Navigation Menu+

Arts Mid-Hudson Blog

Karen E. Gersch on Her Life in the Arts


As a child, I sketched and painted constantly from life, inspired by nature and the small tented circuses that passed through the rural areas of my home in Rockland County, NY. My family loved animals; I grew up in a household with no less than 4 dogs and 14 cats at a time.


Having earned a scholarship to Pratt Institute when I was 16, the move to Brooklyn’s ragged and rugged streets was shocking. I had been, until then, a devout tomboy, athletic as well as artistic. In lieu of running in woods and climbing trees, I began to paint up to 18 hours a day.


After graduating Pratt with honors, I entered a second career as a circus acrobat and clown, touring with three-ring circuses across the U.S. and Canada and one-ring shows in Europe. I kept daily sketchbooks while traveling of life on the road and under the big top. Back in my Bowery loft/studio, drawings were often transformed into oils on canvas. When not traveling and performing, I supported myself as a muralist, set painter and illustrator. Warner Bros. Records and Henson Associates were two longtime clients.

I was a founding member of the Big Apple Circus, Circus Smirkus (Vermont’s resident one-ring) and the small Quaker show “Friendly Bros. Circus.”  I also spent years with the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit, performing for terminally ill children and their families in hospitals throughout the metropolitan area.

Global events and social injustices have always affected my artwork. I have a series of painted and drawn works on endangered animals, child abuse and neglect, world terrorism and my response to the 9/11 tragedy which I witnessed firsthand. Today’s escalating crime and unethical politics make it, sadly, an ongoing series.


Although touring helped keep a longing for country life at bay, the pace of running dual careers and working in an increasingly aggressive New York City, became tiring. In 2010, my husband and I were asked to care take a 46-acre estate in Connecticut. For three idyllic years, I painted overlooking woods, rivers and meadows; animals and landscapes became prime muses again. Even my circus work from this period, took on more organic qualities, with earthy, atmospheric backgrounds.

I am Russian-trained as an “Understander” – the role in circus of one who bases partnering or pyramid acts. My teacher, Nina Krasavina, used to tell us: “pass it on”. Since moving to Orange County in 2013, I have begun to find new opportunities and venues in which to exhibit my art and continue teaching circus skills to children and youth. All the while, still learning myself, how to balance and communicate that which inspires and makes me want to understand more.

About the artist:

Karen E. Gersch will be participating in the Smithsonian Institute Circus Arts Festival to be held on the National Mall, Washington, D.C. from June 29 to July 3 as a plein air artist. In addition, the museum chose 10 of Gersch’s paintings and drawings to be hung in the Arts and Industries Building during the duration of her residence. On July 5 Gersch’s solo exhibition, “The Animal Kingdom,” opens at Adriance Memorial Library in Poughkeepsie. For more information and a gallery of Gersch’s work go to .

About the column:

Arts Mid-Hudson has served up fresh arts and culture across the region for over 52 years. This biweekly series of columns showcases arts, artists’ work and arts events across the region presented with the support of Arts Mid-Hudson. For information about its services, events and grant opportunities visit, call 845-454-3222 or email