Adonna Khare’s large-scale mural drawings featuring fanciful animal narratives are one part personal memoir and one part universal parable.
For some artists, the core truths of who they are and the career path they’re meant to take present themselves early, and staying on track with their true north is just as natural as breathing. That has certainly been the case for Adonna Khare. Growing up in rural Iowa, surrounded by sprawling land and wildlife, Khare developed an early appreciation for the natural world, the animal kingdom and art. She was born into a long line of artists from the Netherlands, including her great-aunt whose fine-art paintings depicting fantasy worlds of fairies, trolls and unicorns greatly inspired her young imagination. Khare and her mother, who was a teacher and poet, constantly worked on art projects together, and sketching and drawing sessions with her great-aunt were weekly occurrences.
Despite her early proclivity toward drawing and the influence of art all around her, Khare decided to attend college as a biology major with an intent to pursue a career in veterinary medicine or zoology. During her sophomore year, however, her family approached her with what she describes as a reverse intervention. “Oftentimes parents will try to steer their children away from becoming a professional artist toward a career they consider more stable or lucrative. In this case it was the opposite,” she recalls. “They said to me, ‘Are you sure you really want to be a veterinarian? Don’t you think you should give art a shot?’ With that as my catalyst,
I switched majors and completed my B.A. in art with an emphasis in illustration. Then I went to grad school to get my MFA.”
Drawn to the Line
All of Khare’s educational experiences were pivotal, either confirming aspects of her creative temperament she already knew or helping her clarify and become confident in what her artistic aspirations really were. She knew early on that she was more drawn to line and tone than color. “That’s why illustration was a natural fit for me,” she says. “I remember in my senior year of high school, when we were preparing portfolios for college submissions, all of our projects were considered incomplete if they were black-and-white drawings. I was so incensed at the idea that a pencil drawing wasn’t considered finished; that color or paint had to be added in order for it to be taken seriously.”
Khare was also firmly rooted in her choice of subject matter and her influences from an early age. The whimsical milieu that she was exposed to from the Old World European influence of her family, coupled with her penchant for exploring nature and sketching plants and wildlife from encyclopedias, shaped an imaginative world that she couldn’t wait to translate to paper. “Just being in nature and observing the animal kingdom has always felt so magical to me,” she says. “It’s a way to escape, breathe deeply and observe natural wonders. In our busy lives, we don’t take enough time to experience those kinds of moments, and as a young artist finding my way, I was always seeking to recreate that feeling.”
The permission Khare needed to fully blossom as an artist and discover the wonderland of narratives in her mind, however, can be attributed to one turning-point moment with a college professor in her last year as an undergraduate. “I was taking advanced art and illustration courses, and doing fine, but I wasn’t really inspired by the projects,” she says. “I was struggling with one particular assignment because I was bored. My professor said to me, ‘You’ve been doing this long enough. I give you permission to draw what you really want to draw.’ It wasn’t until that moment I realized that the entire time I’d been a student, no teacher had ever asked me what I wanted to draw or paint—projects were always assigned. I responded that I just wanted to draw animals. He said, ‘OK, then for the rest of the semester, draw your animals.’ I remember at that moment I felt like I was released—and the stories and imagery started flowing from me like lava.”
Commercial and Personal Success
In her second year of graduate school, with her animal visions already coming to fruition on paper, Khare had another fortuitous experience. Her professor, who belonged to a gallery in Los Angeles, encouraged her to show her portfolio to the owners. “One of them was very hesitant because my work had a surrealist, fantastical feel, and she didn’t think it would go over well,” Khare says. “The other thought my drawings were funky and interesting, so he decided to include two pieces in a group show. Those two pieces were the only ones that sold on opening night. So they put me in another group show, and those pieces sold. Then they gave me a solo graduate show, and that sold out. After that they added me to their roster as one of their fine artists.”
