Karen Smith — Route to Svalbard

Karen Smith — Route to Svalbard

We were delighted recently to have a visit from Karen Smith, bearing marvellous ceramic sculptures.

We first met Karen at her degree show the year we opened the gallery, 1987. Her show in the Ceramics Department at Grays’s School of Art was exceptional. It was obvious she was a rare talent. Her ability to breathe life into clay and create intricate narratives is extraordinary. We can still picture the figures she created, populating a bustling London Tube station with all sorts of characters, teeming with diverse personalities. 

We signed her up right away and we have continued to have the privilege of exhibiting her work regularly. Karen has not produced many pieces in recent years but her work is always special. She had a career break, working as a conservator/restorer of ceramics and she has also had family commitments taking up her time but now she is back.

She says, “I am happy to be working with clay once again but at a gentler pace than before. I let stories form naturally, at times an idea can take a while to morph from the initial spark, say from a piece of music, or a line from a book, at other times it comes in a flash, and I must get to work”.

She has recently created a series of pieces inspired by the high Arctic, entitled ‘Route to Svalbard’, featuring a lady and a polar bear. The spark for this series was a report about a walrus who had found his way too far south and was appearing at various coastal locations around the UK.

“An expert on the radio explained how young walruses can occasionally travel too far from home and that he most likely travelled from Svalbard.”

The Wanderer returns to Svalbard by Karen Smith

The Wanderer Returns to Svalbard

A sculpture emerged of a walrus, homeward bound, in a rowing boat.

Further pieces have followed. “I thought what if a polar bear found itself too far south perhaps drifting on a piece of glacier and needed help to find its way back home? There is a subtle hint at the effects of climate change and this little story unfolded.

Route to Svalbard

The bear has drifted and wandered off, far from home. The lady, who is in her later years, has come across the bear and decided that she will help it to get back home. It is about her journey as well as the bear’s journey. Later in life, she is being offered an adventure. The narrative develops across several pieces, each capturing a different chapter of their travels.

I Will Travel with You by Karen Smith

I Will Travel With You
She does a bit of research about the Arctic, hence the little book “Route to Svalbard”. On the back of the seat is written, ‘I will travel with you’.
The Journey by Karen Smith
The Journey

In this piece, they have set off and the lady battles against the elements with an umbrella.

A Gift Karen Smith

A gift, soft undercoat for your yarn

To keep them both warm for travelling, the bear has given her a gift of her soft fur for yarn to knit with and she knits a blanket for the bear.

Aurora by Karen Smith


In the final piece, they are at their journey’s end, they have reached their destination. The woman and bear look up together at the north sky and see the Northern Lights.

Karen would love to visit Svalbard one day, to see the glaciers and arctic wildlife, especially polar bears. “Near the top of the world, it seems a place of mythology with its polar summers and aurora winters.”

What sets Karen's work apart is not just her imagination and creativity but also her technical skill. Each sculpture is meticulously crafted. Whether it's the detail of the polar bear's claws or the subtle expressions on the woman’s face, Karen magically brings her unique stories to life in clay, weaving together threads of wonder and reflection. 

These pieces serve as a poignant reminder of our interconnectedness with the natural world. Through her sculptures, Karen invites us to embark on a journey of discovery, where empathy and imagination converge to illuminate the human experience.