Raised in Milford, Ohio, Karen Willenbrink-Johnsen and her naturalist father spent many a day on forays through the woods. As a landscaper, the elder Willenbrink taught his daughter about trees, birds, fossils, and native peoples. She says: “I’m constantly inspired, revitalized and awed by the power of nature.” A self-described all-American girl, the artist grew up with her twin sister, older brother, younger brother, and parents who loved to camp and hike. In their childhood home, nature and happiness was celebrated, resulting in Willenbrink-Johnsen’s palpable passion for life.
Soon after receiving a BFA in sculpture from Ohio University, glass became a driving force in Willenbrink-Johnsen’s life. The artist spent several years honing her skills in the Catskill Mountains region of New York. She subsequently embarked on a 16-year stint working with glass artist William Morris, who taught Willenbrink-Johnsen to follow her vision and let the enthusiasm of her spirit guide her ideas.
Like Morris, Willenbrink-Johnsen creates sculpture not only by blowing, but by hot sculpting. Components are hot formed or lampworked ahead of time and held in a garage to keep them warm while a base is being formed. Once the base is ready, the painstaking process of joining the elements to the base begins. Stress is introduced each time a new component is added, and the weight of the piece increases. A delicate balance of time and temperature is required for a sculpture to reach successful completion.
Willenbrink-Johnsen’s team includes husband Jasen Johnsen, whom she met at Pilchuck and married in 2001. Jasen served as the head studio technician at Pilchuck Glass School for nearly 10 years and worked as teaching assistant for Pino Signoretto and Hank Murta Adams before beginning to co-teach classes with Karen.
As bird watchers, the Willenbrink-Johnsens observe every feather, talon, and branch presented in their work and invite viewers to enjoy their sculpture with the same attention to detail. Combining unmatched technical mastery with a profound love for their medium, nature, and each other, the artists explore new territory through not only birds forms, but complex treatments of their environs.