In August of 1995, my nephew, Jake, was shot in a playground in Philadelphia. His younger brother, Jason, began self-medicating and was incarcerated – again and again. This imprisoned all of us and sent our family spiraling, trying to figure out how we got there and what we were going to do about it. This was - and is - the foundational impulse for my work; I am determined to burn down destructive systems laden with victimization and moral injury.
My work is about holding the pulse. I travel the inner roads, finding beauty in the raw and surreal moments that inhabit the space where time has stopped; the space where breath and presence are the closest we come to silence. I am a collagist working in the medium of live performance. I experiment with text, sound, and media, incorporating scientific research and theory to create a vibrational, psychological, and emotional landscape where a new language is communicated by way of the heart. I am interested in this alchemy; the transformation of what is buried in our personal and collective graveyards.
I grew up in a North Philadelphia housing project. I was so sensitive to sound that I spent most of my time isolated, singing. It was excruciating sitting at the dinner table. I often was sent to my room to eat. This sensitivity is the gift that has fed my artistic practice. Because of it, I learned to live on intuition. It was my way of surviving the often violent sounds of my world.
In the late 70’s, I experienced David Lynch's Eraserhead. My mind was blown. I knew, viscerally, that the sound was recorded in Philadelphia. Lynch moved in a space grounded in Surrealism, which became an important movement in my work.
In 1994 Nan Goldin advised me to take my camera everywhere. Little did I know, I was capturing images leading up to the shooting of my nephew, Lil’ Jake, in 1995. I continued documenting the neighborhood and its collapse. A few years later my twin sister sent me a photograph of her remaining son, Jason, on heroin in her home. She was terrified, not knowing what to do. I advised her to keep documenting so she could see where she was. I used these photographs as writing prompts for Jason while he was incarcerated, as we began collaborating on The Good Mother.
I am developing my own artistic language, a synthesis of decades of experience, research, writing, and experimentation. With this project, I am taking my creative practices back to the street, commiting to full-time work in the real spaces where victimization is happening, breaking the victimization in my own lineage. It is crucial that we no longer be victims of our stories. We can use creative practices to get out of them – heal them. Beyond a vicious cycle, victimization is a deadly cycle, one that can be disrupted by this work.
Karen Cellini is an artist working in the medium of interdisciplinary conceptual art. Using original text, sound, and media in the vibrational, psychological, and emotional landscape, she aims to uncover what has been buried in our personal and collective graveyards, especially as relating to the mothers and families of incarcerated individuals affected by substance use disorder, violence, and incarceration.
Karen’s Good Mother Project has had multiple incarnations. As a play, The Good Mother: Making the Invisible, Visible, was directed by Dan Hurlin in NYC (2013). Amnesty International Human Rights Arts Festival (IHRAF) presented the work in 2010 and again in 2019, first as a deconstructed solo audio performance/installation and subsequently as a solo performance which created an intimate, poetic landscape in a phantasmagorical world of kaleidoscopic memories. Necessary Exposure: The Female Playwright Project also presented an installation of the Good Mother, created for disembodied voices in the dark (Dixon Place, 2105 and The Queens Theater in the Park, 2019). Karen’s immersive, sonic performance, Quill House, an "exploration of invisible truths in a world fraught with injustice," also found support at the IHRAF, 2019. Her solo comedic work, Dancin’ Nancy, an exploration of Blanche DuBois and feminine vulnerability through song, premiered at Dixon Place in 2013.
Karen’s broad range of performance experience encompasses television, film, jazz clubs, performance art, and traditional theatre. Career highlights include working with Meredith Monk, Julie Wilson/Margaret Whiting, and Erik Ehn’s durational cycle of plays, Double Aspect: Bright and Fair, presented at the American Dance Institute and at La MaMa in NYC.
Karen's work with at-risk youth activism and program development includes The Good Mother Project (Philadelphia); Mary J. Blige Foundation (NY); Juvenile Resource Center (MA); production of large-scale fundraising events for Angels in Motion (Philadelphia).
Education: BA, Temple University; MA, Sarah Lawrence College; Studied Writing for Performance at California Institute of the Arts under Carl Hancock Rux.