An Approachable Depth

With her paintings, Rachel Karr is bringing the greatest depths of our universe within reach.

Paintings on birch panels by Rachel Karr, ©Nuclear Mystic

When Rachel Karr showed me into her East Nashville home, I didn’t expect to stay very long. She had her hands full with 20-month-old twin boys, as well as preparations for a class she would be teaching with SkillPop — but once we started talking, that short amount of time easily became three hours. The conversation flowed easily, from current issues to family, travel to education, and sea creatures to outer space.

As soon as I began recording, Rachel was ready to dive in.

“I’m Rachel Karr, and I’m a painter.”

Rachel Karr

It’s kind of a weird technique, but there’s nothing in it that somebody else isn’t doing. It just seems that the formula I have is a little different,” she explains when asked about her style. “There’s a process in acrylic painting called ‘glazing.’ You paint a layer, and you let it dry and build on top of it. I use acrylic mediums, but I don’t use acrylic paint very often. I’m mixing in powdered pigments. Some people think it’s encaustic or a resin pour, but it’s not. It has a similar look when it’s finished, but it’s definitely a little unique.”

When asked if she calls it anything specific, Rachel responded, “I call it… glazing with pigment, I guess.”

“You sell your paintings, and call it Nuclear Mystic. Where did that come from?”

“Well, the first place it came from is that my actual name was not available on Instagram, so I had to come up with a back up. It’s not 1998 anymore where you can come up with some really goofy name for your instant messenger account.” She pauses to laugh, reflecting on her old, “embarrassing” email address.

“I love Salvador Dali’s paintings, but even more, I appreciate his mind and his way of working. There was a period that a lot of his paintings focused on the laws of physics, and that period was called the ‘Nuclear Mystic Period.’ I’m super into physics, I’m painting stuff based on images from astrophotography. It just seemed like a good fit.”

The pure passion for her art is evident as she shows me some of her paintings and points out different details, including real shadows cast by dots in one of her pieces.

“It’s kind of like looking into a fish tank. With a fish tank, there’s things floating in the foreground and the background, and it’s got a lot of depth to it. That’s what I love about it.”

Painting by Rachel Karr, ©Nuclear Mystic
“It’s travel for me, every time I start painting. It’s an adventure, a challenge, a science experiment… I paint all the things I can’t take photographs of.“

Did you go to school for art?” She tells me she originally started at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, Tennessee for radio communications, which turned out only to be useful in getting her core classes out of the way.

“When I went to Austin Peay [State University in Clarksville, Tennessee], I was there to get a degree for graphic design, but by some kind of glitch and bad advising, I wound up getting into photography. I had a lot of photo history instead of graphic design history, along with a few painting classes,” Rachel explains. “I love photography. I was a commercial photographer and still do it freelance — I do a lot of photography for myself as well, especially landscape and astrophotography. But there’s just too much I can’t get, so I need an outlet for it, and that’s why I paint.”

“In your work, I notice a lot of planets and the moon and stars… is that what influences your work? Outer space?”

“I always say, I started underwater and then went up to the sky.” She lifts her hands towards the ceiling, smiling. “All of my previous paintings were based on under sea creatures. One of them was this very microscopic section of a squid that I zoomed in on. Space feels like that to me, too — you’re looking at something kind of two dimensional, like this sheet of dots, but there’s so much depth there. Now, with all the images we get from Hubble and everything, it’s incredible! There’s so much texture and color, it’s fascinating.”

Rachel tells me more about some of the pigments she uses, including a glow in the dark UV pigment. “If you’re gonna paint space, it has to glow, right?”

“There’s just something about knowing that I can turn off the lights and see an entirely different painting… every single painting I do will look one way in the daylight, a different way under a blacklight, and a completely different way with the lights out. So there’s three paintings in every single painting I do.”

She explains that this is why she personally struggles with her Instagram account. “They’re so two dimensional, and I want everyone to be able to see how deep it really is. It’s really hard to represent my paintings well in a 2D space. I’ve had people ask about prints, but it just looks so flat — it’s not metallic, it doesn’t glow in the dark.” I can’t help but agree — her paintings are mind-blowing when viewed in person. I felt as if each piece was a portal I could easily step through, and wind up directly in the galaxy depicted.

In-progress Huia bird painting by Rachel Karr, via Nuclear Mystic
“I will always remember my painting professor walking into my senior show, looking around, and going, ‘I did not teach you to paint like this.’ And I still have no idea if that was a compliment or not.”

Recently, Rachel has begun work on a large scale project that she plans to show in a gallery when it is complete. “The whole concept behind the project is to try to capture the presence of these extinct animals. The majority of them are extinct because of interference by humans moving into their territory, or deforestation, or the introduction of rodents that decimated their population and wiped them out.”

Pointing out a panel sitting next to my elbow on the kitchen table, she tells me about how she decided to start with extinct birds. The first bird she chose is the Huia bird from New Zealand. She is documenting much of her progress so far on Instagram.

“Is there anything specific you are hoping people will get out of your paintings when they view them?”

“Space, in its vastness and everything… I think people forget how approachable it is. You’re not in a movie theater in your seat looking at something. You’re a part of it! You’re in it. Out there it’s a bunch of stuff, and from here, that stuff looks really cool. But we’re in the middle of a thing that looks really cool from over there.” She pauses thoughtfully. “It’s like driving past that really nice house that you’re like, ‘Oh man, could you imagine living there? What a cool house.’ Just on a much larger level.”

“Art is just so approachable. Happiness, too, is so approachable and attainable — we make ourselves feel like it’s very complicated. But it’s not!”

There is some laughter as we both glance at our phones and realize just how much time has passed. Before ending the recording, I ask, “Is there anything that you want readers to know that we haven’t touched on?”

“It makes me very happy.” Rachel whispers. Then, loud and clear, she says, “People should do things that make them happy. I’m a firm believer in that.”

It reminds me of earlier in the afternoon, when we had been discussing college. She originally chose graphic design because her mother suggested that she “get a degree in something you can get paid for.” She said she now realizes how silly that was. “It’s the biggest lie on the planet to ‘get a degree in something you can get paid for,’ because you can never out-compete somebody who truly cares about what they do, no matter how under or over educated that person is. If somebody cares about what they’re doing more than you do, you’ll never do better than them.”

Especially after spending the afternoon in her world, following Rachel’s example does seem the ideal plan moving forward:

Reach for the stars & create what makes you happy.

Interested in seeing Rachel’s paintings of amazing depth in person? Stay tuned for information on gallery showings & classes by following Nuclear Mystic on Facebook & Instagram, or purchase one of her paintings on Etsy.

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