Public displays of artistic expression

Anna Marie Karlsen Alumna, 1974 Los Angeles, California

For artists, there is perhaps no greater dream than having their work viewed daily by the public. That dream is a reality for alumna and celebrated public artist Anne Marie Karlsen, who believes art can change the world.

Karlsen, who earned a bachelor of fine arts from Michigan State University and is now a professor of art at Santa Monica College, is well known for her public art installation “Kaleidoscope Dreams.” The nearly 4,000-square-foot piece, located in the North Hollywood Red Line Subway Station in Los Angeles, encompasses 14 circular and semicircular ceramic tile wall installations patterned after a kaleidoscope wheel.

“The wide visibility is the greatest attraction for me as a public artist,” says Karlsen, whose work includes nearly 30 commissioned public art installations. “Being readily accessible and seen by thousands of people daily is, quite honestly, exciting. In a museum, my work is only accessible to the limited numbers of people who visit it and is probably viewed by even less. With public art, the numbers of people who see and can interact with my art is incredible.”

A self-described cultural archaeologist, Karlsen says she hopes in an age of mobile devices and text messaging that she can give people in transit something visually engaging to contemplate—if only for a moment. 

I absolutely believe that art can change the world because I think that it’s important that people have triggers in their daily experience that allow them to go to a different place, either emotionally or aesthetically, or to give them a break from their normal routine. 

And I think it’s inspirational. I think that it’s magical for them, and has the opportunity to take people out of their daily life. 

People spend a lot of time in transit, for example, or waiting in some cases, and I think that art gives them a chance to slow down and take a look at something that might make them think a little bit, have a pleasant experience, and I think this is increasingly important in the kind of world that we live in where people are obsessed with their iPhones and texting. For them to sit down and have something to contemplate, something to enjoy, something to think about, is really a good thing. And I think it’s going to be increasingly more important as the world speeds up. 

I think of myself as a bit of a cultural archaeologist. I’m a collector of kitsch. I love to travel. I’m interested in all those obscure little stories about communities and what is particular to that neighborhood. As you know, L.A., for example, is like 100 small towns in the middle of one gigantic one, and each has their own particular personality. 

I think that one of my goals and one of the reasons I’ve been successful in public art is that I’m very interested in the artwork having multiple readings and that it is not a one-take shot. The artwork is complex. I think that it reads one way when you see it from a distance. It may look like an abstract design from a distance, and when you get up close to it you realize sometimes that the images are made up of photographic images, so there’s almost a two- or three-level experience that you have with the work. 

It pleases me that they say, “Wow, every day I look at this piece I see something different.” And that’s exciting to them. They feel that they’ve discovered something. 

I feel very strongly that I was given a gift and that part of having that gift is a responsibility to do something good with it, and I have really found my niche in terms of the art world because I feel it’s really important for me to be able to do something that impacts the lives of other people.

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