I'm an art historian with a special interest in American homes and other immersive environments, especially artists’ studios.
I was the curator at (and am now on the board of) Olana, the home and studio of Hudson River School painter Frederic Church. I’ve written a catalog for 101 Spring Street, the home and studio of minimalist sculptor Donald Judd. I serve as book review editor and board member for the Victorian Society of America. And I'm on the advisory council of the Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Much of this work grew out of my dissertation, which posited that the elaborately-decorated studios of late nineteenth century artists positioned them as plausible cosmopolitan artists and helped stimulate their creativity.
But I'm also fascinated by everyday houses. I wrote Creating the Artful Home: the Aesthetic Movement, a book explaining why American housewives of the Victorian Era devoted themselves to making their homes “artistic.” And in my own home, I spend a lot of time looking at art, bringing art in, and moving art around. For me, “art” means any object that rises above pure utilitarianism in how it was designed or functions. My chores include washing lovely dishes and pulling weeds in my garden—life is bare if it doesn’t revolve around using beautiful and challenging things.
And that brings me to The Wassaic Project. For some years we'd been hearing rumors of art-making happening in that tiny hamlet just down the road from our home in Pawling, NY. But in the summer of 2011, my husband came home from a visit to our alma mater, Carleton College, with 12 drawings by recent graduate and soon-to-be Wassaic intern Shannon Finnegan. Through Shannon and her art, we came to know the Wassaic Project.
Now I’m in deep. I started off being very interested in the art being made and exhibited in the hamlet, thinking that art was the end product. Now, after working with people and ideas and eating a lot of pizza, I see that art is a by-product. What we’re doing at Wassaic is making art and community. And that's deeply satisfying.
"Life is bare if it doesn’t revolve around using beautiful and challenging things."
Karen Zukowski, Wassaic, August 2017
Photos by Verónica González Mayoral