At the time Khare had planned to be an art professor and not necessarily a professional fine artist, but things were going so well that she continued with this and other gallery representation for the next decade. She not only connected easily with a range of collectors but also won major prizes for her art along the way. One of those accolades includes winning the public-vote Grand Prize in the 2012 ArtPrize competition for her drawing Elephants, a five-panel tour de force standing 8×34 feet—for which she competed against more than 1,500 artists from around the world to take first place.
Finding Her “Why”
Why Khare creates is as important to her as what she creates, and her why extends far beyond herself. “The subjects and stories I create in my art are inspired by my interpretation of life events, personal experiences or losses, collective loss, the loss of our environment and the remembrance of how we’re all interconnected,” she explains. “As humans, we can often feel isolated and disconnected, so in my art I have a tendency to tie things together and emulate connection.” Even in her most personal pieces, Khare leaves enough open to interpretation to allow others to recognize themselves or their stories in the art. “Inevitably, they do,” she says.
For example, in Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing, a play on the popular idiom, Khare was able to process her own emotional duress from dealing with a difficult person in her life, while sending the message to others that people aren’t always what they appear. The image resonated with numerous viewers, who shared their own stories with the artist.
Another drawing, The Screaming Bear, was all about the heartache Khare lived through when her father was battling brain cancer. It allowed her to process her various stages of grief as well as the unsettling changes she witnessed in this man she had known her whole life.
Out of Khare’s own struggles with health scares and hospital stays came Let It Burn. “The message there is that sometimes you just have to just let go, let it all burn and rebuild,” says the artist. “The man who bought that drawing had just walked with his wife through a cancer struggle, and although it had a slightly different meaning for him, he still connected to the concept without explanation,” she says.
Other works focus on the extinction of beautiful keystone species, as in the 8×6-foot piece Rhinos, which is now in the permanent collection of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in Bentonville, Ark. Then there are the works that focus on the more uplifting aspects of the human experience: hope, renewal, rebirth—as in the spring-focused series the artist is currently working on in her studio, with owls as the main subject. The 12×9-inch bird drawings have cornucopias of flowers bursting from their heads—a symbol of the bountiful nature of springtime.
Tools of the Trade
Khare’s process for creating these enormous drawings that essentially double as murals is time-consuming and involves special tools, which are perfectly suited to the effects she’s after. Her drawing media of choice is Wolff’s carbon pencils, which she uses on rolls of Aquabee acid-free, archival paper. “I feel like carbon pencil was made for me,” she says. “I get the softness of lead and the darks of charcoal without the sheen or shine of graphite, but I get the line quality of graphite. It’s literally the happiest combination of drawing media for what I want to achieve and the line work I love.”
The artist works in a large studio in Burbank, Calif., where she hangs her paper from 8-foot ceilings. Climbing
a ladder to reach the highest parts of the piece and often laying on the floor to complete the foreground, she spends anywhere from a few weeks to several months on a single piece.
Coming Full Circle
Khare is currently feeling the call to teach again—her initial plan when she was in college. She’s eager to be an advocate for the drawing arts, continuing to raise their value in the market and perhaps be that teacher who gives a student the permission they need to soar. “I’ve doubted or second-guessed so much in my life, but one thing I always knew for sure was that art was my purpose,” she says, reflecting on her journey thus far. “At this stage of my life, with both parents gone and my daughter getting ready for high school, I like the idea of getting back into academia and paying forward some of the incredible support and encouragement that was given to me.”
About the Author
Allison Malafronte (artindependentllc.com) is an arts and design writer and editor and a regular contributor to Artists Network magazines.
Meet the Artist
Adonna Khare (adonnak.com), of Burbank, Calif., received her MFA from California State University, Long Beach. In 2012, she won the prestigious ArtPrize, competing against more than 1,500 artists from across the globe. Her drawings have been featured in a number of publications and media outlets including the Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, American Art Collector, Juxtapoz Magazine, Hi-Fructose, Mashable, My Modern Metropolis and NPR. Khare’s work has also been exhibited in several prominent museums and galleries and is a part of public and private collections around the world.
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