by Kim Gill | Photography by Two Eagles Marcus
Upon entering the studio of Karen Godfrey, one is struck by an aura of ancient matriarchal wisdom. Her artwork exudes the mythical and mystical: revelations of long ago when women were truly connected with nature, relied on their instincts and listened to their bodies. Godfrey’s clay sculptures of primitive women (often inspired by archaeological findings), her mixed-media assemblages and shadow box shrines of found objects along with her expressive acrylic paintings all carry one common message: to remind women of their own primeval wisdom to heal, find peace, discover courage and transform into the person they are called to be.
Art has always been an important part of Godfrey’s life. She discovered her love for creating in early childhood but never thought of it as a possible career choice as she entered college.
“The thought of going to school to become an artist was just too prestigious in my mind,” she explained. “You’d have to have a lot of self-confidence in order to go to art school.”
She searched for another career path and chose social work because of her innate desire to help people. After obtaining her master’s degree from GVSU, Godfrey became a therapist and began working at the Fountain Hill Center for Counseling and Consultation. It was there that Godfrey began an art support group for women with breast cancer called, “Creating Recovery.”
The idea for the group was inspired by the loss of dear family friend, Marilyn, who battled brain cancer. Before she passed, Godfrey spent time drawing with Marilyn, who wasn’t able to communicate verbally and had been cognitively challenged due to the tumor but could still express herself with graphite and charcoal. Godfrey knew it was a gratifying experience for her friend.
Godfrey learned more about “Expressive” Arts through Gay Walker who was a professor at WMU.
“It’s about using art to convey your feelings,” Godfrey expressed.
In her cancer support group, they would create art to express how they felt: “What’s it like to receive a diagnosis of cancer, to go through chemotherapy, and to live with cancer on a daily basis,” Godfrey shared. “At one point,one of my clients asked me if I was an artist. I said, ‘No, not really, but I’m drawn to it.’ She pressed me further and said, ‘Well, why aren’t you doing art?’”
Godfrey decided her client was right and signed up for an oil painting class at the New School in 1998.
“It opened up a whole new world for me; it was like: I love this!” Godfrey happily explained. “That was the beginning for me, right there.”
In 2003, she found a small studio on the north end of Grand Rapids available for lease.
“It was within walking distance of my home,” Godfrey said. “The rent was inexpensive, and I wondered if I could actually open up the place to do my own art, have workshops for women with cancer and still counsel individual clients.”
She took the plunge and named her new enterprise Art Beat. For the next five years, Godfrey did just that, and even organized on-site weekend retreats for women with breast cancer with a friend, Linda Griggs (a survivor). During that time, she found herself consulting fewer clients as a therapist and eventually moved to a larger location to accommodate her growing business. Godfrey began collecting artwork that inspired hope and healing; she represented more than 35 local artists in her studio/gallery.
The daily responsibilities of running Art Beat, however, began to drastically take away from Godfrey’s own time to create art. In 2008, she decided to close the business to devote solely to her passion.
“I was always working to help other people, but now I needed time to nurture myself,” Godfrey said. “I gave myself permission to be a full-time artist, something I didn’t do when I was younger, so here was my opportunity.”
Godfrey credits her husband, Brent Godfrey, a musician, for his unwavering support. They now both share the studio space in their home.
“Slowing down, taking time for yourself, meditating, sitting in nature, doing artwork or something creative, listening to your own wisdom: that’s the way to heal and find balance in your life.”
By moving her studio into her house Godfrey was able to concentrate more on creating artwork that reflected her own personal journey of finding balance, thereby encouraging other women to do the same. Finding wholeness, mental, spiritual and physical equilibrium, Godfrey believes, is through nurturing yourself first.
“Slowing down, taking time for yourself, meditating, sitting in nature, doing artwork or something creative, listening to your own wisdom: that’s the way to heal and find balance in your life,” she divulged. “I’m hoping you can pick up on the importance of this from my artwork. It takes courage to say what you need. It’s so true, as women we can’t take care of others if we’re not taking care of ourselves.”
What excites Godfrey is the research she does in preparation to create. She looks for a passage or poem that calls to her from favorite books such as: Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams, or The Language of the Goddess by Marija Gimbutas. Godfrey also reflects on what she’s learned through her study of women shamans of ancient times: the healers of their communities. Using fabric, clay, found objects and paint, Godfrey will intuitively begin each piece with the intention of encouraging women to discover their own wisdom.
“A wise woman is someone who is a knower, a visionary, a listener, a peacemaker, a connector to others and nature and a communicator,” Godfrey shared. “They have great strength and endurance, especially during times of hardship. It is my hope that I communicate these things through my artwork and that it empowers women to listen to their instincts first, to gather information before making a decision and to have courage to be who they are.”
Although Godfrey no longer offers workshops for women with cancer, she highly recommends Gilda’s Club of Grand Rapids, where she conducted workshops for many years.
“It’s an excellent place to seek support with so many programs being offered, the arts included,” she said.
Godfrey has had her own health challenges: basal cell carcinoma, causing 75 percent of her lower right eyelid to be removed and reconstructed and, most recently, extensive knee surgery from an injury. Like all, she’s experienced loss: the recent passing of her beloved mother and her cherished dog, Moonshadow. Art has helped her work through these difficult times.
“We all face losses; you can either make it something you learn from and grow, or you make it the worst thing that has ever happened to you, be a victim, and go downhill from there—it’s a choice,” Godfrey said.
Currently, Godfrey is taking some introspective time as she heals from her knee surgery by reading, growing herbs and learning about their healing properties, meditating, and of course, creating art. She’s taking her own advice: being a woman of wisdom.
Godfrey’s “Women’s Wisdom” exhibit will be held Oct.1 – Nov. 30 at Flat River Gallery and Framing at 219 W. Main St., Lowell, MI 49331 with an artist reception Oct. 19 from 5-8 p.m.
Her work is also represented at Higher Art Gallery in Traverse City, Fernwood 1891 in Fennville, and begining next summer at Cycling Salamander in Charlevoix. View Godfrey’s work at karengodfrey.net.
Kimberly Grace Gill is an independent fine artist specializing in portrait painting typically with a social justice orientation. She is a graduate of Aquinas College and lives in Byron Center with her husband, Pat.