Karen O'Kane Has Silky Skills

Growing up, creativity was the very air she breathed. Now the Donegal-based artist's signature designs are sold in craft shops all over Ireland and beyond

Who can resist the look and feel of shimmering silk, that most luxurious of fabrics made from natural protein fibres produced by moth caterpillars and first developed in China in the fourth century BC? Certainly not the artist Karen O’Kane, who paints it with delicate flower patterns and attractive motifs then fashions a range of shawls, scarves, dresses, cushions covers and lampshades for her commercial outlet, Kokodesigns.  

Her work has been shown at the Gordon Gallery in Derry~Londonderry and most recently at the Visitors Centre in Armagh. Individually crafted pieces may be bought online or at a dozen shops throughout Ireland including No. 19 in Derry’s Craft Village, the Designery in Bushmills and SpaceCRAFT in Belfast.

O’Kane was born in Stoke-on-Trent, a city made up of six North Staffordshire towns known as the Potteries. Here, from the early 17th century, hundreds of companies exploited local clay reserves to produce decorative and industrial ceramic products, among them well-known brands such as Portmeirion, Aynsley, Wedgwood, Moorcroft and Emma Bridgewater.

Foxglove cushions

Creativity and design was in the very air O’Kane breathed. Moreover, her artist grandmother, a watercolourist, taught her to draw and paint, to sew and embroider. Having obtained a degree in psychology from Edinburgh University she worked with mental health patients who found painting on silk to be satisfying and therapeutic.

In 2012, O’Kane moved with her husband and small children to Ramelton on the Wild Atlantic Way in Co. Donegal and was immediately at home in an area noted for the manufacture of tweeds and textiles. She set up a studio in her garden surrounded by wild hedgerows, birds and butterflies, and favourite flowers – the irises and tulips, lilies and foxgloves, snowdrops and poppies that she paints on silk. Greatly influenced by the Art Deco movement, O’Kane has also worked on stained glass and achieves a similar translucent effect with her silk lampshades.

In a short film seen below, it is fascinating to watch the artist making a lampshade from start to finish. Using the French Serti technique, she begins by outlining a floral design with a fine nib on the end of a squeezy plastic applicator containing gutta made from latex derived from Indonesian rubber trees. This she does with breathtaking accuracy and dexterity.

It takes a lot of practice to apply the gutta smoothly and the fact that she is left-handed makes her artistry appear all the more special. She mixes her own signature palette of paints using acid dyes which are made in France. Once the silk cloth is painted overall, it is steamed in an industrial torpedo steamer which removes the gutta and makes the paint colourfast. She then attaches the steamed, washed and pressed silk to rigid UPVC (unplasticized polyvinyl chloride) in order to create a solid lampshade which complies with safety standards.

O’Kane believes that one can change a room dramatically just by adding some of her attractive lampshades and cushions. 'People bring me fabric samples from their furniture and I match them up with complementary designs,' she says. 'If a client prefers an abstract pattern I will have the silk printed digitally at Pixalili, a company based in Downings. I have also made an embroidered lampshade for a very loyal customer who collects my work and has done for years.'

O'Kane delights in creating bespoke items for her clients – a dress for a wedding or a graduation ball complete with matching accessories. Careful not to waste any of the precious Chinese silk material which she buys from an agent in New York, she produces a wide variety of items including greetings cards and bound notebooks, handbags, buttons and brooches. 

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'I am always pleased when a customer is satisfied,' she adds proudly. 'When I took a stand at the National Craft Fair at the RDS in Dublin in December 2016, it was truly rewarding to meet so many people who derive great pleasure from my work.'

See more of Karen's work, shop the products in her online store and find out where they might be stocked near you at www.kokodesigns.ie.

This article was commissioned ahead of Creativity Month, a celebration of creativity and the creative industries in Northern Ireland which takes place in March. See what events are coming up at www.creativityni.org/events. Read about previously featured artists, creative companies and more here.