Smartphone Snaps: Karen Black


Karen Black is in the unenviable position of dealing with lockdown in two states simultaneously. The Sydney-based artist is camping out in her studio in Marrickville, in the city’s inner west, while her solo show Arepo, at Sutton Gallery in Melbourne, has been shifted online. And this in not her first rodeo. In March 2020 Black’s show at her Sydney gallery, Sullivan + Strumpf, also had to close.

In her Smartphone Snaps photo essay below, Black takes us on an intimate tour of her locked-down life, including a glimpse of her ‘unmentionables’ drying in the sun, paintings in progress, borrowed studio dog, and the quirky things (in her neighbourhood and on the internet) that keep her inspired and smiling.

This is me in my studio with Clancy. She is my studio mate Mirra Whale’s dog and sometimes she pretends to be mine (just for a second). Whenever I ’dog-sit’ she mopes around worrying about when Mirra will arrive back at the studio. This photo was taken the night I let her lie on my studio bed for a couple of hours. Who’s my best friend now? Photo by Mirra Whale.


I’m working on some large paintings at the moment and have worked out a method where I don’t wash my brushes for about 5 days and so the painting table gets in to a bit of a mess. I used to do it every day but I get a sore back and also it is the most boring job, ever, besides doing admin! In a way it has been helpful to use a dirty brush and add a new colour to use again as it then surprises me with a colour blend that I hadn’t planned.

When I sit at my desk on my laptop, this view is immediately in front of me. I play and change things around constantly and this informs new ideas and ways of working. The painted lumps on the right hand side are large amounts of oil paint that I’ve wiped from a work and thought I may re-use. I’ve left these to dry and quite like the formations of the paint and the environments they encompass in their materiality.


There is a real simplicity to the way I’m living at the moment. I’m hand washing my clothes in a bucket and I dry them on a drying rack in the shower where the sun peeks in. Sometimes I leave it in the sun on the tiny verandah outside, but it gets quite windy and can be embarrassing if I need to collect my underwear from the roof top of the adjoining building. I’m making all of my meals from scratch, shopping online only, talking to friends at great length on the phone and generally taking more time to relax and be in the moment. To be honest I’ll be taking some of these lockdown ideas forward with me once I can go back to my flat, although not the hand washing of clothes!

The only time I leave the building is to go for some exercise. I try to walk around different blocks in Marrickville and love to see the gardens in the area, many celebrating ornaments and flower pots. One day I spotted this mattress which coincided with the announcement of the Gladys Berejiklian / Daryl Maguire ’sex scandal’ in parliament. So timely to need a new mattress right then.


At the moment I’m trying to make a ‘red’ painting. It is not the first time and I find it quite challenging. Still pushing on… there is a lot more work to do so I’ll see how things play out on this one.


I’m really missing being out and about in the streets, capturing fascinating people going about their daily chores. I have a bank of images that I use for my paintings, sometimes drawing on several of them for one work. I secretly take images of people on trains, walking in the streets and anywhere really. Sometimes I’ll do a quick sketch on the train especially of anyone with a great facial profile or if I’m interested in the colour, texture, shapes and proportions. I captured this amazing woman some time ago when we’d never heard of Covid19. I miss her and all of the other interesting people I come across regularly and who unknowingly (most of the time) contribute to my collection of images in the studio. If you are seeing this post and this is you, YOU LOOK FABULOUS!

I was never a TV watcher and in fact lived most of my family life without one. Well things have changed since I’ve been in lockdown. Sometimes without even realising it, I’ve watched two hours of silly videos about dogs and what they get up to. I’ll often forward them to my sister in Queensland to entertain her (hopefully). I also love animal rescue videos although they can be a bit depressing. I laughed for ages when I saw this one come up on social media. So much fun with bread! I haven’t tried this on Clancy yet, but still have time 🙂 I love the square face it creates and the surface quality of the bread with the dog hair and also how much it can change the eyes and snout. I may reference this in a painting very soon.


Sometimes I’m not sure what day it is, so I’ve found it important to set goals and work on projects, I’ve managed to distract myself by making both of my adult children their own set of mismatched mugs for their preferred coffees. These are a couple I stacked on my desk. I do love stacking and will give it a go with anything! My son said he liked short blacks but didn’t want one of those silly little tiny cups that his coffee is served in at the cafe. I therefore made him a very teeny tiny purple cup for one sip of coffee. I did make other sizes for him but I must say my favourite was the purple one on top.


From another of my walks around the streets of Marrickville. How often do you see a donkey in a ute?!

The engine room! This is where I do my admin, writing, reading and research. It’s always a bit of a mess so every now and then I have to do a big clean up so I can think straight.

Karen Black
Sutton Gallery (online)
17 July – 2 September

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Feature Words by Art Guide Australia