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  • Tina Firesheets

Grace & Redemption in Public Spaces

​​A few months back, Karen Archia’s life was at a crossroads. She’s since begun a new journey - one in which she’s finding redemption and grace through creating art with others.

Karen owned and operated a coffee shop called The People’s Perk in Greensboro’s College Hill neighborhood. It was near the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, drawing customers who were students, professors, artists, writers, and other creative thinkers and makers. It was one of those unpretentious gathering spots where people felt comfortable studying, conducting meetings or creating art. And Karen could serve a decadent latte with a smile that made you want to confide in her. You wanted to spend a little time in her world, this safe space that was free of judgement or the need to impress anyone. She had created this welcoming space for artists and poets and dreamers.

Karen had a business partner who ran the People’s Perk with her for the first three years. Both were artists, so they shared a studio space there and rotated artists’ exhibits. A few months ago, Karen made the decision to close the business after running it an additional three years on her own. It was clearly a difficult decision, one in which she tearfully shared with followers on social media. The news and her candor were met with such an overflow of unexpected community support. Customers and friends volunteered to help paint over a mural in the shop. They helped her clean. They even took out her trash.

She may not be serving lattes these days, but that smile still invites you to share more than just pleasantries with her. She’s inviting you to create art with her. You can frequently find her at Deep Roots Market, an organic foods co-op in downtown Greensboro. The experience has been both rewarding and surprising. She’s setting out to dispel any ideas of what many people might define as art or an artist.

“I’m just struck by how many adults immediately respond with ‘I can’t draw.’ I believe that, for the most part, people have a very specific definition of drawing as being able to re-create accurately what they see. This naturalistic or realistic style of drawing is really only one form of recording an image; mark-making is much, much broader,” she says.

Karen is still providing a safe space to be creative and to be yourself. She encourages people to sit down with her in a public space and just create, without restriction or preconceived notions of what anything should look like.

“Right now, this is my community service effort - as in I am ‘holding space’ for people - and I am germinating an idea,” she says.

If you’d like to reach out to Karen, do so through her art-related Instagram @Scrappy Unicorn.

In the meantime, here’s what she had to say about her artistic journey, her inspiration, and grade and redemption.


Closing your beloved People's Perk is most definitely a loss. How does it - or does it - play a part in your artistic journey?

“At some point, you have to step back and look at whether something is sustainable, and for me, the Perk was not sustainable for a number of reasons. I feel at peace with the decision to close, and tried to do it in a humane, open way. During the closing process, the love, appreciation and support I received really underscored an important fact: I was just closing down a physical place. And while it had a lot of meaning and value for many people - including me — it was the people that made it a joyful and satisfying endeavor - and we are all still here! We can stay connected and in community in other spaces. So the sadness was overwhelmed by love. And it really affirmed how much I want to continue to do work that connects and develops people and our community in healthy, loving, liberated, equitable and beautiful ways.”

Our theme: Redemption. And grace. How do these connect to your art, your decision to close your business or the direction in which you are heading?

“I feel redeemed as a person every time I sit down to create with someone. I think grace is what we offer each other. I just start the process with the intentional act of grace of asking them to draw with me without judgment or feeling like I have to teach them anything.”

Have you always created art or has this been a recent discovery/endeavor?

“I have painted for fun and as a kind of therapy since my twenties, but only in the last 7 years have I focused more intentionally on developing myself as an artist and my art practice, and selling my work.

I’ve always purchased art, and love to visit and talk with artists in their studios. Many artists I met would ask if I was an artist, and when I said no, they were surprised. I often would follow that no with “Well, I guess I do paint but I don’t consider myself an artist.” After many years of that dialogue, I decided I should put more effort into my painting.

In 2012, I starting sending my stuff to my friend Kelly, who owned and ran an art gallery called Labourlove in Durham with her husband, John. I had purchased one of her paintings a few years prior, and we became friends. She loved my work and asked me to start showing in the gallery. I, in turn, asked her to be my mentor. She is a great painter and has a BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago. Since then, I have starting calling myself an artist.”

What compels you create art?

“I worked in non-profit Communications for years, and spent the majority of my time writing about and for other people. It was great fun, interesting and fulfilling in many ways, and I brought myself to that work. But it wasn’t fully my voice that I was expressing. Painting was my way to express what I was feeling inside, process my emotions and really develop my own voice.”

What role does it currently play in your life?

“It’s quite central right now. My art practice completes me as a person. It is an important way for me to express myself, and to connect and commune with people.”

Where do you hope to go with it?

“I am a extrovert; and what I have discovered about my art practice is that I am only interested in having solo studio time, where I work completely by myself, only about 20 percent of the time. The other 80 percent of my art practice time, I prefer to make art with people. I believe each of us has a creative spirit - that it’s fundamental to human existence. I want to intentionally hold space for people to come as they as are, feel at ease, and to create and connect with themselves and other people.. Right now, I am germinating an idea around that philosophy and art practice.”

How would you describe your art?

“Most of what I create is visually abstract, rather than realistic. I value autonomy, so I like to give people the freedom to bring themselves and their own interpretation to my work. It’s amazing and fun to hear what people see and feel when they look at something I’ve created. And as I mentioned, it’s my self-expression and one way I connect with people. I often start with a feeling, a conversation or an idea, and let those animate my gestures and inform my color and medium choices. Often a title of a painting will occur first, but not always. I also have an idiom of strokes that I like to use that I may pull from to start or finish a work.”

How do others describe your art?

“I have often heard people say they feel like my work comes from my soul. Which is quite affirming. I also have people say they feel a lot of movement in my work, that’s it’s dynamic. I am often balancing chaos and order in my artwork — like in life, right? Some have mentioned that they can tell I love people, which is really exciting since I don’t often portray human figures. I often create Sharpie portraits of people I make up in my imagination, but they are simply black-line, abbreviated drawings. But they are expressive faces, so I think that appeals to people.”

After you closed your shop, you embarked on some retreats. Why were you compelled to do them? What did you get out of them - both in the moment of being there, and now that you've returned to "everyday life." What lessons, inspirations, etc. linger?

“Honestly, I was deeply fatigued, and needed rest, respite and contemplation time that was budget-friendly. In talking about the retreats, I realize how deeply fatigued many of us are, and what that can mean for how we feel about ourselves and our lives. I got a scholarship to attend The Penland School of Craft this past summer. It was a wonderful, magical experience from which I am still incubating art ideas. But, it was not restful; I worked a lot. So the lessons, inspirations, etc. from the art retreat at Penland, and my two monasteries retreats, are still unfolding within me. And I think they will be for awhile.”

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