centrum in Port Townsend. She has also been very active in the Northwest art scene as the President of the board of Artist Trust.
In 1989 Guzak found herself in need of a community of artists. While most of us might join a club, Karen found a warehouse and converted it into artist’s live/work spaces: Sunny Arms Artist Cooperative, (named for its proximity to the Sunny Jim peanut butter factory) where she lived and worked. A few years later she did a repeat performance, renovating a building into the Union Art Cooperative developed with Gene and Lois Graham.
So what inspires a visual artist to design a building?
I really wanted to build a community. I love learning new things and collaborating, and I had some kind of innate confidence in my ability to figure things out, to negotiate conflict.
The idea of revitalizing a space — making it safe and maintenance free — combined her artistic abilities with her project management skills.
It was a great challenge to create a beautiful, functional, long lasting space.
A number of years ago Karen and her life partner Warner Blake moved to Snohomish. They renovated the former Saint Michael Catholic Church, transforming it into what they call “AngelArmsWorks” — their home and art studio. In regards to living in a church space Guzak jokes,
It’s divine, darling; it’s amazing. The space is blessed with so much forgiveness. Of course we’ve tilted the spirit to the feminine, and dedicated it to the creative muse.
And that’s putting it mildly. Her artistic passion quickly spilled out into what has now become an extraordinary garden and a meaningful piece of her life’s work.
Being in the garden is so life affirming. It’s simple and true – life and death, and ever changing seasons.
Karen’s boundless curiosity and energy led her down yet another path.
I started yoga when I was 50. I wasn’t at home with how I wanted to be in my body.
After a while, she realized that in order to really commit to yoga in a meaningful way, she needed to teach. I opened a studio. I thought it would be helpful for the community. And it is. Yoga Circle Studio is successful business, offering over 25 yoga classes a week.
I love spreading the principals of yoga. It’s all about creating peace of mind and passing it on.
That same desire for personal and community peace, inspired her to get involved in her community in a deeper way. She became a member of the Citizen’s Advisory Committee for Strategic Planning; the Board of Historic Downtown Snohomish; the Chamber of Commerce; the Snohomish Women’s Network, the Garden Club, and the Historical Society.
In junior high I was the president of the student council. I was very interested, even then, in taking a leadership role and being of service.
Bringing the same passion to the table, Karen’s leadership role grew, resulting in her recent election as Mayor of Snohomish.
Community service is a great opportunity for spiritual growth, working for a more peaceful, effective, celebratory community. It’s a big art project that improves the quality of life for a lot of people.
This is a through line in everything Karen does. She tends to her community with the same art and heat that she tends to the rest of her life garden.
I want to have my life count for something. I want to make a positive impact in some way. To make a difference.
And so she does. The wow that she felt as a four-year-old after her first painting of the sun is the resounding feeling of anyone lucky enough to cross paths with her. Whether enjoying her art, collaborating with her on a project, being in her living/work space or feeling the impact of the positive community changes that she’s behind, the Guzak wow factor is huge.