Berkeley artist paints serpentine mermaid and a gargoyle insurrection

Karima Cammell’s first exhibit confronts her struggles as an artist and the change she needed to make to evolve.

Our Medieval Minds, 2020. Giclee print. Credit: Sam Edie

High Water, Karima Cammell’s first one-person show, on view at the Holton Studio Gallery in Berkeley until Nov. 5, evolved in response to a confluence of events, both personal and political. 

What: High Water, art exhibit by Karima Cammell Where: Holton Studio Gallery, 2100 Fifth St. (corner of Addison), Berkeley When: Now through Nov. 5

In 2019, after she closed the doors to Castle in the Air, her retail craft store on 4th Street in Berkeley, she flew to Florence with her family. For years, she’d felt that if she could just unblock herself, she could become a great painter. “I wanted to get to the place in my life where painting was like shooting lightning from my hands,” said the Berkeley artist, admitting that though her desire might sound grandiose, what she was articulating was a fairly common struggle. The feeling of having potential inside but the inability to fully access its power. Her first day in Florence, filled with mixed emotions following closing her beloved shop of wonders, Cammell watched a thunderstorm come up, and a bolt of lightning strike the gilded gold ball on top of the Duomo, the Santa Maria del Flore Cathedral. Well, she thought, “that’s an auspicious start to my new life as a painter.” 

While still in Florence, she set to work rendering the image she’d witnessed. With its slightly askew architecture and a glimpse of the magical city, the egg and tempera painting, Blue Lightning crackles with a mixture of enchantment and realism, a moment when a vision manifests in the material world. 

Blue Lightning, 2019, Casein, egg tempera and gold on panel. Credit: Sam Edie

The result of the creative outpouring unleashed in Florence and continuing when the family returned home for months of COVID-19 lockdown includes 26 exquisite artworks. Most are small intimate paintings, and in many, Cammell used gold leaf, etched or painted into the glass. Each is meticulously and uniquely framed by the gallery’s owner, Timothy Holton. Indeed, Holton, who, like Cammell, is passionate about craftsmanship and detail, sees his frames as a collaborative art form and “an accompaniment to the image.” In framing Blue Lightning, he echoed Cammell’s use of gold leaf with a 23 karat gilt liner, and he notched the white oak of the frame to correspond to the architectural elements in the painting. The final piece is a duet between artist and framer that reflects Cammell’s Renaissance esthetic. 

During the lockdown, while creating this body of work, Cammell enrolled in former Vice President Al Gore’s Climate Leadership Corps, a climate education and mentoring program focused on raising awareness and confronting the global challenges ahead. She found the experience to be incredibly empowering. Like art, the program celebrates the power of imagination as the vital force necessary to conjure a better future. 

The exhibition’s title, High Water, refers to both the flood of emotions Cammell suffered as she switched gears in her life, as well as the monumental political, social, and climate crisis taking place in the world around her. At the end of 2019, Venice, a city she dearly loved, experienced catastrophic flooding. Eighty percent of the city was underwater, and waves rolled through St. Mark’s Square. Partially in response to the disaster, she created Devolution, a painting where she conjured a mermaid. Mermaids and winged creatures in the process of evolving frequently appear in Cammell’s pictorial repertoire. In the bottom center of Devolution, her mermaid floats half-submerged in a cathedral, a long serpent-like tail coiling up a marble column. “When I was struggling, I felt like a monster,” Cammell remembered. “Facing change can be ugly. I had to use strength I was uncomfortable wielding.” The strong female character of the mermaid reflects her belief that though change can be painful, at times grotesque, adaptation and flexibility are the tools needed to evolve to a healthier place. 

Devolution, 2020. Oil on panel. Credit: Sam Edie

Though many of her themes are bleak, from floods to fires to the delightfully dark-humored Our Medieval Minds — a depiction of gargoyles and demons swarming the Capital on the Jan. 6 insurrection — her work glitters with optimism. Her process is labor-intensive and multi-layered. When she works on glass, she draws and paints in reverse. She mixes her own pigments. Each creation involves hundreds of hours. For Cammell, this tremendous investment of time and material represents the antithesis of nihilism. Her work and her dedication to her practice is a declaration that creation — life — matters. 

Ark: 1, Egg tempera and 24 karat gold on linden board. Credit: Sam Edie

In Ark: 1, two silhouetted golden figures frame the central image. In placing the number 1 in the title, Cammell references the mathematical definition of unity or the “state of being one: oneness.” And so, her figures are conjoined. They are melded into one material. They create a window into a universe populated by pairs with one blue world at its heart. And while gold is often elevated to the sacred and designates splendor, it is also a reflecting surface. The shimmering metallic layer allows for the viewer to see themselves within the narrative. Thus, the viewer becomes one with the composition. 

It’s a stunning piece and profoundly moving in its ability to marry Cammell’s magical, individual vision with a powerful narrative of common unity. Berkeley roots run deep in this artist. She believes, and her work demonstrates, that the imagination is a creative force as transfixing as a lightning bolt. One that she hopes will transform this crazy, terrifying, beautiful world. 


Gabrielle Selz is an award-winning author. Her books include the first comprehensive biography of Sam Francis, Light on Fireand Unstill Life: Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction. Her essays and art reviews have appeared in The New YorkerThe New York TimesThe Los Angeles Times, Hyperallgic, Art & Object, Art Papers, The Rumpus, and The Huffington Post among others. She makes her home in Oakland, California.