Beauty and function combine in pottery crafted by Karen Karnes. She was known for her wheel-thrown pieces, lidded casseroles, and salt-glazed pottery. Rather than teach, she supported herself and her son through sales of her work—unusual for a female craftsperson in the 1960s. 

The daughter of Russian and Polish immigrants who worked in the garment district, Karnes was born in Brooklyn, New York, where she grew up in a cooperative housing project built especially for garment workers and their families. She attended the High School of Music & Art, located in the Hamilton Hills neighborhood on 135th Street in Harlem, known as “The Castle on the Hill,” because of its gothic revival style architecture. From there Karnes went to Brooklyn College where she majored in design, but never touched clay. Many of the instructors had come from Europe which, according to Karnes, made for “a kind of Bauhaus education in Brooklyn.” Before graduating in 1946, she met and married ceramist David Weinrib. The couple moved to Pennsylvania for his work as a designer craftsman. It was here that David brought home a slab of clay for Karen to experiment with.

In 1949, Karnes and Weinrib moved to Italy where in 1950 Karnes recalled they “lived for a year and a half in a little village outside of Florence, a pottery village with a few large industrial potteries and perhaps fifty to a hundred smaller potteries. It was there that I learned to throw by attending a school run by one of the factories. We set up a little potter's shop in our apartment and ground our own glazes from raw lead and sand in a mortar and pestle.” Upon returning to the United States she obtained a scholarship for graduate studies at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University in western New York state. It was there that she began working with stoneware, but she never completed the program. 

Having taken a summer design course in 1947 with Josef Albers, Karnes was pleased to return to Black Mountain College with her husband in October 1952, replacing Robert Turner who had established the ceramic program. They were potters-in-residence, but while he had a title and a salary, she did not. Bernard Leach, a noted British potter and Shõji Hamada from Japan visited during that time. Karnes encountered John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Franz Kline, along with Willem and Elaine de Kooning. While at Black Mountain she became involved with the Southern Highland Craft Guild and sold her work in nearby Asheville. 

In 1954 Karnes moved to the Gate Hill Cooperative community in Stony Point, New York, viewed by some as an extension of Black Mountain College. Cage and Cunningham were often there, and Jasper Johns had a studio nearby. The community consisted of artists, composers, filmmakers, choreographers, and poets, and included founders Paul and Vera Williams, Stan VanDerBeek, M.C. Richards, and David Tudor. About forty miles north of New York City, Gate Hill was a nexus for contemporary art of the day, often attracting practitioners of Fluxus, an international, interdisciplinary community during the 1960s and 1970s characterized as a shared attitude rather than a movement. Her son, Abel, was born in 1956 and, about a year later, Karnes and Weinrib amicably separated. In the 1960s Karnes built her own studio and kilns and developed a flameproof clay body which facilitated the functionality of being able to place a casserole dish directly on a stove–a design she produced for over 50 years. She remained an active member of the community until 1979, when she moved to Morgan, Vermont in the northeast part of the state near the Canadian border with Ann Stannard, a fellow artist and educator, and Karnes’s companion of many years.

A turning point for Karnes came as a result of a workshop at the Penland School of Craft, picturesquely positioned in the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina. As she explained, “It was at Penland in 1967 that I first began working with a salt kiln. I had worked for so many years in a kind of quiet palette using more or less one base glaze and a limited color range. Essentially I have always been more intrigued with the process of throwing than I have with glaze decorating. Form had been my primary interest all the time and I was just looking for a way to cover the surface—to bring it back to a wet-pot look with color. For that, salt is marvelous because it gives a beautiful skin to a pot that can be both quiet and exciting.“ 

Tragedy struck in 1998 when a kiln fire destroyed the Vermont house and studio she shared with Stannard. Nevertheless, she rebuilt her facility and went back to work, choosing to produce smaller scale and more intimate pieces. Over her long career Karnes was recognized for her considerable talent; she received two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, in 1976 and 1988. The American Craft Council honored her with its Gold Medal of Highest Achievement in Craftsmanship in 1998, followed a year later by the Vermont Arts Council Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, and in 1990 the Society of Arts and Crafts in Boston presented her its Medal of Excellence. Over four decades Karnes served her profession as the curator of the annual pottery show and sale at the Art School at Old Church in Demarest, New Jersey. 

Reflecting upon her long and productive career, Karnes stated: “After all these years as a potter, I am still conscious of the privilege of my life. There is still the deep pleasure of making pots on the wheel, the excitement of firing, and kiln opening, the challenge of new forms. It is a life of so much variety and one for which I am fully responsible—a rare quality in work today.”