The Past Lives of Karen Bubb 

The prolific artist will put out her largest-ever exhibition at the Visual Arts Collective

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Harrison Berry

City of Boise Cultural Planner Karen Bubb started renting The Nest during a rocky point in her marriage, and since then, it has been her sanctuary and studio. Situated in the Idaho Building with a view of the Foothills and the rooftops of downtown, it was full of artworks that will be part of her upcoming exhibition, Bits of String Too Short to Tie.

"It feels really good to have this be the last tenant," she said referring to the art.

Indeed, when she sends the art to the Visual Arts Collective, where the exhibition will run starting Friday, Oct. 4, she'll give up the lease to The Nest, ending a chapter of her creative life. Bits of String will be Bubb's largest exhibition to date and include encaustic works, textiles, ceramics, sketches and even wallpaper. All of it revolves around a source of inspiration: her past lives.

"I had this sense there was a veil between me and memories I can't access. ... It was a frustration," she said. "I've been evolving this understanding in my own head for some time."

When asked how literally people should treat her tack toward past lives, Bubb shrugged. For her, the idea of past lives opens creative and metaphysical boulevards. It's fine if people raise eyebrows at her method, so long as they raise an eyelid, as well, because these works are individually stunning and, collectively, give a kaleidoscopic view of the artist and her abilities.

Most of the pieces in Bits of String were created in the last three years, but some are much older, speaking to Bubb's lifelong suspicion that some part of her had inhabited previous identities. Over her bed in The Nest hung a small series about a fisherman in the Mediterranean. In it, whitewashed buildings tower over a narrow street leading to a mass of blue, where the sea and the sky bleed into one another. The scene invokes her previous series Cuba on the Cusp, in which she produced images from her trip to Cuba in encaustic. Unlike those pieces, the new work invokes a feeling of rediscovery instead of first contact with a foreign culture.

"I could feel that I was in a man's body, and I felt this incredible sense of happiness," she said about exploring her past-life fisherman.

What started as an intuition about occulted identities became an undiscovered country within the last few years. In 2017, Bubb attended the Omega Institute in upstate New York as part of a past-lives/hypnosis retreat, where she decided her researches into herself could fuel her art. For nine months in Boise, she worked with a local hypnotherapist on past-life regression therapy to uncover still more identities.

"It crystalized that it was plausible that we've had multiple past lives," she said.

Others include a Chinese poet burned in a fire, a Holocaust victim, a Native American woman, an Italian priest and a deposed queen. Bits of String represents each of these personae.

In The Nest, the collected works took up most of the wall space, including in Bubb's washroom, and the impression of all those characters was nearly overwhelming. At the VAC, however, the exhibition will undoubtedly give viewers a sense that Bubb has returned from regression therapy with snatches of her unconscious, like how fossilized bones invoke, rather than recreate, the whole animal.

Bubb's journey has been artistic and personal, and just like how the remains of one life can illuminate the present, and possibly the future.

"These are very terrifying experiences," Bubb said, "but what I gained from those was a strange kind of calm. What I have been learning is how to use this opportunity to keep going forward."

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