Beauty’s Mirror

Fitzgerald's Beauty's Mirror

Emma Alburg

Beauty’s Mirror is an intriguing but simple piece. Created by Karen Fitzgerald, a Wisconsin born artist, in 1992, this tondo stands out amongst the many other pieces in the Emile H. Mathis Gallery collection. While working as an intern for the Mathis gallery I had the pleasure of working up close and personal with this work. I was tasked with accessioning this piece into the Mathis collection. It was previously in the Kohler Foundation Inc. collection. The Kohler Foundation, located in Kohler, Wisconsin, focuses on supporting the arts and education in Wisconsin. Their website states, “The work of the Kohler Foundation encompasses five major areas of concentration: art preservation, grants, scholarships, a performing arts series (the Distinguished Guest Series), and the management of the Waelderhaus, a historic home”. [1] After seeing this piece it quickly invaded my mind and was not something that I could forget. Not only is this piece interesting to view, but by highlighting this piece, other important aspects of the art world can be addressed. Bringing greater visibility to Karen Fitzgerald’s works will allow for a wider audience to engage with them, including women artists in Wisconsin. By shining a spotlight on a woman artist, the hope is that it inspires future female artists, while also fostering the art scene in Wisconsin. Women have faced and continue to struggle in the art world, so ensuring that we continue to discuss and showcase female artists is incredibly important.

Karen Fitzgerald was born and raised on her family’s dairy farm in the center of Wisconsin and spent her formative years in close contact with nature. She frequently worked in her family’s garden and spent days of her childhood in the woods. This contact with nature greatly impacted her work. She got her bachelor’s in fine arts at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and graduated in 1979. She then went on to get a Master of Fine Arts from Hunter college and a Master of Education from Columbia. When she began her professional career, she worked in the rectangular format. She has won countless awards, including the Special Editions Grant from the Lower East Side Printshop in 1988, the Edwin Abbey Mural Workshop Fellowship from the National Academy Museum and School in 2006, and a paid fellowship with Hasalla Art World from South Korea in 2014. [2] In a 2023 interview, Fitzgerald states that in 1988 she abandoned that format after being given a scrap piece of tondo from a friend. It resolved a number of format problems she had been experiencing in a collection of 9 paintings. After changing forms, she never looked back and has been using the tondo form for 30 plus years. The tondo form is a circular painting, relief, carving, plaque, or mural design. It originally became popular in Italy during the 15th century. It was taken from the reliefs of Madonna and Child that could be found on the walls of tombs. By the mid-15th century these round reliefs were being created using glazed terra-cotta. [3]  While Fitzgerald is an amazing artist, it wasn’t always on her mind. She toyed with the idea of being a poet but found that creating visuals art was a much more compelling medium for what she wanted to say. While her work to me feels quite emotional, when asked if things happening in her life affect the outcome of a piece, she stated that this question suggests a direct emotional correlation with her work, which would be a false assumption. Most inspiration for her pieces is spontaneous and begin with a broader idea that she articulates throughout the painting process. Most of her work is abstract. She has a set of watercolor works that have a more recognizable subject matter, but the majority of her other works are abstract and colorful. She is currently residing in New York where she continues to make pieces and works as a teaching artist. [4]

While things are slightly better for women now than they were in the 1990’s, there is a large emphasis on slightly, because as most people know, things have been a little tumultuous as of late. Being a woman artist was certainly a challenge that Karen was facing at the time of this piece, when I asked her if it was easier being a woman in the art world today versus the 90’s she said that it has gotten a little easier and that now there are many more opportunities for women artists. But unfortunately as it turns out, the reprehensible behaviors are still out there. We are sat at an inflection moment of our development: culturally, economically, politically. Bad behaviors will continue to be called out, and they should be. While things are better, it is still difficult to be a woman artist, she says, there is still a huge disparity in the way women artists are valued, and consequently treated, in the marketplace, museum world, and many professional settings. All her professional life she has worked against this discrimination. Early in her career there were some horrible experiences with (male) dealers that made plain to her what their proclivities were. [5] Men were certainly not being called out as they are today and it was something that not only made it uncomfortable, but also difficult for not only women artists at the time, but women in general.

