Karen Stomberg

2021 Project AwardVisual Arts2017 Project AwardVisual Arts

About the artist

Karen Stomberg of Fairbanks is a visual artist who shifted mid-career into botanical drawing. She is retired from a long career as an arts educator and administrator.

2021 Project Award

Stomberg is a botanical artist. As part of an Alaska-based consortium, she will observe a single birch tree and its surroundings over the course of a year to create detailed drawings, monoprints and a soundscape for the group exhibition and book, “In a Time of Change: Boreal Forest Stories.”

2017 Project Award

Stomberg will use drawings of six wild flowering plant species at three different historical periods – 1899, the mid-20th century and the present day – to explore ideas of continuity, change, and resilience. The completed drawings will be displayed at a solo exhibition of botanical art at the Fairbanks Centennial Center for the Arts in 2018.

Tugging at roots: Uncovering story through wildflowers

The Foundation partnered with 49 Writers, a literary nonprofit, to profile Individual Artist Award recipients from 2017 and 2018.

Profile by Erica Watson

Karen Stomberg’s sketch of fireweed in full bloom evokes the energy and impermanence of Interior Alaska summer. Pink buds seem to bounce off the canvas while long summer light peeks through petals. As a botanical artist, she is meticulous about attention to color and quality of light, making color keys to ensure that, even after a live specimen begins to fade, the final work will retain the feel of the original.

Stomberg describes pulling the specimen she sketched from a flower box outside her home in Ester: “When I pulled on a single plant, a whole string of little fireweed zipped out of the ground attached to a root-like rhizome.” This unexpected emergence could describe much of her work: each detail opens a world of possibilities. “In case the thousands of seeds each plant makes every year aren’t enough, they have this strategy too,” she says of the rhizomes.

This multi-faceted approach to continuity and survival is one of the many strings attaching her sketches of six Alaska wildflowers in “Collected Treasures: Six Alaska Wildflowers” to expansive questions of change, resilience and survival. “The fact that there are both rhizomes and seeds in all these plants — they’re gonna be here,” she says of her chosen subjects — fireweed, wild iris, prickly rose, monkshood, twinflower and bunchberry. Each aspect of Stomberg’s deceptively straightforward work seems to mimic those fireweed rhizomes zipping out of the ground, creating spaces for unexpected questions and answers. Informed by her teaching background, Stomberg is as enthusiastic about digging into these questions as she is sharing what she learns, and her curiosity is infectious. She is clearly awed by her subject matter, and hopes others will be too.

“Collected Treasures” began as a collection of three sets of botanical drawings — two from historical collections and one from living specimens — and grew into a collaborative project between artists, writers, scientists and historians. It is a testament to the communities of people examining and drawing wisdom from even the smallest members of the natural world.

John Muir wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Muir was part of the 1899 Harriman Expedition, which offered part of the inspiration for “Collected Treasures.” Stomberg was at first struck by the beauty and care given to the plants collected and preserved on the expedition, which set out in part to survey and document the natural world of the Far North. It brought together leading scientists and intellectuals of the time, many of whom would become the founders of the early U.S. conservation movement. “There were all these rich conversations that continued when they all moved back into their lives, back east. They fomented with their power and money and will … what would become the conservation movement. These specimens represent a collaboration that was really important.”

Stomberg’s further study into the Harriman specimens evoked a different kind of emotional response, as she realized the significance of the historical moment in which they were collected. “What [the Harriman Expedition] was seeing was disturbing in a lot of ways. What they saw was the result of 130 years of decimation” following Russian and American colonization. In contrast to the vibrancy of the fireweed sketch from a live specimen, Stomberg’s sketch of the fireweed collected in Juneau in 1899 seems to carry some of this historical weight: the plant is folded into a V to fit the page, though not haphazardly; as Stomberg notes, the collectors knew to display the front and back of the leaf, and to press it quickly to best preserve the color. Still, something about the image seems to speak across the years of the damage done to the people and land of Alaska, and the expedition’s project of collecting what remained, even if the loss wasn’t then evident to the collectors. Stomberg’s sketch captures the shadows of the tape holding the plant to the page and the fibers where the stem was torn from its root; if the collector pulled up the root clump as Stomberg would over 100 years later, it was discarded before it was attached to the page.

Stomberg also sketched specimens of the same species from the University of Alaska Fairbanks collections, which represent a different era of exploration. Scientific inventories were largely funded by industrial development and required environmental impact statements during the decades the UAF collection was built, what Stomberg refers to as “the EIS era.” Like the Harriman expedition, she says the collection also tells the “story of what science can do” in terms of interdisciplinary collaborations and shifts in cultural attitudes. “The plants told stories, and the collectors told stories,” she observes, and with an essayist’s eye towards the power of story to connect any one thing to another, the scope of Stomberg’s work is ever shifting.

Stomberg chose six specimens that she felt were “aesthetically beautiful and also representative of the plant,” and that she felt confident she could collect around her home during the growing season. “I was really wedded to doing these from life,” she says, laughing at the odd sleep schedule she adopted to adjust to 2018’s late spring and the quick fade of blooming flowers.

Stomberg’s attention to connections between object and story places her work squarely in the tradition of naturalists documenting particular instants in time and space, and also of artists exploring the evolving continuum of human history. It opens spaces for conversations across fields of study, each collaboration and connection a tiny flower huddled just under the soil, waiting for a tug into the light.

Writer Erica Watson is an essayist living on the boundary of Denali National Park and Preserve. 

Artwork by Karen Stomberg

This art was purchased through the Alaska Art Fund managed by Museums Alaska.