Karen Bezuidenhout
: When South Africa meets Santa Barbara

Painter-muralist brings the moods of Africa to the Central Coast

By Amelia Rose Simpson
Photos by Mariana Schulze

Karen in her Santa Barbara Studio

Artist Karen Bezuidenhout can’t remember life without horses. “They were always there. One of my first memories of pain was from a horse stepping on my bare foot when I was five,” Karen joked. Born at a racehorse farm outside of Cape Town in South Africa, Karen grew up riding. “My sister and I would have crazy adventures on our Welsh ponies, falling off and racing around. My sister, who still lives in South Africa, is also a horse fanatic. She’s a huge influence in my life.”

Karen, who is self-taught, came to painting later in life when she emigrated from South Africa to San Francisco about 20 years ago with her husband and two small daughters. With her husband at work most of the time, Karen combated the cold, foggy city and apartment life by bringing together all the colors of a South African autumn and putting them into her paintings.

“I was dreadfully homesick and in complete culture shock after leaving South Africa. Painting was the only thing that kept me going. San Francisco looked so gray; it felt like all the lights had gone out,” Karen recalled. “I would paint and paint to take the pain away and bring color back into my life.”

When Karen and her family moved to Santa Barbara in 2001, it proved to be very fortuitous. She was introduced to another artist, Bill Woolway, by a friend of hers, who had happened to pick him up hitch-hiking. “Bill was about 83 when I met him,” Karen shared. “My friend had seen some of his paintings and thought we should meet.”

Bill turned out to be quite an eccentric character. A World War II veteran, he was a hugely talented artist who had a little studio in Summerland, where Karen brought people to buy his art.

Karen puts the finishing touches on her mural in Anouk Steinke’s living room. Featuring all of Anouk’s 
horses, it now serves as the centerpiece 
of the space.

“We adopted each other, and Bill became my mentor,” she said. “We had a coffee date once a week for years, and never stopped chatting about colors and paintings we loved. Because of this, I became more and more confident with my own art.”

Furry friends add to the tranquility of Karen’s outdoor space.

Bill encouraged Karen to take a stab at painting what she loved most: horses. He recommended she paint a horse, as he put it, “Real primitive-like.”

So Karen went home and made a small painting of a horse. “I brought it back to him the next day. Bill was excited by my efforts. It was a brown horse with a very African blue sky in the background. Bill predicted that one day I would be painting horses on 6-foot-by-4-foot canvases,” she remembered. “At the time, it seemed impossible.”

Karen’s work evolved through Bill. She developed her own distinctive style which she describes as “rustic, organic, and primitive.” Karen achieves this by using acrylic paint, gesso, charcoal, oil stick, and oil pastels to create her paintings. She paints with brushes and also uses her hands directly on the canvas. Karen’s paintings embraced wildness and wide-open space, reminiscent of African vistas, a familiar backdrop that she brings into her paintings even now.

Life in Santa Barbara has also had a significant impact on Karen’s art, inspired by the abundant nature and the beautiful coastline. “I started painting in blues a lot because of the ocean and using more pastel colors, pinks and greens.”

When a friend and supporter of her art introduced Karen to the buyer for the Sundance Catalog, it was a turning point. Karen was immediately given the cover, which displayed three of her paintings. The Sundance Catalog continues to carry Karen’s original paintings as well as prints.

Karen’s original work is also available in Wilde Meyer Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona, and at Upstairs at Pierre Lafond, a home and lifestyle store in Montecito. It was a slow start, Karen admitted. “My paintings hung on their walls for six months before anything sold. It was awful. One day a man walked in from NYC and bought three paintings, boom boom boom! After that the floodgates opened, and I’ve never looked back. Over the last 15 years, Pierre Lafond has given me a steady clientele. I can’t even tell you how much they’ve done for me. I am so grateful.”

With a nod to her native South Africa, Karen takes regular breaks from painting her beloved horses to paint elephants, giraffes, and zebras. “People are attracted to the romance and energy of Africa,” she shared. Karen’s work is also inspired by her favorite artists: Milton Avery, Henri Matisse, and Claude Monet, as well as her old friend, Bill Woolway.

Karen’s newest focus is on creating murals for people’s homes — most recently, for interior designer Anouk Steinke (owner of HÛS store in Ballard). Karen created a scene that included all of Anouk’s horses for her living room. “I love challenges and never say no, so it’s rewarding when people appreciate my work. It’s not easy to put myself out there; it’s like exposing a piece of my soul. In the beginning,” Karen confided, “when I would see a person looking at my paintings I would run and hide. But I taught myself to talk about my work and realized that people really like to know the artist. All I do is tell the truth. I tell it like it is.”

Find Karen’s work locally at Upstairs at Pierre Lafond, 516 San Ysidro Rd, in Montecito. Visit Karen in her studio or contact directly karenbezuidenhoutart.com.