Karen Nemes, Artist

Memento Mori Art: Karen Nemes of La Grotesquerie

Karen Nemes: Memento Mori Art

Memento mori art, both historical and contemporary forms, serve to remind us of our own mortality. Instead of contemplating on this reality as something to be feared or to cause despair, the art of Memento Mori challenges us to use the knowledge of the limited time we have as mortal beings to live a worthy life. A reminder that death is inevitable and cannot be contained also encourages us to treasure the time we have left with our loved ones.

Artists who create beautiful works depicting the inevitability of death will be featured as part of Circus Living's sideshow 'Memento Mori Artists' in the weeks to come. Chosen artists and their works will be posted conveying information about their thoughts on ‘Memento Mori, the art of dying, and their own mortality.

And without further delay, Circus Living presents Karen Nemes of La Grotesquerie, our next featured ‘Memento Mori’ artist.

Can you tell me something about the works you submitted, what inspired you to make them, and how they convey death and its meaning(s)?

I developed these works after struggling to find a use for some of the spare parts around my studio. Some pieces, like the rat skeleton and starling, were quite delicate and I was afraid to display them without support. The frames allow for stability and ease of display while providing me a large surface to play with.

I love juxtaposition, so contrasting the dead elements with preserved botanical materials was a natural step. I like to use bits of vintage jewelry in much of my work for the same reason; the inclusion of glamorous elements with animal remains elevates the specimen, granting it a sort of royal presence. Including these "pretty" things with bones, carcasses, etc. also disarms the viewer and draws them in to take a closer look at something they would likely otherwise find repellent.

My hope is that these presentations help to de-mystify death as a concept and provide the viewer with an increased comfort with death as a natural, inevitable, and sometimes beautiful phenomenon.

How do you perceive death? How do you perceive your own mortality?

My art has helped me to develop a much greater sense of familiarity with death. I don't necessarily like it -- I'm still grieving the loss of my father last year -- but I no longer fear it or refrain from talking about it.

In general, I think that honesty and directness is preferable to avoiding topics...and those who know me can attest that this includes many topics, not just death! I am trying to live my own life as authentically as possible, which means that I must be willing to look under the surface and face things.

I had my children and married young. After 20 years I found myself single and displaced to a large extent. I realized it was up to me to decide where my life would go next. All those things I said I'd like to do "someday" were not going to magically happen. I have developed an acute awareness of the impermanence of life, of time, of personal roles -- and this has been quite liberating. It's up to me to fashion a life that reflects my personal values, feelings, and desires. The memento mori tradition helps me to remember this on a daily basis.

Have you ever visited a bone church, crypt, morbid museum, or a famous cemetery for artistic inspiration? If so, can you tell me a little bit about your experience?

I've been to three Alt Taxidermy competitions in Philadelphia and have visited the Mutter Museum twice while there. I find it to be especially fascinating in light of the work I do to produce my art. Looking at the wall of skulls, I marvel at the innumerable variations from one person to another. I appreciate the historical perspectives the museum offers, especially around peoples' understanding of illness, mortality, and physical processes.

As an artist who creates morbid works, have you faced any challenges exhibiting them to the public? How did you overcome these challenges?

One year, at a holiday bazaar, I was asked by the organizers to "put Krampus away," about halfway through -- which meant that my son had to remove the costume we had fashioned the night before. I had deliberately designed that Krampus to be muppet-ish and not particularly frightening, but apparently some people were upset by it.

I've also been told that I "sell evil" at another community event.

What works for me is engagement and dialogue. When vending, I rarely sit down. I stand in the front of my booth space to present a friendly, smiling face to the public. I've taken to saying "Hi! I'm your friendly neighborhood roadkill taxidermist!" loudly as people walk by -- which is usually good for a chuckle, if nothing else.

I place two pieces near the front of my space -- the porculope, who everyone seems to love, and the Skin Horse, which features a framed quote from The Velveteen Rabbit next to the display. Children especially like to touch the Skin Horse, and I enjoy showing them the different types of fur that make up the piece. This often helps to soften up the parents.

I also frame my general artist statement and place these in a couple locations in my booth. If someone takes the time to read it, they often gain a much greater understanding of my work. I'll also summarize that statement by saying "I like to find the beauty in the broken things," which usually resonates with people as well.

Some folks just aren't going to like what I do, and that's OK. I now know a number of rogue taxidermists and feel welcomed in that community. I just wish we all lived closer to one another!

If another artist asked you to destroy their works of art after their death, would you? (question from Morbid Curiosity game)

Wow, this is a tough one. In the end I think I would feel compelled to honor the artist's last wishes.

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