The late Karen Aqua was the rarest of birds—a working artist who seldom needed to compromise her ideals in order to succeed. Befitting the legacy of this vibrant visual artist, husband Ken Field and a small team of volunteers organized a public memorial/celebration of Karen’s life for family, friends, and colleagues Sunday, July 10th, at Somerville, MA’s Center for Arts at the Armory.
By Margaret Weigel.
Karen Aqua, 57, of Cambridge, MA, passed away May 30, 2011, after a long battle with cancer. Karen, known for her animation films and education work, was both an internationally and locally recognized artist, often marching alongside her husband, saxophonist Ken Field, as the New Orleans style marching band Revolutionary Snake Ensemble’s energetic dancer/embodiment of funk and joy. She and Field were frequent guests at the prestigious MacDowell art colony and at artist residencies around the country and were often found teaching hands-on workshops with students in Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico. Her films were shown around the world on every continent except Antarctica, and I strongly suspect Antarctica will eventually join the club.
Karen was the rarest of birds—a working artist who seldom needed to compromise her ideals in order to succeed. She did not have a “day job” or an ongoing commitment to an office, a boss, a hierarchy; through hard work, good luck, and sheer perseverance, she managed to remain free from such constraints in order to direct all her energies toward her craft and to the life explorations which informed it. And despite her concern back in the mid-1970s that marrying her longtime boyfriend Ken Field would “ruin a perfectly good relationship,” the couple celebrated several decades of travel, art-making, teaching, and loving together until her passing.
Karen produced a rich body of work, ranging from her cheery and rhythmic Sesame Street animations (personal favorites include “Parade of Numbers” and ”Animal Dance”) to several animated short films and even a quilt composed of film stills. Unlike most animators, who’d switched over to using digital programs to help with some of the more tedious elements of animation, Karen still composed her films on paper, frame by frame.
The printed word, however, could never fully capture Karen’s ebullient, tenacious spirit, her love of bright colors, music and motion, her passion for sequins, tassels, dark purple, and bright orange. And so, befitting the legacy of this vibrant visual artist, Field and a small team of volunteers organized a public memorial/celebration of Karen’s life for family, friends, and colleagues Sunday, July 10th, at Somerville, MA’s Center for Arts at the Armory.
In keeping with Karen’s unique sartorial stylings and love of New Orleans marching bands and Mardi Gras, attendees arrived decked out in Mardi Gras beads and eye-popping ensembles. Approximately one in nine attendees arrived toting an instrument. The ceiling of the Armory’s large event hall was dappled with gentle waves of colored light, like reflections of light on water.
The event itself was filled with videos of Karen’s work, tender remembrances from family and friends, and heartfelt musical performances, encompassing her love of adventure, her mastery of pencil shading, and the note Ken shyly slipped into Karen’s crayon box that started a multi-decade partnership. “I once asked Karen what she would do if she knew she only had a short period of time to live,” Karen’s good friend and longtime studiomate Jeanée Redmond told the assembled crowd: “She said she wouldn’t change a thing.” To the side of the stage was a makeshift altar designed to house small trinkets or written messages honoring Karen from mourners.
The formal performances concluded with an emotionally raw performance initiated by Field with the alto’s mournful opening to the classic spiritual “I’ll Fly Away.” After the first refrain, close to two dozen musicians—a mix of vocalists, percussionists, horn players, guitarists (and even a sousaphone player nestled in the rear)—were invited to join Field onstage, wherein the melody morphed from the plaintive, elegant wail of a solo sax to the broad strokes and the goodnatured bounce of 30 musicians simultaneously improvising (see: barely contained anarchy.)
Embracing the traditions of the New Orleans-style jazz funeral that Karen adored, the band tumbled out the door of the Armory and led a parade of approximately 100 mourners in a joyous, second line procession. Neighbors and onlookers took in the sight of colorful umbrellas, marchers, and the altar all bobbing in time with the music. The parade concluded at The Growing Center on Vinal Ave., where the crowd was greeted with bottled water, a catered buffet, and a few treasured patches of shade.
During the memorial, Field shared with the assembled crowd future screenings of Karen’s work, and the good news that the Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge has agreed to store them for perpetuity. Karen’s legion of friends far and wide as well as the rich body of work she leaves behind ensures that her legacy will live on.
What I will remember most vividly about Karen is how, in the face of chemotherapy, she didn’t mourn the loss of her hair and try to cover it up, but instead delighted in wearing electric blue and pink bobbed wigs.