Lenora St. Blog

Alumni Series: Karen Parkhouse – Endless Opportunities After Cornish

Meet Karen, a 1999 graduate with BFA in Art from Cornish College of the Arts, whose diverse and inspiring journey showcases the endless opportunities that life after Cornish can offer. From fine arts to music, Karen’s story is a testament to the power of interdisciplinary study and the creative spark that Cornish ignites in its students. Her experiences highlight the importance of exploring various artistic mediums and the value of a strong work ethic and collaborative spirit.

Q: Where are you from, and what drew you to attend Cornish?
A: I grew up in Santa Monica, CA. I attended The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA, for 3 years before deciding to attend Cornish to pursue a BFA in Art.

Q: Did you know what discipline you wanted to focus on when you were admitted? How did this evolve during your time as a student?
A: In my last semester at Evergreen, I took a lot of studio art classes and it made me want to attend a school that focused more in-depth on the art-making/creative process, rather than just taking classes as electives. I applied to the Fine Arts department and enrolled in 1994. My main areas of concentration in the department were photography and sculpture. My BFA project was multimedia, image-based sculptural work.

Q: What is your current artistic practice, and how did your experiences at Cornish prepare you for your career as an artist?
A: Although I studied fine art at Cornish, music, especially singing, has always been a passion of mine and luckily, a natural talent. After Cornish, I worked for a small photography company in Los Angeles for a few years, doing mainly candid school photography, portraits, and family shoots. While also working on my personal imagery. In 2002, I opened a small photography gallery in Westchester, CA called Urban Art Photo Gallery, which initially was used to showcase mine and my partner’s artwork, but then expanded to feature a number of successful shows for other artists in our community. Unfortunately, the gallery only stayed open 1 year because during that time, I had my first child and it was too challenging to maintain regular hours with a baby. Fast forward to 2 more children, I took a long hiatus from art making to raise my young family, but still occasionally took photo jobs, doing headshots and family portraits. 

When my family decided to leave LA and move to Ventura, CA, and all of my kids were in school, I decided that I needed a creative outlet again and found that music was calling to me very strongly. In 2012, I connected with a local guitar player who had a passion for early prohibition-era jazz and we began building a band to perform. The result was the formation of The Barrelhouse Wailers, a New Orleans-style hot jazz group that focuses on vintage music but also writes original material. We’ve been together for 12 years and have built a great local following. We have recorded 2 studio albums with original music that can all be found on streaming platforms and Bandcamp. We also have a monthly residency at The Grape House of Jazz & Spirits in Ventura, where I am one of the owners. 

Cornish prepared me to be a working artist by instilling a great work ethic in me. The ability to apply my skill set to any project and to collaborate with other artists was learned at Cornish. I also apply a lot of graphics knowledge in my advertising/promoting work at The Grape as well as self-promotion skills/marketing for the band.

Q: What is your favorite memory from your time at Cornish?
A: I loved taking studio classes on the 3rd floor of the old Broadway building on Capitol Hill, especially life drawing. But my best memories were made during my BFA studio year, sharing workspace with a close-knit group of artists, group critiques, and then transforming our workspaces into Gallery showcases. That was a great year! I’m not sure that any other school has a program quite like that!

Q: During your time at Cornish, did you have a primary artistic focus, or did you prefer to experiment across disciplines?
A: I initially really loved printmaking. I absolutely loved the bookmaking studio! I discovered early on that I wasn’t a very good painter, but I gravitated to photography and sculpture and combining elements of both in my artwork.

Q: How has experimenting with multiple mediums grown your skill set as an artist?
A: It’s good to know a little bit about everything! I enjoyed being able to take classes in other departments, like dance, music, design, and theater while I attended.

Q: Do you have a particular artwork with a special place in your heart? If so, what is it?
A: In art… I worked on a digital photography series a while ago called “In-Organics” which took photos of nature/textures and made composite images with extreme digital manipulation. In music… I’m very proud of the songs I’ve written, specifically “They Don’t Know My Name” and “Baby, Come Back To Me“.

Q: After graduating from Cornish, have you worked on any particularly rewarding projects? And, if applicable, how did Cornish help prepare you for them?
A: I think that opening my gallery, though short-lived, was a true testament to the visionary nature that Cornish helped me achieve. Also building a band that has been together for over 10 years… it takes work ethic and creative practice. I love performing, singing, and writing music!

Q: What projects are you currently working on?
A: Barrelhouse Wailers is my primary music project, although I do sometimes perform with other musicians as a guest vocalist. I’m also the house manager and booking agent at The Grape. I get the rare opportunity to work on both sides of the music industry, as a performer and as a venue owner, promoting other musical acts from local up-and-coming bands to national touring acts and living legends! I love working with musicians on the business end of things, but really my main passion is singing.

Q: If you could share one piece of advice for newly admitted students, what would it be?
A: Try everything! Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Everything is a process, so proceed to create. It’s a challenge to make a living in the creative world and many folks will see your passion as a hobby not a career choice, but there are opportunities everywhere. Be your own best advocate and work with people who respect your talents.

Q: At Cornish, our focus is helping students become multi/interdisciplinary artists and creatives. What does the term “multidisciplinary” or “interdisciplinary” mean to you, and how has that applied to/helped your career in the arts?
A: I’ve always been creative in different directions and it’s taken me a long time to get to where I am now. I’m 51 and I finally feel like I’m doing the work that I was meant to do. A multidisciplinary approach to life/work means that you can apply your learned or inherent skill set to any project that you put your mind to. In high school, I spent all my time in theater, in college, it was fine art making, when my kids were little, I helped run a musical theater/choir program at their school, and now I am a band leader and jazz club owner. An interdisciplinary study path is essential to building a great foundation in the arts, for it allows us to continue to build upon our creative endeavors.

Q: How have you utilized your alumni connections as a student and an alumnus?
A: I am still good friends with a number of people who I was in the BFA program with. I also have participated in and event hosted an alumni gatherings in the Los Angeles area. I love receiving the alumni newsletters and hearing about the success and projects of Cornish Alums! I just took a trip to Seattle and visited the Cornish campus with my 16-year-old.

Q: What else would you like to share with the community? Where can people find you/your work?
A: While I attended Cornish, I always felt like part of a supportive community with so much history and so much more to give to future generations of creative people. My current projects: Barrelhouse Wailers. You can listen to our new album on Bandcamp or follow us at @barrelhousewailers on IG and FB. You can watch us perform at  The Grape House of Jazz & Spirits in Ventura, CA  follow them at @thegrapeventura on FB/IG/TikTok

Karen’s journey illustrates the power of a multidisciplinary approach to the arts, showing how skills in various fields can interweave to create a fulfilling and dynamic career. Her story is a compelling example of how Cornish College of the Arts fosters creativity, resilience, and community. If you’re inspired by Karen’s path and want to explore the endless possibilities that Cornish offers, visit our Art department page or fill out the Tell Us More form to connect with our Admissions team.


Read More

A person typing on a laptop.

Front Page

Winter Surfs the Cornish Website

Read more


Alumni: Listen to Jarrad Powell and Adrienne Verner New Album

Read more

Staff + Faculty News

Natalia Ilyin, Cornish Design Faculty, Receives Fulbright Specialist Award

Read more

Cornish News

Cornish Alum Shermona Mitchell: Pioneering Risk and Reward in Seattle Theater

Read more