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Karen Mobley traverses her cancer journey and art

March 3, 2022 Updated Thu., March 3, 2022 at 3:12 p.m.

By Audrey Overstreet For The Spokesman-Review

Sitting opposite artist Karen Mobley, sprawled on her well-worn futon next to a blazing fire she stoked herself in her cozy South Hill living room, can be an enriching experience. She might talk about wildlife, cooking, science, art or cute neighbor children. Her three cats might jump on you.

She might take you down to her basement to show you the dozens of vibrant paintings of fauna and clouds she’s got in the works. And she might make a joke about her recent breast cancer surgery.

“I already had all these biopsy holes in my chest when the radiologist at Inland Imaging informed me that they were going to do more biopsies, so I told the assistant, ‘The next thing you know, they’re going to be hanging me up from the cross like St. Sebastian,’ ” Mobley laughed.

“Nobody even smiled, but at the next visit, the gal told me she’d gone home and looked up who St. Sebastian was.” Mobley stopped chuckling and sighed. “It’s hard to make jokes when the other party doesn’t get your references.”

It’s not that she’s trying to educate you, or impress you, or even entertain you. But as a 60-year-old who was raised by a journalist mother and a game warden father embedded on an elk refuge in Wyoming, she has lived in more places, had more jobs, painted more canvasses, written more poetry and heard more jokes than most people decades older than herself.

She has also filled in at more meetings, volunteered at more galleries, given more rides and visited more people than the average person. And then there’s the losses. Passed away are her mother, brother and father in painful succession more than 15 years ago.

Don’t forget the ex-partner who left, simply packed up and moved out, around the same time. He called her to tell her that he was leaving her when she happened to be sitting on Ben Stuckart’s back patio having a beer, back before he ever ran for public office.

By the way, Karen Mobley knows more people than you, too. And she’s not a boaster. A former boss from Spokane Arts who moved away a few years ago recently sent her a sweatshirt in the mail as an inside joke. Embroidered on the front is the declaration: “Spokane Famous,” with the city’s new flag sewn onto it.

Stuckart and his wife Ann recently held a fundraiser for Mobley to raise money for the artist’s skyrocketing health bills in light of her recent cancer diagnosis. The turnout, despite a mounting COVID-19 resurgence in November, was beyond impressive.

Dozens and dozens of artists, patrons, retirees and professionals showed up and socially distanced under heat lamps in the cold winter night to support Mobley. One of Spokane’s most well-known living artists who advocates for everyone else needed help. So, they came.

There are few arts milestones that have happened in this town without Mobley’s involvement. She was head of the city art department from 1997 until 2012, responsible for bringing public art, murals and sculptures to Spokane’s downtown and throughout its public spaces. During her tenure, First Fridays came into fruition, as did Terrain and the Visual Arts Tour.

In a painful professional debacle 10 years ago, the city cut Mobley’s entire department and eliminated her job. But it wasn’t long before Mobley ended up getting hired by Spokane Arts, the nonprofit entity that took over the functions of her defunct department. The new arrangement freed Mobley to pour more time into her own art this past decade.

Fast forward to this First Friday at Barrister Winery, where Mobley is teaming up with two other formidable artists, Deb Sheldon and Rosemary Barile, for a show titled “Elemental.” The trio have a lot in common. They are all local. They have all led interesting lives, full of love and loss. And they all three have created paintings exploring nature that you need to see.

Mobley’s paintings are awash in vibrant oils, meditations on the elements of water, earth, wind and fire. “I’m still working on the element of fire,” Mobley cracked. “At least this show has a cool band name.” Her art captures the feelings she experiences while looking at nature rather than focusing on representing the living organism itself.

Different meditations produce different series of paintings, some dynamic and energetic, others more ethereal. For “Elemental” at Barrister, “snow bushes,” “sky-ish” and “floaty trees” are three grouped series of paintings that Mobley will present depicting her abstract interpretations.

“A lot of my works come from experiences that I’ve had,” Mobley said. She points to a series of sky-blue paintings with green bushy spikes encroaching the bright blue expanses from all sides. “Those floaty tree things – those are based on hanging out in my backyard when the wind is blowing and watching those huge ponderosa pines move in and out and around.”

Barile’s paintings for the group show will be encaustics on board. Works will include mixed-media art exploring her personal relationship with nature and the role that interaction plays in her daily life.

Sheldon’s contributions to the show are acrylic on canvas, focusing on water, air, rocks and the land. She said she has reveled in having the freedom to create both realistic pieces and abstract works.

Watching her friend Mobley traverse her cancer journey over the past five months has been familiar, and sad, territory for Sheldon. Sheldon’s sister went through a similar struggle and got through it.

“My sister is now cancer free,” Sheldon said. “Everyone’s medical situation is different, but I am hopeful that it will be so for (Karen), as well.” Displaying her western, no-nonsense attitude, Mobley has an optimistic outlook, as well. “I actually think it’s going to be fine,” she said mildly.

Always the humorist, Mobley’s Facebook posts are a study in how to explain to friends the seriousness of what’s going on with her cancer treatment while still bringing a smile. She calls herself “Pinky the lab mouse,” in reference to all the tests to which she is subjected. Ten days after her cancer surgery, “Pinky” reported spotting squirrels mating in her backyard.

“It takes about 38 days for squirrel sperm to become a naked little kitten (yes, that’s what they are called), and within the same summer the same mother can give birth again to another nest full,” Pinky wrote.

“My oncology will start about the same time the squirrels are born. If you are waiting for squirrel kittens, it’s a short wait. If (you) think about how fast it is to get a whole squirrel from a few cells, cancer seems scarier. See how I did that? I took a miracle of life and just reminded you of how fast some cancers grow.”

“The last couple of days have been a little better,” the post continued. “I went to pick up a few things and to the bank. I went for two walks – one at Liberty Park, one at the little park in Perry District.

“And I’m thinking of going back to the project I did a few years ago where I tried to visit every single park in Spokane over one summer and walk all the trails, circles and look off all the overlooks to the river. I am not going alone yet.” Mobley will likely have lots of company for walks when she’s ready.

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