“It is Important to be Polite”: The Subtle Artistry of Karen Nunis


The Artist in her Studio

Karen Nunis is a multi-talented artist whose works are imbued with a purity of lines and balance. Her art prioritizes emotions and her figures are a perfect harmony between aesthetics and feeling. A Malaysian of hybrid heritage (Ceylonese, Portuguese, Chinese), Nunis’s style is a perfect, liminal balance between different ideas and cultures. This vibrancy however does not resolve in brash, bold colours, but in subtle hues and elegant lines. Nunis’s aesthetic may be gleaned from her method. She says that she starts with a single line on paper or canvas. She then works outward from it to find the painting. I cannot find a more fitting analogy for the subtle artistry of Karen Nunis. The layers of complexity that is then unpacked from that single line conveys how one can be of many things and yet contain the unity and clarity of a single line.

Nunis attributes her creative upbringing to much of her early inspiration and training.  Nunis’s father was both an artist and a musician, and she learned a lot from her grandmother’s artistic tutelage.  The marriage between the ideas of different generations are encapsulated not just in Nunis’s art, but in her convictions and in her personality. I found in Nunis’s art a visual exemplication of myth-making and the ways in which stories change in-between the borders of culture. Every visual representation of emotion tells a story in Nunis’s art, a story that reaches into her travels and into her heritage(s).

I meet Nunis at her studio one rainy Monday evening, having braved the traffic jam to her gallery. She had just come back from Christmas shopping with her mother and her talented daughter Billie. Confronted by a visual representation three generations, I am immediately reminded of “Sisters of Mercy”. It is an image of three women, although the unity of lines seems to suggest one-ness. When I asked Nunis about this piece, she told me it was inspired by a song. She says:

(“Sisters of Mercy”)  was done in 1994 and is the only one that I still have kept from that series circa  93-94. The title is from a Leonard Cohen song by the same title. I like the imagery and cadence of the song and at the time I felt that his music lent itself well to the aesthetic I was trying to express in that series.

Sisters of Mercy
Pencil and water colour on paper
60″ x 36″
by Karen Nunis


Figures in groups of threes or as duos are a significant aspect of Nunis’s oeuvre as an artist, as are soft lines, almost geometric precision, subtle eroticism, and a sense of balance that attracted me to Nunis’s aesthetic. Branching off from a Cohen song, “Sisters of Mercy” has in the background a batik design which adds depth, mystery and a degree of liminality. The intricacy of the design evokes more colours in the mind than what is immediately seen. This picture is in fact an expansion of an earlier painting which was inspired by Wallace Steven’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, and Nunis’s account of how the poem inspired her provides insight into her aesthetic:

by Karen Nunis

The second piece is titled Anise, done in 1993 and is actually closely related to “Sister’s of Mercy” which is somewhat of a blown up detail of the three figures in “Anise”. The proto piece for “Anise” was a black ink and blue pastel piece that I did as a response to Wallace Stevens’  poem “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” specifically referencing verse 2 where he talks of being of “three minds”. Later I developed the proto idea which was made of quick, simple brush strokes and came up with “Anise”, titled after the eight pronged spice-Star Anise.

When one is as talented a singer-songwriter as Nunis, it is inevitable that music should inform art and vice-versa. The interstitiality of her creative process bleeds well into her art, and each piece seems to tell a story, even when the piece itself is a story, like the painting that is now in the possession of Bob Dylan. It is a very long story, the artist says mysteriously, and her reticence naturally lends well to the mystery of “Primitive Wallflower”, which was inspired by a Dylan song, “Visions of Johanna”.


Primitive Wallflower
Acrylic & oil pastels on Japanese rice paper
by Karen Nunis

Nunis and her family lived in Japan for seventeen years. When I asked her about the most significant thing she learned during her time in Japan, Nunis talked about politeness. She says that it is important to be polite in both our daily interactions and in art. While louder, and brasher techniques work well for some artists, for Karen, the quiet emotiveness of her piece is layered with meaning and nuance. Nunis asserts that this aesthetic of politeness is especially important within the Malaysian context. For Nunis, a subtler aesthetic enables her to bring her point across, and allows her to find a sort of freedom in expressing the embodiment of myriad forms of expression.  This approach may have been honed in Japan, but it is clear that it is a way in which this artist views the world, and that cannot be pinned down to any one culture.

Currently undergoing a life-transition after the end of a long marriage, Karen’s stint at the KL Art Studio sees her style evolving to bigger canvasses and is herself interested to see where her art goes within a new environment. Bolstered by family and friends, and fueled by her visual adventures into different dimensions, I am sure her artistic vision will only flourish, and continue to inspire.

Nin Harris

Nin Harris is a Malaysian poet, writer, and a literary Gothic scholar. Nin writes Gothic fiction, cyberpunk, nerdcore post-apocalyptic fiction, planetary romances and various other hyphenated weird fiction. Nin’s publishing credits include: Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed and Uncanny Magazine.