The sky’s the limit: Karen Kristen finds her purpose in art that reflects the great blue beyond


Karen Kristen was nearing the halfway mark when spring rains halted progress on a mural she is painting on her studio building at 123 N. Sligo in Cortez. She will resume the project later this summer. Courtesy photo

Similar to the choice Jackson Pollock made in the 1950s to take his canvas off the vertical easel and place it on the floor in order to liberate his visceral drips and splashes from his loaded brushes, Karen Kristen of Cortez years ago lifted her canvas to the ceilings of buildings where her subject matter – the sky – could exist in the spatial freedom required to create the illusion of all-encompassing, glorious three-dimensional space.

After more than 30 years painting skies on ceilings where only the architectural framing placed beneath or before the work holds the art in the appropriate visual place, she is known world-wide for her exceptional reproductions of sky as canopy of prosperity.

Until last month, Kristen has created monumental-scale murals for commercial and residential clients all around the planet except in Cortez, her home base and the location of her studio at 123 N. Sligo St.

“I’ve had a long and active career as a painter. Hard to say exactly how much volume of work,” Kristen explains, “but total mural projects would be close to a hundred, plus close to 200 large-scale backdrops earlier in my 10-year career as a scenic artist in Hollywood.”

In an effort to exhibit to the public at a scale appropriate to the body of her portfolio, Kristen has earmarked the expansive south wall of her Cortez studio and gallery for a full-scale sky-art piece. Although it was begun during the early weeks of May and scheduled to be completed two weeks later, Kristen and her assistants were hampered by early June’s heavy rains, which forced her to delay the finishing steps while other projects and family matters called her away from the current project. She expects to resume the next phase later this summer.

The majority of her commissions take place in the interior of building projects. This one is exterior, and 80 feet long by 12 feet high. At a mere 950 square feet, it is a smaller version of her typical commissions, she explains. “And usually the sky is also painted down the sidewalls, as in the Ceasars Palace in Las Vegas,” resulting in a seamless atmospheric transition toward the horizon as it is perceived from our human point of view. Her painted skies – wherever they are located – create a natural stage, a convincing perception of reality, a trompe l’oeil.

She chose to place the mural on the outside in public view rather than inside where the general public will not see it.

Aarons furniture recently built their new showroom building near her studio. The commercial building borders the Safeway parking lot, also Kristen’s neighbor. “When they did the construction Aarons also surfaced the alley between Sligo and the Safeway parking lot directly in front of my south wall,” she says. “The high quality of the access improvement they made changes the dynamics of the exposure to traffic. It was an opportunity to add a very personal layer of upgrade to the investment Aarons made. I’ve always wanted to do a mural here. Now, it was time.”

She is painting all the structural details on the south side of the studio building, including the top parapet on the face of the wall, tucking it around the corners and into all the window frames. The decision to wrap the painting on the structure creates an absolute solid vertical slab of sky standing in the foreground against the real sky-scape and a neighborhood in Cortez one-half block north of Main Street, clearly visible to the traffic.

“The building needed re-stuccoing. It was so rough I considered putting lightning bolts inside the cracks that had formed in the wall,” says Kristen. “The timing was right to do the full project. It was an opportunity to show the public what I paint and to give something to the city.”

Paint can be expensive, especially high-grade exterior paint with ultraviolet blocks. She estimates they will use 25-30 gallons of the vivid palette colors for the sky. Additional costs include a stepped wood platform that runs the length of the building’s south side that supports the staging equipment and scaffolding, as well as equipment maintenance and replacement, transportation and travel, lodging and stipends for each team member.

Richard Sprynczynatyk, who joined Kristen’s mural team in 1993, is the additional artist working with her on the Cortez mural. He traveled from his home in South Dakota for what they thought would be two weeks. But then came the rains. “We would stop for the rain and hope what we did would dry before the next rain came,” says Kristen. “We had to be patient. Finally, we lost many days and Rich had to return to his other work.”

All of the murals she accepts are physically strenuous. At this exterior site she must accommodate the additional factors of high-altitude sun and heat mixed with the presence of the paint used as a spray instead of a liquid brush mark. “It’s an eight-hour day. Six of them are very physical. It’s very tiring.”

Kristen’s paint station master is Tom Wolf, author of numerous books and articles and a retired National Park Service ranger. He attends to all matters of the staging, organizing equipment needs and paint pigments. He must understand the process as if he is the painter.

At the Karen Kristen Sky Art website, the visitor is treated to a lavish series of project photographs that show some of her past undertakings, including The Chaitanya Joti Museum, Puttaparthy, India, the Cirque du Soliel Mystere Treasure Island Las Vegas, and the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel Rib Room Bar in New Orleans.

