This post is brought to you by Anna Rogulina, Assistant Curator.
Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of catching up with Kathleen Kolb and finding out a little more about what drives the art of this talented Vermont-based painter.
Kathleen’s Twilit House (2013), Winner of Viewers’ Choice Award! Oil on panel, 18 x 24 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Anna Rogulina (AR): What first inspired you to become an artist? What compels you to make art?
Kathleen Kolb (KK): Two things come to mind: beauty and illusion. I have always found beauty compelling and transfixing. And what I’ve been compelled to do is to try to transfix my experience of beauty to share with others. I’ve also found visual illusions delightful since I was young. Once when I was 4 I woke up early on Sunday morning and was playing with my brothers before our parents got up. We rearranged some small bookshelves and a table to create a little playhouse and were having a wonderful time. Then I got the brilliant idea that if I drew pictures of my brothers on the backs of the bookshelves (facing out), (imaginary) passers-by would believe those were windows and that they were seeing my brothers inside! This I commenced to do with the total belief that the illusion would be absolutely convincing!
AR: Is there a specific artist, or group of artists, who you look up to?
KK: There are so many wonderful artists who inspire me and delight me with their work. I’m particularly drawn to American artists from the past 200 years. The Hudson River School and later luminists, especially Sanford Gifford, have been important to me. Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, Rockwell Kent, Thomas Benton, Andrew Wyeth and Alfred Leslie are all artists whose work I seek out. I like April Gornik, Janet Fish and Yvonne Jacquette’s work very much. I have a deep affinity with the work of Linden Frederick. There are so many more!
AR: Describe your process from conception to final product. Is it always the same?
KK: I love observation and find the external world to be full of visual surprises and delights. What makes me make work is a moment of observation I call “emotional ignition”. I can’t remember a time when it didn’t begin with a feeling of the joy of beauty mixed with the pathos of mortality that I had in observing something. I wanted to spend time with and share that feeling. The emotional energy has to be sufficiently strong to carry a piece through to completion. I work in both watercolor and oil, so the painting process itself varies. But it always begins with a drawing to establish structure: an armature for the painting.
AR: What is the most indispensable item in your studio?
KK: Strangely, I would have to say myself. I am not a gearhead, so it’s not about equipment or tools for me. I am sparing in collecting these things so the things I use all feel indispensible to me: easel, palette, brushes, pencil and eraser. A straightedge is helpful.
AR: Let’s talk about your painting, Twilit House. Is there a particular memory or experience connected to the house depicted? Why did you decide to paint it?
KK: The house in this painting is in the village I’ve lived in for the past 17 years. Simply as a function of small town life I know the family who lives there. Once, many years ago, I went to a New Years Eve celebration there. A son of the household now rototills my vegetable garden in the spring and his father once repaired my lawn mower. So it’s not about a specific memory. What drove the painting for me is that same rub of the ecstasy of beauty with the grief of mortality that is behind all my work. It is the gorgeous color of the sky and the sense of comfort in coming home, or having a home, or being welcomed with light. It becomes poignant to me in the simple fact of its fragility and impermanence.
AR: Is there a certain association, feeling, or sound which you hope your painting evokes in the viewer?
KK: I am not trying to create a specific response but to have a connection. A shared moment of “Ah, yes.” Painting is time consuming so I want to have that time spent with ideas and images that evoke things that are important to me. And I love that immersion over time in the ideas. I am always delighted when a viewer responds, often with a story or memory that comes to them because of the painting. That makes the painting richer for me. It’s like one’s child: I don’t own it, it goes into the world to do what it will.
AR: Your work has been featured in the “ART OF ACTION” exhibition and Vermont Life Magazine which furthers awareness about the preservation of the natural beauty of Vermont. Is there a particular work you have created that you believe is the ultimate representation of this conservation effort?
KK: For me conservation is an expression of love. We want to keep what we value, preserve what we care about. Almost all my work is landscape based and it is all a part of this caring and preserving. There are several larger works that I am especially proud of that deal with various aspects of the landscape: long vistas, venerable vernacular architecture, neighborhoods which signify meaningful human community. ART OF ACTION was a large project for which I made work concerning human work in the forest. This continues to be a subject that excites me, and which inspires new work.
AR: How would you describe your style? What unique characteristics do you think set your paintings apart from other representational works?
KK: I think of my work as contemporary luminism, or contemporary realism. The salient part of my work is the representation of light, from whatever source. This is what people most often remark on, and it’s what inspires me. As an artist friend says: “it’s de-light”. I’m often attracted to late afternoon/evening light which is particularly evocative to me. It’s a time of day that is both fluid, meaning I can transport myself in that time to others afternoon/evenings in memory; and fleeting, because it is soon gone. So it encapsulates the sense of mortality I want in my work. It is that awareness that makes our living moments so valuable.
AR: In an interview, you said that you came to Vermont as a figure painter, and then there weren’t any people to paint. What other such challenges have you faced within your artistic career?
KK: I said that somewhat in jest to describe how it came to be that I am a landscape painter. It might have been otherwise. The challenges of making a life as an artist are very human and universal: how to make an adequate living, how to integrate the needs of making work with having children and a partner, caring for a home and being part of a community. Because being an artist is more of a vocation than occupation the creative drive can make it hard to give other aspects of one’s life their due. But people do and that’s what it’s all about. I think the issues ARE harder for women artists so I have a special respect for women artists.
Kathleen Kolb, Evening Barns, Deep Snow, 2008. Watercolor on paper, 22 x 30 in. Courtesy of the artist.
AR: Your landscape paintings are characteristic of the local atmosphere of your surroundings. What other landscapes, either locally or globally, do you have the desire to capture or interpret?
KK: I am cautious about painting landscapes that I don’t know deeply: real knowing contributes an ineffable quality to the work, both in its making and in the result. I have a serious need for my work to ring true to the viewer, and subtle details that come over time with knowing are crucial to that. Nonetheless, I DO paint when I go somewhere. I did a couple small watercolors in Scotland last fall, and have painted several times in rural France. I made a trip to Newfoundland to paint icebergs after seeing a 19th century painting of an iceberg in the Hartford Athenaeum! Newfoundland is a landscape, like Scotland, that I resonate to. I believe it has the same underlying geology as northern New England. Labrador and Greenland also intrigue me. I’d like to spend some time at an artists’ residency in Ireland.