Karen Yee — A Journey in Self Portraits
Karen Yee started painting seriously after surviving her first battle with a rare and particularly aggressive type of breast cancer in 2003, at the age of 43. Taking up oils at first and later switching to acrylics, she found solace as well as her voice in painting. Her realistic subject matter ranges from figurative work to still lifes and animals. Yee’s series Judaica, Pirates, and Masked are eye-catching and delightful, but none transfix and captivate as much as her self-portraits do.
Battling cancer for 13 years and being confronted by the real possibility of dying, Yee feels an urgency to make the most of life. Yee describes the act of painting as the only time she truly lives in the moment. For Yee painting is a therapeutic, life-affirming act, which has helped her cope and express her innermost hopes and fears. Every few years she paints herself in the phase she finds herself in.
Her daughters were seven and nine years old when Yee got first diagnosed — today they are 20 and 22 years of age, young adults who, I imagine, have been highly impacted and shaped during the course of their mother’s challenges. Yee often discusses her painting ideas with her daughters and husband before she starts the creative process, which adds a collaborative factor to the end result. Her self-portraits are not only a visual testimony describing her own emotions and sense of self at a specific point in time, but also mirror her family’s feelings in regards to her journey. In an act of extraordinary generosity, she shares these intimate paintings with us, the viewers — connecting with those whom allow themselves to be touched.
While her other work is more lighthearted, her self-portraits tell us a very personal story about who she is and her emotions at various moments in her life. Although these self-portraits differ from each other in content as well as attitude, they tie together in a remarkable way using sharp allegory and pictorial narrative.
Yee’s first self-portrait is an archetypal nude, painted in 2008. The scars and missing nipple speak of mastectomy and reconstructive surgery — a body ravaged by the remedies that keep her alive. The texture of the canvas somehow emphasizes the soreness and frailty of the flesh. It’s a human landscape, a topographic map of her body. Mortified by the physical changes yet needing to come to terms with the transformation Yee left out her face, depriving us from reading her facial expression. This confrontational nude, tender in its honesty, is a tour de force as it simultaneously expresses fragility, strength, and heartrending beauty.
Yee’s cancer returned for a third time in 2012. In Fight Like a Girl she depicts herself as a resilient warrior clad in striking armor. The white wings symbolize the “good fight.” Yee’s bald head only adds to a sense of strength and resolve, and unmistakably shows she doesn’t mind losing her hair. Her face is defiant; her eyes show optimism. They impress me with the direct look of someone who’s determined to conquer yet is fully grounded in reality. To me, this portrait is an invitation to look into Yee’s soul; if we ever need to go into battle, this is a warrior I would love to have on my side.
During a self-help group session with fellow metastatic breast cancer patients, Yee described her situation as “living under the sword of Damocles.” This historic moral tale poignantly illustrates her sense of foreboding caused by a precarious situation, in which impending tragedy hinges on chance. In this intense painting simply entitled Self Portrait, Yee portrays herself seated under a sharp dagger as if awaiting its descent. The red necklace is a symbol of hope. While she seems more resigned to (or perhaps more accepting of) her situation, the set curve of her mouth shows a bold determination to live life to the fullest despite a palpable sense of foreboding. She states, “I have no other choice but to fight.”
In What Lies in Wait Yee shows her sense of humor, skillfully rendering tangible feelings of panic and fear in a playful, lighthearted way. I cannot help but admire her creative choices and talent for narrative. During our interview, Yee explains how the humor component played a major role when she discussed the theme of this self-portrait with her family. After the much darker Self Portrait, Yee decided to lighten the mood while remaining truthful about her emotions. What Lies in Wait is staged as a 1950s movie, brimming with symbolic meaning. The ever-present threat of the hairy monster trying to get her while she keeps the door shut with her buttocks provokes a smile despite the stark reminders of her situation; the cancer sucks button, the compression sleeve, and the chemo port scar which Yee justifiably wears as a badge of honor. Yee’s quirky appearance doesn’t show real fear, but the viewer knows it’s there… We want Yee to open the door and punch that stupid monster into oblivion.
By 2015, despite multiple chemotherapy sessions the cancer had spread from Yee’s breast, to her bones, liver, and lungs. The idea for The Waiting Game emerged a year before Yee’s oncologist told her all medical avenues had been exhausted. It was time to paint. Yee’s family didn’t like the idea of Death Row but this is how Yee feels; she received a death sentence over a decade ago and is awaiting release… or execution. The Waiting Game turned out less dark than expected — it certainly has a cynical air to it, but I detect humor and hope. Yee is behind bars, her intravenous line is connected to the governor’s landline hoping for a pardon, indicating that chemotherapy has been a stay of execution. Her eyes are wise and serene, her smirk looks determined and strong. Yee is holding a shoe, waiting for it to drop, and a roach motel sits by her side — she smilingly explains, “cockroaches are hard to kill, right?”
Yee does not agonize over the “why-me?” question. She does not fear death. Thirteen years ago her odds were 50/50, and since then she celebrates life. Her stirring self-portraits are a gift reminding us to live life to the fullest and motivate us to be creative, express ourselves, and connect with others. Her self-portraits are part of her legacy; as an artist, a fellow human being, a woman, a wife, a mother.
Most of us fear death but in a vague far-away sense, because while we all know we will die one day most of us are not confronted by it in such a stark, immediate manner. I cannot help but admire Yee for her courage and strength, yet wonder whether she ever had any other choice except to be just who she is — a resilient, brave, generous woman, and a wonderful artist. Platitudes aside, I’m grateful for her paintings that allow us a glimpse into her life’s trajectory. Her self-portraits have touched me profoundly in their beauty, honesty, and thoughtful reflection.
Update: Sadly, Karen passed away in October 2016… My sincerest condolences to her husband Richard & their two daughters. Love & light…
Written by Lorena Kloosterboer, realist artist & author © Antwerp, Belgium.
Originally published in PoetsArtists Magazine in June 2016