Karen Hartmann’s new exhibition, Changing Paradigms, is all about evolution.

“It’s something new, radically new,” says Hartmann, describing her shift from portraiture to abstract paintings. The evolution is both thematic and technical, representing a break from her previous work.

Her path to becoming an artist began in childhood with her father, whose sketches she would observe, and who encouraged her creativity.

“We must have been drawing one day, and he saw something [in us] four of his children,” she says. “And he got us books, and we sat at the kitchen table and sketched little men – stick figures. That’s where it started.”

Although she has spent six years in Cambodia, her relationship with the country goes back more than a decade, when she and her husband started learning Khmer while still in the United States. As Jehovah’s Witnesses, they were hoping to preach and study the Bible with Cambodians, and came to the country to “support the local congregation”. Previously, she was a furniture painter in New York City for eight years.

In Cambodia, she has devoted herself to her painting, and will be exhibiting 42 of her pieces at Chinese House beginning today.

Some of the works are portraits, while others, unusually for her, are abstract. Of particular significance to her are her portraits of Cambodian women, such as Cool Drink and Stung Sanker.

Karen Hartmann’s Cool Drink, part of the Changing Paradigms exhibition. Photo supplied

“The portraits that I’ve done, I remember the people. I remember the day, what they were doing at the time, the eyes – I’m very focused on getting the feeling that comes out of the eyes,” she says.

In her works, influences from artists across different periods and movements are evident.

She counts John Singer Sargent – a famous American portrait artist from the early 20th century – and Pablo Picasso among her influences. Then there is Cambodia, which is her main source of creative inspiration.

“I just get so much inspiration from being here,” she says. “Colour, the heat – and the people.”

While she doesn’t see her work as being “so deeply philosophical”, Hartmann still hopes that her work resonates.

“I enjoy watching people when they look at my work and hear their comments,” she says.

“I never tell people what to see, what to do. It either evokes something – it opens a window, opens a door for them – that’s what I want to do, just be somebody who opens up a new thought for people.”

Changing Paradigms opens tonight at 6pm at Chinese House and will be on display until February 14. There will complementary beer, wine and canapés early in the night, and a dinner upstairs for $28, with reservations recommended.