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Artist left mark with humor and handiwork

She was known for her wit.

By MARTY CLEAR Times Correspondent
Published September 7, 2007


Karen Sjoberg suffered a burst brain aneurysm, and then had a stroke during surgery. Doctors said the well-known local painter wouldn't survive for more than a few weeks, that she would never speak or have another conscious thought.

That was in 2004. She lived three more years. But physically she was never the same. Her movement was restricted and her vision was impaired. She spent her last years in wheelchairs and rehabilitation facilities, but she never lost her impish sense of humor.

A few weeks ago, after Ms. Sjoberg was diagnosed with cancer, a minister friend came to visit her in the hospital.

"Well," Ms. Sjoberg said with a smile, "I'm dying again."

This time, the strong-willed woman could not defeat her disease. Her other physical symptoms had masked the cancer, and it had spread before doctors discovered it. Ms. Sjoberg passed away Aug. 28. She was 50.

"She had a tremendous wit and she never lost that," said her identical twin, Sharen Cano. "She spent the last three years with such dignity. It was amazing."

Ms. Sjoberg had grown up in New Jersey, and after graduating from Carnegie-Mellon University with an art degree, she moved to Louisiana to be close to her sister. A few years and one brief marriage later, she came to Tampa, where her parents and her twin sister had relocated.

She spent the last 20 years of her life here and became well known in local art circles. Her specialty was taking second-hand furniture and repainting it. She filled custom orders and also created work that was shown and sold in the most prestigious local galleries.

"She was so talented and she could do anything," said Susan Baisden, the owner of the Baisden Gallery in downtown Tampa, where Ms. Sjoberg's work was shown. "She could do anything, from the most elegant orders to a piece that fit the theme of a child's bedroom."

But Ms, Sjoberg never seemed to appreciate her own talent.

"If you complimented her, she'd be embarrassed," Baisden said. "She'd say, 'Oh, stop it, it's just something I painted.' That was just the way she was."

Although she and her twin were best friends, and lived with or near each other almost all their lives, they had different personalities. Ms. Sjoberg was more free-spirited, known for walking barefoot and for effervescent behavior. Her sister was not quite as adventurous.

"I always told her, 'You have to be careful when you're dancing on tabletops, because people that know me and don't know I have a twin sister might think it's me,'"Cano said.

She was never able to make a living entirely from her painting. She worked as a bartender at Albi's, a popular downtown watering hole, and in the 1990s she and other family members owned and operated the Arbor Gallery on S MacDill Avenue, where Ms. Sjoberg did custom framing.

Physical impairment after her aneurysm and stroke kept her from working. Still, she delighted in her family and friends and loved to laugh with staff members at the facilities where she stayed before her death.

"Wherever she went, it was a circus atmosphere," her sister said. "It was a party."

Besides her twin, Ms. Sjoberg is survived by her father H.T.D. "Ted" Sjoberg, her stepmother Nancy Sjoberg, her sister Tara Lautner, stepsisters Margaret Fuller and Sarah Blackwell and stepbrother Duncan McMillan.

[Last modified September 6, 2007, 08:29:29]

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