Those who remember Karen Carrino say that she cared for two things most: children and art. Slightly over five feet tall, she often wore Army fatigues and a man’s hat and always carried a sketch pad. Although Karen died a few days after her 19th birthday in December of 1972, the victim of a hit-and-run accident, much of her art work has survived after a nationwide search to recover pieces family members thought were lost forever.
In a book called “The Spirit of Children,” Karen’s sister, Deborah Carrino has gathered 124 pieces in an effort to show the breath of talent her sister has possessed.
“I wanted to show people the Karen that I remembered,” Deborah said in a telephone interview last week.
Born in Union City and a brief resident of Jersey City and Weehawken, Karen spent most of her life in West New York, where she developed a huge body of art work and a philosophy for care of children well before her untimely death in 1972.
Karen started drawing at age 13, but received very little formal training except what she learned in public school. She did a lot of early work copying photographs, but under advice from teachers soon progressed to live models. Many of her pieces depict friends and acquaintances, although she was particularly fond of drawing children. Karen would experiment in almost any art medium from charcoal to clay, but most of her work was done in pencil.
She believed that art came from clarity of vision and if you could see well, you could draw. Critics claim her drawings and paintings managed to reveal a depth of feeling and a level of craft considered remarkable in an artist so young.
“She felt children should be treated with love and respect, and her real goal was to free them,” Deborah said, noting that many of her sister’s ideas are still valid today.
Much of Karen’s extensive body of work was devoted to the study of children. Karen said she felt children were unguarded and genuine, without masks.
“One teacher said Karen was a real human being,” Deborah said. “That seemed to sum her up.”
It was like losing her sister twice
On Dec. 9, 1972, while Karen’s car was disabled on the side of the Garden State Parkway near Bloomfield, a car plowed into it, killing Karen, her younger brother Michael and another child, Lisa. The driver was later arrested and charged with a hit and run. One month after the accident, Karen’s father gathered up her drawings – estimated at 400 works – hung them in the corridors of Memorial High School in West New York, and sold them. Deborah remembered the month-long exhibition lining the halls of the school. The money went to two young art students at the high school in Karen’s name.
Irene, one of Karen’s sisters, bemoaned the fact that there was no portfolio for the family. This stuck in the back of Deborah’s mind for years.
Deborah was horrified. She said she saw her sister vanishing before her eyes – In a way, dying beside her for the second time. When Deborah confronted her father about the matter, he said people should enjoy the work rather than putting it in a closet where no one could see it.
But Deborah believed her father could not bear to look at the works because they reminded him so much of his dead daughter. Most people could not separate Karen from her work. Years later, when Deborah realized how many works there were, she decided her father was right, to some extent. Most of the drawings would have sat in closets.
“We just wouldn’t have room to hang them all,” she said. “I just wish he had done it a different way, waited for a while so that we would have had time to photograph them.”
Searching for Karen’s pictures
Over the next two decades, Deborah showed people the few pieces she did have, bragging about how many others there were if only she could find them.
“Not all the pieces were sold,” she said. “Karen gave away a lot of them herself, or did some on commission.”
Karen gave away artwork freely to people who fell in love with it. Sometimes, she recreated her best pictures several times because she had given away the original. One summer – when the family needed money for food — Karen sold some of her work down at the Jersey Shore. The works that she considered unsuccessful, she gave to her baby brother, Michael, to color.
Initially, family members didn’t want Deborah to search for the works, claming she would only reopen old wounds. But Deborah couldn’t leave it alone. In a way, she wanted to prove the family wrong, and started collecting Karen’s work for a portfolio that would show the other members of her family what Deborah saw.
Yet deep down, Deborah said, she was looking to learn more about her sister, and perhaps aspects of the girl even she did not know already. She started collecting the works she knew were already in the family, going from house to house to take their pictures. When she finished these, she sought out friends of the family. Deborah found more than 40 pieces tucked in the attic of her father’s home.
With about 12 faded photographs of some of the missing work, Deborah began to ask questions and seek out those who owned the other works. No records of the sales were ever kept. In seeking them, Deborah didn’t want to take them back or buy them, just take pictures of them so she could preserve them, and by collecting them, preserve an important part of the girl who had created them.
Deborah went to the high school and spoke with the art teacher who had been particularly close to Karen. Word got around. Six pieces emerged and then more, including one that the school library had taken home to keep from harm.
Turned up all over
Many pieces came from people in West New York, although as Deborah followed the trail, pieces turned up farther and farther away. Some ended up in Bergen County, some even in places as remote as Connecticut, Michigan, West Virginia, Florida and California. Unexpected people stepped forward to help, such as Sarah Henry, an art historian at Drew University in Madison, who was deeply impressed with Karen’s work.
People called, not only to allow Deborah access to the paintings, but to tell her the stories that accompanied the works, the ever-growing tales of Karen’s kindness. Karen’s works had made their way to the offices of deans, judges, and doctors. Then, Deborah decided more people should see the work.
Deborah wrote hundreds of letters to galleries and publishing houses, seeking exhibitions at posh galleries throughout New Jersey. Prior to publishing the book, Deborah managed to get three showings. In 1991, Drew University in Madison put on an exhibition of artwork called “Love Made Visible.” The Paterson Museum also agreed to a show that displayed Karen’s work side by side with some of Deborah’s tile mosaics. Then in 1997, Johnson & Johnson, a medical firm from New Brunswick, put up $10,000 for a show. This show generated national and international attention for Deborah’s quest and helped uncover still more drawings.
To date, Deborah has discovered 278 works. She believes as many as 100 are still to be found.
Deborah said the idea for the book came around when she was looking through the lens of a camera at her sister’s work. She decided that more people needed to be made aware of Karen’s life and her art. The book contains 124 works, mostly centered on the theme of children. Profits from the book go to the Robinhood Foundation and other charities dedicated to improving the lives of children throughout the country.