Beauty’s Mirror was originally part of a set that was inspired by the story of “Beauty and the Beast,” and while a mirror wasn’t directly featured, this piece was meant to be an homage to the object. For this piece she said that she starts by preparing the surface, it can be as simple as cutting yupo paper. Yupo paper is a recyclable, waterproof, tree-free synthetic paper. [6]  In 1992, when Beauty’s Mirror was made, she would stretch canvas and spend days applying gesso and sanding it to achieve a fast, smooth surface. Layers of oil were carefully built up – at that time she was working in thinned veils of tone. Lots of drying time was needed – she always worked on more than one painting at a time. Some artists do studies, but she never does. The translation process is too challenging – there are too many subtleties that are key, that get lost if one scales up, scales down, or even makes something the same size. [7] This piece uses a variety of greens and yellows. These deep almost black greens span across the edge of the tondo to provide contrast to the light greens and yellows in the center. With the almost cloud-like patch of green towards the center, one feels as though they are looking into a storm when viewing this piece. Her use of greens was a color palate that she was frequently working with at the time. She said that she wanted a sense of reflectivity – a reflected paint tone as opposed to reflected things, or people. Luminosity had come to the fore in the work – she was very interested in using a wide range of luminosity as a basic part of her visual vocabulary. [8] She wanted to deal with this phenomenon in a pure sense: light as itself. When asked if her intention was to stir up some emotion in the viewer, she explained that when you look in a mirror, you are often seeking specific information. Before mirrors were commonly available, people looked at themselves in still water, ponds, streams, buckets. This painting recalls a mirror experience without the specificity of our current mirrors. She was interested in developing the capacity of paint to evoke an experience in unexpected ways. Here it is energy and light that is reflected. She has a strong sense that her intentions matter little once a painting is complete. What matters is how a viewer experiences the work. There is no right or wrong in that regard. What’s lovely about living with artwork is that this experience evolves; changing with time, light circumstances, and repeated visits to the set of thoughts crossing one’s mind as you look at the piece. Sometimes the visual language reveals its content slowly. One must be patient in that regard.[9] So while this piece was part of a set with an idea and inspiration in mind, it holds no bearing on how the viewer may choose to interpret it or how the viewer feels when they look at it and she is certainly ok with that.

This piece is beautiful, but it also serves a higher purpose. The world will never stop needing art and people will never stop producing art. In a state that comes in last for funding for humanities, specifically art, it has never been more important to get people interested in art, both making and viewing, than now. By shining a light on Wisconsin artists as well as women artists, the hope is to get more people, residents of Wisconsin specifically, interested in art. Going and seeing art is made much more appealing when you find that you can relate to the artist or the piece. Growing up, I spent a fair amount of time at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and if I had seen more things that I knew were by Wisconsin artists, my interest would have been piqued even more. Clearly, I have a deep love of art and didn’t need much more fostering but think of all the people out there that need that fostering. People who are lost and need something new find not only art but an artist that they feel a deeper connection to. Children who don’t know much about art but want to learn more about artists that they can relate to, even if it’s in a simple way. Young girls who, while there are more women artists works being shown in museums today, want to see people like them creating. These reasons are why it is so incredibly important to highlight artists like Karen Fitzgerald, and to continue to showcase artists, female and male, from Wisconsin.

Through the highlighting of pieces like Beauty’s Mirror, women artists, like Karen Fitzgerald can continue to be acknowledge and given the recognition they deserve. If the art history community works together to bring more awareness to women artists and continue to do research on them, we can do so much. Not only will women be in the spotlight, but art history as a whole can continue to grow and gain new followers. Whether these followers be artists, historians or just patrons of the arts, they will certainly help to keep the arts alive, especially in places that need it so desperately, like Wisconsin.


“About Us,” Kohler Foundation, accessed May 8, 2023, -us/.

Karen Fitzgerald, interview by author, March 28, 2023.

“Resume,” FitzgeraldArt, May 8, 2023,

“Tondo,” Britannica, May 8, 2023, https://www.britannica,com/art/tondo-art.

“What is YUPO,” Yupo, accessed May 8, 2023,

[1] “About Us,” Kohler Foundation, accessed May 8, 2023,

about -us/.

[2]“Resume,” FitzgeraldArt, May 8, 2023,

[3] “Tondo,” Britannica, May 8, 2023,

[4]Karen Fitzgerald, interview by author, March 28, 2023.

[5]Karen Fitzgerald, interview by author, March 28, 2023.

[6]“What is YUPO,” Yupo, accessed May 8, 2023,

[7]Karen Fitzgerald, interview by author, March 28, 2023.

[8]Karen Fitzgerald, interview by author, March 28, 2023.

[9]Karen Fitzgerald, interview by author, March 28, 2023.