Karma Henry from operating room to artist studio

The artist was always within. Even when Karma Henry’s professional life took a decade long detour into the medical profession, the artist remained inside, waiting to surface.

It was the four-time weekly, 90-minute one-way drives to Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles from her home in the mountains north of L.A. which finally burned Karma Henry out on her career as a certified surgical technician. The “certified surgical technician” prepares instruments for surgery and then hands them to the surgeon during operations.

The money was good, she was good at her job, but when her husband asked her, “is there anything else you should be doing,” the artist saw its chance.

“My husband said to me, remember, when you have a bad day now, that means somebody didn’t make it; when you have a bad day in the studio, that just means you start over,” Henry recalled to me of the life-changing conversation. “The way he put it to me – I was looking at this the wrong way; sometimes you need someone other than yourself to remind you what’s important.”

Six months later, Henry (Paiute, b. 1972) had enrolled at Cal State Northridge where the artist could begin to flourish. In 2007, she earned a Bachelor of Arts with an emphasis in painting and a minor in American Indian Studies. A Master of Fine Arts degree from Otis College of Art and Design in L.A. followed in 2010, along with the plunge into trying to make it as a professional artist.

For many artists, this is the biggest, scariest, riskiest decision they will ever make. Stay or go? Leave or forgo a steady career with benefits and security for the chase and uncertainty of an art career? A nice house, a nice car, a paycheck, dental insurance, or the studio, with all of its ecstasies and agonies?

How did Karma Henry weigh the decision?

“If a person already wonders, ‘can I do this’ – if you’re already asking that question – then absolutely you should do it,” Henry says of making the leap to professional artist. “It makes more sense to try than wonder for years if you could.”

Artist in Residence

Karma Henry, Ajo Sunset, acrylic on canvas, 16" x 20", 2019
Karma Henry, Ajo Sunset, acrylic on canvas, 16″ x 20″, 2019

At the publication of this story, Henry is preparing for her next artist residency which will take her to Santa Fe, New Mexico. For Henry, who juggles her art career with another full-time job – that of stay-at-home mom to 12-year-old daughter Fiona – residencies are transformative. After a year-plus of COVID homeschooling, this one is particularly welcome.

“For me, the idea of a residency, to actually be in a studio, uninterrupted, is like a vacation; it’s like a paid artist vacation because I get to see things at my pace – galleries, museums – visit with other artists, talk about their work, my work, try some things and have the mental capacity that whole time (to focus on art),” Henry said. “A residency is like taking your studio on the road, you’re interacting with people you don’t see on a day-to-day basis, you’re able to get inspired by something.”

Karma Henry’s last residency came at the Sonoran Arts Residency in Ajo, Arizona in January of 2019.

“By the time I left there I had found a completely different path in my work,” she said.

Inspired by architectural forms in Ajo, Henry began overlaying those shapes in patterns on top of her landscape paintings. A subsequent visit to Yosemite resulted in a similar series with a basket weaving overlay.

She expects her Santa Fe residency to similarly result in a new series of work.

Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX deals exclusively in contemporary Native American artwork.
Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX deals exclusively in Native American artwork.

A Life of Learning

Junior college and vocational school for her medical career. Undergrad and graduate degrees for her art career. Residencies. Henry’s thirst for learning is obvious.

“I think you’re a better person if you’re always challenging yourself,” Henry said. “I think specifically after this past time at home, we have all thought about, ‘well, what can I do?’”

What Karma Henry did was accelerate her efforts to learn her traditional Paiute language. Henry is one of the many who determined to use time in COVID lockdown to be productive and one of the few who actually followed through on that pledge. Once weekly in-person lessons became three-times-weekly Zoom lessons.

“I want to know how my great grandmother referred to things. By learning the language, I’m remembering some of the stories that I was told growing up that I don’t think I would have remembered if certain words didn’t strike true for me,” Henry said. “This is going to be a lifelong learning. So many of our elders are not around anymore, so we have to rely on our teachers, who are fluent, but are still learning different words – words are lost – we’ll ask about certain words and they say we have to ask one of the elders to find out.”

Henry recognizes that when her grandmother was the age Henry’s daughter is now, her grandmother asked her mother to “stop talking Indian” to her because she wanted to fit in with Anglo society.

“Because I didn’t have that opportunity (to learn the language) growing up, I want to make sure my daughter does,” Henry said of Fiona, who also spends time in the studio working on her artwork with mom. “It’s interesting to me to think of my grandma, sitting on her grandmother’s lap, pointing at a basket, or an elderberry, and getting those words to filter back in and I think in that way, we’re slowly reclaiming some of that language back.”

Studying the Paiute language is one of many ways in which Henry has been reconnecting to her Indigenous roots in recent years. While her Native culture was never overtly represented in her work, nor is it now, it’s there.

“As I started doing more cultural activities, it changed the way I looked at my work which in turn changed the way I was making my work,” Henry said. “It’s just part of the work now, I don’t even think about it like I used to.”

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