The late Edmund Kara was an extraordinary sculptor, and perhaps one of the greatest sculptors who ever lived, yet few people recognize his name. However, people often know his work from seeing it at Nepenthe– a landmark restaurant in Big Sur, California– where one of his wooden sculptures, the Phoenix Bird, is permanently on display near the entrance.
Edmund’s home was overflowing with his incredible museum quality sculptures, but there have been few public showings of his work. This is because the work was born out of his passion for creating, and he had no interest in commercial success, so he never sought it. Carolyn gave Edmund his first gallery show at the Gallerie Illuminati in Santa Monica during the early 1990s. Carolyn honored Edmund with many works of her own art, including her painting, Edmund’s Tree Song.
Edmund Kara and Carolyn Mary Kleefeld
Some of Edmund’s sculptures are life-size and larger-than-life renditions of mythological creatures, archetypal personalities, and biblical figures, as well as abstract pieces. The detail is truly uncanny. They have a magical and haunting quality, and almost appear to be alive. I got the feeling that when the clock struck midnight, and everyone was asleep, all of the magical wooden creatures in his studio sprung to life.
Edmund led a fascinating life. He traveled around the world on his bicycle in his youth, and had a successful career as a fashion designer in New York and Los Angeles. As an interior designer, a stage designer, and costume designer— with clients such as Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, Keely Smith and Maria Cole— Edmund had a highly refined aesthetic sense and a masterful creative touch. He personally dressed the actors with his costumes in the productions that he worked on.
Edmund left his successful Hollywood career behind for a relatively solitudinous life in Big Sur devoted to his sculpture. He told me that he thought, “capitalism annihilates creativity, because you start working for bucks, rather than just working to be an artist.” He also said, “one could only become an artist if no one can convince them not to be.”
I once visited Edmund with Carolyn and the late ethnobotanist Terence McKenna. Before entering Edmund’s home and studio, I raved enthusiastically to Terence, “You’re in for a real treat; these are some of the most incredible sculptures that you’ve ever seen!” Terence looked at me with more than just a little skepticism, and a facial expression that seemed to be politely saying, “don’t you know who you’re talking to.” He simply said, “We’ll see.” However, after about five minutes inside Edmund’s magical studio, Terence turned to me and said, “I see what you mean.”
There was a timeless quality about Edmund. He seemed to have stepped out of another time, or rather; he seemed to have always existed. He lived on a breathtakingly beautiful mountain in Big Sur— a “suburb of Mount Olympus” he called it (on the mountain road below Carolyn’s)— in a magnificent cabin of his own design.
Edmund’s home was closer to the Pacific than his neighbors, so the crashing of the ocean waves was literally below him, and he reminded me of a sea captain. Edmund had a biblical and powerful presence. He looked you directly in the eyes — with a kind of laser beam intensity — when he spoke, and was dramatic and highly expressive. There was grandness to his style of communication. He had a tough exterior, but a gentle soul. Edmund passed away in 2001 and we miss him dearly.
I interviewed Edmund at his home in 1996. Here are some excerpts from my conversation with him:
David: Has sexuality influenced your work?
Edmund: Of course. I mean look at those fluid lines. Look at those curves and arabesques. There’s no straight hard-edged anything. It’s organic, sensual. I always think the essence of my work is about hair, which is one of the most sensuous things about our bodies. Wood is the hair of the planet. It is an extremely sensuous thing.
David: I guess that makes you a planetary hair stylist.
Edmund: That’s right. I’ve often called myself a cosmic hairdresser. Yes, It’s all bundles of fibers.
David: I suspect that sexual energy and creative energy are one and the same.
Edmund: Well I’ve always felt there is nothing but sexual energy. It’s the first and primal energy.
David: And every other form of energy is…?
Edmund: A sub-division, that’s right. I’ve only ever been craving one thing – that’s reunion with the One.
David: What do you think happens to consciousness after the death of the body?
Edmund: I prefer to know when I experience it. . . .
David: Do you think that consciousness survives death?
Edmund: It’s plausible, but I don’t know. I prefer that it didn’t. Let’s face it. I know all the stories about karma and reincarnation. I’m familiar with all the theories about it. I’ve heard them all. I’ve thought about them all. I feel indifferent to that idea. But I have read things that I think are wonderful. Like I read once that “you are reborn according to your heart’s most urgent desires.” Think about that.
There’s a great beauty and truth in that, because that does occur in you daily life. You are reborn continually, and you could be reborn— in God knows what fashion— according to your heart’s most urgent needs and desires, which is something you could not intellectualize, because it doesn’t say your brain’s urgent needs, it says your heart’s urgent needs.
So that’s a very comforting idea to me. If there is a continuation of consciousness, it will be a re-birth based on my needs in a karmic frame, what I have to achieve on the next step.
David: What do you think is the most important thing that you’ve learned in your life?
Edmund: That humor is above death. . . .
David: What’s your concept of God or the Divine?
Edmund: Well, I’ve gotten over the most common images of God that are fed to us as children. I’ve gotten over the images of “Him” or “Her.” I do believe there is a central seed consciousness that is fused in all of the universe. There is some potent, high-exulted energy that represents God to me, and it manifests in nature particularly. All of nature awakens an inner reverence, a sense of holiness to our existence within my being. And I’m very aware of it in my work. I’m very aware of it when I walk, and when I’m out in nature, when I see something growing, when I plant a rosebush and watch the buds spurt out of the stems in the springtime. I’m very aware of this power that is infused in all of life— from every star in the heavens to every minnow in the sea.
To learn more about Edmund Kara and see his artwork, we invite you to visit his website.