The following remarks were delivered by Michael Novak at the 2013 Genuine Feminine conference at Ave Maria University on Jan. 19. A slide presentation of Karen Laub-Novak's paintings, sculpture, and prints was delivered during Novak's remarks, available here.
For young women with high artistic (or other professional) ambitions, while also cherishing a husband with whom together to bring up rebellious, independent children (why not the best?), there are hardly any other professions more suitable than writing or painting or sculpture. These are professions in which it is normal to go through cycle after cycle of dry periods and down periods, and in which a certain amount of off-an-on reflection and times of gestation (fraught with other activities such as cleaning up the mess on the kitchen floor after the youngest children finish breakfast, lunch and dinner). Rare is the writer in this world who has time only for writing. Even those who do have all day always need a half hour or more to sharpen pencils, twenty minutes to arrange the desk, then more time to fuss with papers, and other sundry tasks necessary to protect her from having to face an empty sheet of paper. That is to say, the sheer terror of having to create out of nothingness…
As my own dear wife once wrote in a letter to her grad school dorm mate, “Loving a man is a full time job, painting is a full time job. But I am sure they can be done together. I know they can.” (I paraphrase). There was not a little dubiety in her tone.
Our brilliant leader of this conference, Sarah Pakaluk asked me to name a couple of models to prove that art and marriage go together. One I suggested was Phyllis McGinley, the down-to-earth poet so highly praised by W.H. Auden, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poems which, when I was young, seemed to be published everywhere – The New Yorker mainly, The New York Times, and dozens of magazines..
Another was Jean Kerr, author of four successfully produced plays including one with the longest run of any play until that time. And, above all, author of some of the wittiest short stories about home life and the writing life that you will ever read. I love Mrs Kerr’s tale of the questionnaire she was sent by the publicity department of her book publisher. Where it asked “Husband’s first name,” she filled in “Honey.” She noted that the credit card application for a lady’s clothing store had asked the same question – and she gave them the same answer: “Honey.” I hope they issued the card anyway.
By the age of seven, Jean was lucky enough to figure out her goal in life: To sleep late every morning. Luckily, her husband Walter Kerr was a top-ranked theater critic and they had many late evenings attending Openings, got home late – and Jean slept as late as she pleased.
A third model for the life of art and family love, Miss Pakaluk was wise enough to invite to be our luncheon speaker: Meghan Gurdon. Meghan is one of the wittiest writers in the country, and at the “cultural evenings” we used to have at AEI, she was the most sheerly delightful reader of all the female roles in P.J. Wodehouse stories. On another evening, she was the dreadfully attractive temptress in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. If you have not read such jewels as those aloud with friends, you are missing a feast for your wit.
Meghan also has one of the most impressive and coolest husbands – Hugo, Editor of a witty and scoop-making paper on Capitol Hill in Washington, The Hill – and she has been raising a sweet, sweet passel of children, led by the demure, pretty, brilliant Molly now in her second year at Oxford, and rambunctious Paris now in his senior year of high school, who is destined to steal a beautiful woman’s heart. … You have heard Meghan, and you know how wonderful she is.
Sarah also invited me to speak a little about my wife’s work. Karen Laub was brought up in a little town of 2000 named Cresco, Iowa. She loved Iowa with its vast skies high above the plain, its long silences, its comfortableness in a person’s being alone and ruminating and soaking things in. When I was lucky enough to meet Karen on a blind date on March 20, 1962, Karen was just finishing a one-year appointment as Instructor in Art at ‘the Harvard of the Middle West,’ Carleton College in Minnesota.
She had already been proposed to, but put acceptance off for a year, during which she wanted to test her talent against the best – and for her that meant Boston or New York. She had been a favorite student of Oskar Kokoshka, the German Expressionist in Salzburg, Austria, and of the famed master of print-making, Maurizio Lasansky at the University of Iowa. For that one year, she wanted nothing to do with men.
I had promised Karen on that first night that we would have dinner, and I would have her back to her hosts in ninety minutes. Somehow, that promised 90 minutes kept getting extended -- for nine and a half hours. During the first nine minutes I decided she was the girl I had been praying for, and I would marry her. But it took her a long, long year to admit to her mother in a letter, “I have finally run out of objective reasons for saying no to Michael.” A rousing, enthusiastic endorsement. Her letter continued with a short account of my virtues, and a substantial section on my weaknesses and faults. A painfully accurate section.
That was Karen, realist to the spinal core. She saw one fact about humans: We are each moving toward death. In living persons she could often see through to the death mask. Often, like Michelangelo, she would paint with the skin stripped away, so as to show the hidden muscle, bone, sinew, inners.
She told me in an early letter that that year she knew she could only paint simple things.. It was important to her to stay within her personal knowledge, to paint only what she knew – what no one else knew, what did not come from any book or any other person. She would stick to simple paintings of her friends who would pose for her, and of her favorite of all persons – her Grandmother Do-Do (Dorothy). Meanwhile, she kept learning other techniques, other methods, other styles. She worked to master every age in painting history, to learn from every school. And, gradually, her themes became more and more complex. She had once feared that when she learned enough techniques and methods, her soul might not have enough to say.
Not to worry.
On the slides you are seeing on the screen, you can watch her early work in her own simple style, then more or less Renaissance portraiture, her first works in French Impressionism and German Expressionism, and later what she learned from Michelangelo and Goya, from Caravaggio too. She often went back to the subject of her master’s degree thesis, William Blake.
Karen found that great and deep written works stirred her imagination most. She loved to discover images no one had embodied in paint or etching before. She thought of painting as an incarnation of movements of the soul. Putting them in physical paint, in brush strokes, in little mounds and ridges of paint. Giving them visible, bodily being. She often told me to ignore theme and composition for a moment, and look just at the drama in the individual strokes. In her lectures on art, she would often blow up an inch of painting surface to fill the whole screen, so that the eye could voyage on the vast region of two simple brush strokes. Karen loved detail.
Her greatest strengths were composition – almost effortless, it seemed – and color and chiaroscuro, shade and shadow. She loved bright, brilliant colors even though they were far harder to control than a paler palette. She took great risks with color, and reaped high rewards.
Many viewers find her work “dark,” and “gloomy.” In fact each of her works represents a victory of spirit, a struggling spirit, a dark wrestling against matter to find the beauty in it.
In her personal life, Karen suffered from a genetic pull toward depression. Often she was happy and light, but when the “black dog days” came (as Churchill called his own downward pull), it took her an immense effort to dig down into her own black nothingness in order to create. Creatio ex nihilo was her mode of being.
This is why Karen loved The Dark Night of the Soul, and St. John’s Apocalypse, and T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, and toward the end, the poetry of Rainier-Marie Rilke, especially his “Duino Elegies” featuring its huge angels, of whom one Elegy says (in Karen’s favorite line) “Every Angel is terrible.” Those works were executed in the last decade of her life.
You might possibly agree with me that Karen took religious feeling into new darknesses and depths, and that she created a wholly new artistic dimension, not of prettiness but of harsh reality. Of which her own untimely death is but one verification of her work’s authenticity.