During the day, Karen Terhune ’82 drives a forklift at the Louisville Ford plant, moving hefty boxes of car parts on the line. At night, she pursues her real career: carving large pieces of stone into something new.
All of this heavy lifting gives her flexibility. While most full-time artists are forced at times to take commissions that don’t necessarily inspire them, Terhune’s day job has allowed her to do only the artwork that she wants to do.
“The whole idea is just starting with a lump and turning it into anything else,” she says. “Whether it’s good art, bad art, whatever—it’s a way to get your thoughts and feelings out in a way that words just can’t.”
She doesn’t mince words when talking about her passion for sculpture. “I don’t even mention Ford when I do art shows,” she says, “because then people immediately think my art is a hobby. I’ve spent 40 years carving. This ain’t a hobby.”
Terhune says her love of sculpture began when she created her first piece, a squirrel with a nut. “From that moment on, I was hooked. I knew right then and there that that was what I was gonna do,” she says. As for what exactly drew her to sculpture in the first place, even Terhune herself is not sure. “It’s like a bell went off. It’s like, ‘This is it. You just found it,’” she says.
Working in the studio at her home, Terhune leans toward abstract shapes and animals as subjects. One of her art shows on the Bellarmine campus was entitled Females and Felines. “I do a lot of whimsical type pieces and cat pieces,” says Terhune, who refers to some of her abstract pieces as “little explosions of movement.”
Sculpting can be very physically demanding—it’s one art form where the art can fight back. This can make for good stress relief, but it can take its toll after a while. Terhune has had both hips and one knee replaced, and while sculpting wasn’t the cause, all of the standing, pushing and shoving involved in her artwork hasn’t helped.
Caren Cunningham, head of the Art Department at Bellarmine, said Terhune has always been single-minded about her sculpting. “She’s worked hard all her life at her art,” Cunningham said. “I’m impressed that she can work full-time and still do these big pieces.”
She’s also impressed by Terhune’s desire to give back to Bellarmine. In 2001, Terhune began giving the Art Department $500 per year to be divided equally between two students. Faculty members determine the recipients of the Jack L. and Meryl J. Terhune Art Scholarships.
While students in most classes purchase all of their materials at the beginning of the semester, art majors have to buy supplies for each new project. “This is a little something that might help someone purchase tools or replace paints—or maybe someone might need to buy a camera for a photography project,” Terhune said. The award also provides validation, showing students they are on the right track, she said.
Terhune understands that kind of validation. In 2018, “GRACE #85,” a 53-inch-tall sculpture she carved from Indiana limestone, won the $5,000 Purchase Award at the Sculpture Rocks show at the Josephine Sculpture Park in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. The piece is now a permanent part of the park’s collection.
Winning awards can be a major validating factor for an artist, Terhune said, but “it’s not the selling that validates it. Somebody else gave a prize or an award that says you’re good enough, and that’s where the validation comes in. It’s not so much the money but the recognition.”
Terhune further inspires Bellarmine art students by opening her studio to them each year. And she has helped charitable organizations in the community by donating her art. Nonprofit organizations like Art for the Animals and Alley Cat Advocates auction the sculptures and use the proceeds to help preserve wildlife and nature and provide humane treatment of unowned cats, respectively.
After nearly four decades at the Ford plant, Terhune said she plans to “graduate” from Ford next year and concentrate on her art full time. “I want to move into carving large outdoor sculptures and commission work,” she said. To assist in that, she recently purchased a truck with a crane attached to the bed that can hoist stones that weigh up to 7,500 pounds.
Sculpture, she says, is “all I want to do and all I ever want to do. I always say give me another 38 years and maybe I’ll master it.”
By Tyler Hardin ’17