ARTIST AND GALLERY OWNER KAREN HEWITT HAGAN has a philosophy: You don’t have to know exactly where you’re going; say “yes” to new opportunities, and that will lead you to the next right thing.
When the pandemic first reached Charleston in the spring of 2020, Hagan and her team, Allison Hull and Natalie Meredith, felt like it was time to pivot and move Hagan Fine Art Gallery & Studio from King Street to exclusively online. The team had already invested so much in their online presence that Hagan knew they were ready.
Saying yes to her gut feeling returned immediate rewards—she has had more time to paint and more time to focus on her favorite thing: Connecting the 35 artists she represents and their works with collectors worldwide.
Hagan has always been one to follow her heart. She wanted to be an artist, but she couldn’t go to art school, so she ended up working in sales and marketing for 20 years. However, the urge to learn how to paint wouldn’t leave her alone. In the mid-80s, she bought a starter set of oil paints and jumped in. “Painting was so engaging,” she says. “It was addictive; it took over my life. I was on fire, inspired and wanted to learn how to be good at it.”
Looking for a teacher, Hagan found one in John Carroll Doyle. “I didn’t know much about him, but I knew he knew how to make magic,” she says. Doyle was a guiding force in her life for many years. He didn’t have time to teach her, but he made time to critique her work. “John is the one who told me to go outside and paint en plein air. When I went outside to paint, all the lights came on.”
As her painting career was taking off, Hagan followed her heart and began living aboard a boat, aptly named Plein Air. During those eight years aboard, she would take off in her dinghy, painting supplies in her backpack, and paint the Abaco Islands. Soon she was teaching plein air painting on the boat. Hagan immersed herself in painting and island life, showing in galleries there and across the Southeast before it was time to return to Charleston.
Back home in 2010, she said “yes” to her heart again when it led her to a romantic little shop in the French Quarter with a “For Lease” sign in the window. Hagan opened her gallery there. By 2016, she and her team took the next step and moved to a larger gallery space on King Street.
In addition to now owning and running the gallery, Hagan also began teaching plein air workshops for a week or two during the summers in Italy or France. “Teaching in Italy was a pinch-me moment,” she says. One year she was greeted by fields of Tuscany’s iconic wild poppies. She and her students spent all of their time studying them, picking them, wearing them and painting them. Her famous poppy series was born.
Hagan brought her small plein air studies back to Charleston and set to work. The paintings got bigger and looser as she became more familiar with her subject. They are still one of her favorite subjects today. “People ask why I continue painting poppies,” she says. “It’s because I want to get better at them. Even though I paint many other subjects, like landscapes and seascapes, the poppies are still so exciting.” Like Monet, who painted water lilies for three decades, Hagan says that the poppies keep reaching out to her. Sometimes she paints large-scale poppies, up to 60 inches tall, or she paints diptychs or adds gold leaf.
Moving online has given Hagan more fluid time to paint, and she feels that it has allowed her to come full circle as an artist. The gallery has taken off as an online destination for fine art and has continued to evolve. “It’s like the pandemic confined us but broadened us at the same time,” she says. “As an artist, I feel myself growing, and I feel a new series of paintings is just around the corner.” Hagan says the pandemic has come with challenges, too. Still, it’s given her the gift of time and introspection and a chance to connect with the online art community as an artist and gallery owner.
As for future plans? She replies, “I plan to say yes and let inspiration lead the way!” *
Robin Howard is a freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at robinhowardwrites.com.