Introductory images show the finished projects. Others describe the scale of her work and the ground support needed to complete the projects.

One image shows Kristen standing inside a cherry-picker bucket, small as a fleck in the sky, wielding a large spray nozzle aimed at the underbelly of a cloud as she paints it into the peak of a dome. It’s daunting, artistic work. Colossal. Delicate. Beautiful.

Her work is a perfect fit for a market dominated by revival classicism, largescale projects designed to surround the public in a perception of the sublime.

All light travels in a straight line unless something gets in the way to reflect it, bend it like a prism, or scatter it. Blue light [our perception of the color blue] is a result of sunlight scattered by molecules of air. It is scattered more than other colors because it travels as shorter, smaller waves. Therefore, we see a blue sky most of the time.

Close to the horizon, the sky fades to a lighter blue or white. When the sunlight is low in the sky it has passed through even more air than the sunlight reaching us from overhead. That amplifies the scattering of blue light many times in many directions. All this mixes the colors together again so we perceive more white and less blue at the horizon.

At sunset and sunrise the sky appears redder because larger particles of dust, pollution and water vapor reflect and scatter more of the reds and yellows.

Kristen adds the exacting knowledge of paint mixtures and palette combinations and although she can paint any setting the client desires, some realities are never requested.

“Clients don’t want you to paint the tornadoes. They mostly want blue skies with white puffy clouds,” she says.

Her first large-scale sky backdrop, 34 by 120 feet, painted in 1978 at a film stage in Hollywood, was a vivid sunset in tones of red, orange, and purple. Curious about the symbolic meaning of color, she researched the topic to find that the passion of red best fit her personality at the time.

“Blue – associated with spirituality, harmony, tranquility, depth, and sky – reflected the aspirations of my inner self. Little did I know then where blue would take me. After that first big sunset sky, and over the next 10 years, the paintings I made as backdrops on huge sound stages in Hollywood explored all the colors to be found in a sky palette.”

Being in the right place at the right time led to that first commission, where she had to learn to use an air brush.

“I created backdrops for the first rock videos, some advertising clients like Braniff International Airways and for the film industry. Eventually, we had a lot of huge backdrops and couldn’t sell them. We kept them warehoused and finally began renting them.”

After 1989, she says. “I left Hollywood for a new life in the Southwest, and a career as the traveling Sky Lady. It was then that blue began to dominate.”

Today her business is vast, and concentrated on architectural applications. She doesn’t bring the paintings home to Cortez. Instead, they stay on site, making a manageable body of work with none of the storage issues of the past.

Now, Kristen can be more philosophical about the long-term value of her projects. Many years ago she was modeling for artist, writer and historian Frederick S. Wight (1902-1986), who played a large role in transforming Los Angeles into a major art center.

At that time he was in his mid-80s. Work was stacked throughout his home. “He advised me, ‘Be careful what you make, Karen’,” she recalls, referring not to content, but to amount. “What do I do with all this work at this time in my life?” she now asks.

Her studio/ gallery is a living exhibition of revolving paintings that grapple with the inevitable issue of scale – how to paint the big landscape in a small format. She estimates completing several hundred studio paintings since age 13, when she began to work on canvas.

Recently, her focus has been the canyons of the Four Corners. Some of the work is as small as 18 x 22 inches. Most is replete with animals, birds and insects. All of it is spiritually informed by her rare, larger-than-life painting experience.

Where there is sky in the smaller compositions, one sees the confidence of an artist who has spent a lifetime painting projects as large as the recent 252,000-square-foot ceiling sky dropped over the Venetian Cotai in Macau, China. She provided the sky for 14 themed areas circulating throughout the Grand Canal Shoppes, complete with a replication of St. Mark’s Square. The project took eight months. Another 105,000-square foot-sky followed that took approximately four months. All the projects in her portfolio list statistics in time and square footage that are hard to comprehend.

The works reflect evolving modern cultural, economic and social movements linked to fashion, security and the perception of value. Conveying more than just a backdrop for selfies, the skies open a viewer to a sense of sacred place

“The sky has brought me closer to my spiritual center,” Kristen explains.

There are not many careers that require extensive amounts of time in close proximity to the clouds. Kristen has committed much of her life to that wild blue reality.

“What does the color blue mean to me? Almost all [the project] skies were variations of blue, because as a ‘permanent’ sky, everyone wanted the peace of blue. There was happy blue, deep-space blue, soft-sunset blue, stormy blue, tropical blue, cloudy blue, misty blue, starry night blue, baby blue, and Japan blue.

“High above the floor, just under vast ceiling surfaces, spraying variations of blue, I fell into blue. Here at last I found my meditation. Time lost meaning – I was at one with my inner sky, and discovered that it’s blue on blue.”

From July 2015.