Native American Heritage Influences North Carolina Artist Karen Lynch Harley

Karen Lynch Harley

Photo by Justin Kase Conder

For Karen Lynch Harley, art is all about telling a story. And in her case, that story is a personal one.

“The inspiration for my work reflects my love for my culture and for the history of Native Americans,” says Harley, a member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe. “Storytelling is at the heart of the pieces I create – from drawings to paintings to sculptures. Of course, I hope that it’s something people enjoy looking at and can even find beauty in, but it’s the story the art conveys that is most important to me.”

Harley’s story began in Maryland, where she was born and raised and later attended art school. But it also includes summers in Hollister, where her parents, Nan and Almorris Lynch, lived before leaving the area in search of work.

Photo by Justin Kase Conder

“I loved my visits to Hollister growing up and then visiting my parents after they retired and moved back,” Harley explains. “I always wanted to return because of the peacefulness, which is intuitive to art when you’re in the country. And it would also be an opportunity to connect with my tribe and the large Native American population in Halifax and Warren counties.”

So when Harley’s husband, Phillip, retired 11 years ago, that’s just what they did. She set up a studio in their home and began working in the peaceful setting of Hollister, far from the chaos of the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

Karen Lynch Harley

Photo by Justin Kase Conder

Phillip, a member of the Piscataway tribe, began helping Karen with her art, first stretching canvases and doing other prework. In the process, he became a self-taught woodcarver with his own artistic talent. That led to a Harley collaboration – a totem pole for the Gaston County Family YMCA in Belmont.

See more: Woody’s Chair Shop Has a Deep-Seated History

“When we moved to Hollister, Phillip created a totem pole for the end of our driveway so that people would know where to find my studio,” Karen says. “That caught the interest of the YMCA, who commissioned us to create one for them.”

Karen Lynch Harley

Photo by Justin Kase Conder

Art & Soul

Artistic talents run deep in the Lynch and Harley families. Karen’s father is a woodworker, who renovated the Harleys’ old farmhouse, turning it into an updated country home. Karen’s mother is a quilter, as was her grandmother. Karen and Phillip’s son, Phillip Jr., is also a woodworker. He crafts furniture, birdhouses and other practical pieces, and his wife helps with the finishing details. The Harley’s daughter, April, is a beader who makes personal healing bracelets.

See more: Harvesting the Past at the North Carolina Museum of History

“We all enjoy making art and are inspired by our Native American heritage,” Karen says. That heritage, she explains, is fostered by the nearly 4,000 Haliwa-Saponi tribe members, the majority of whom still live in the area. And it’s celebrated every third weekend in April at the tribe’s annual powwow and other events at the Tribal Center in Hollister.

Photo by Justin Kase Conder

The Tribal Center is the site of a second Harley artistic collaboration.

“Our tribe was awarded a Z. Smith Reynolds Inclusive Public Art grant to create murals and sculptures in two locations for the Tribal Center,” Karen says. “The grant is focused on preserving history in communities, and that is what our work will feature. For instance, one of the sculptures will be in the tribe’s multipurpose center. It will be the ‘Three Sisters,’ corn, beans and squash, which is representative of our history. When food was scarce, these were the items that sustained Native Americans because they could be preserved and eaten year round.”

Trailblazing Traditions

The story in Karen’s art goes beyond Hollister as well.

“I want my work to bring more attention to the Native Americans of the east and southeast parts of the country,” she says.

One current project she is working on focuses on that. The East Coast Greenway Alliance, which is a 3,000-mile hiking and biking trail from Maine to Florida, commissioned Karen to complete a Native American skin painting of tribes along the East Coast path that comprises the trail.

“There is often so much more focus on western tribes,” she says. “It’s important that people know that Native people live in North Carolina and along the East Coast and bring their talents and heritage and culture to those communities to enhance the life there.”

– Cathy Lockman

Karen Lynch Harley

Photo by Justin Kase Conder

Learn More

To learn more about Karen Lynch Harley’s work, visit

To see her work on display, visit the Haliwa-Saponi Tribal Center at 39021 NC Hwy. 561 in Hollister or attend their annual powwow in April.

To visit her studio, contact Karen at

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