By Bonnie Gangelhoff
Virtuoso of the sublime. Creator of exuberant visions. Awed by the power of nature. Such phrases have been employed to describe esteemed 18th-century British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner. Indeed, Turner’s tumultuous skies and seas explode with emotion and a rainbow of rich colors. It comes as little surprise, then, when artist Kathleen Earthrowl points to Turner as an inspiration during a recent interview at her Texas studio. Her expressionistic, abstracted landscapes often evoke comparisons to her Romantic muse from across the Atlantic. There is one major difference, however: Earthrowl’s works, rather than depicting the terrible beauty of mighty storms and raging waters, often capture the calmer side of nature’s wonders.
Although she lives in a scenic, wooded area on a stream near Houston, Earthrowl’s favorite subject matter is a pristine pond close to the farm where she was raised in rural Brimfield, MA.
On this particular day, Earthrowl is pondering the appeal of her childhood retreat while she nurses a cup of coffee. It’s been a busy year for the painter: Her works appeared in two gallery shows, in Washington and Texas, earlier this year, and while this story was going to press Earthrowl was preparing for exhibitions in Wyoming, New Mexico, and Utah. With such a full schedule, she seems to welcome the chance to reflect on why the pond is a recurring image in her recent works. “I think it’s about a little girl who was lonely,” she says. “My imagination came alive under the maple trees, and it was my salvation. It took me away from any pain and the feeling of being so alone and isolated in the country.”
At the pond, she could create her own universe where flowers, trees, and water became her best friends and confidants. The watery haven, Earthrowl says, also symbolized things that touched her on an emotional level. When she returns to the picturesque haunt of her youth, usually in the fall, she experiences similar pleasures. “The view is always fresh and it deeply moves my inner being,” she explains. While she often completes paintings indoors, like many plein-air painters she views nature as her most treasured studio, whether she’s sketching and painting in bucolic Massachusetts or seaside in New Zealand. However, these days she spends more time in the studio, because her paintings are increasing in size—48 by 60 inches on average.
Always imaginative as a child, Earthrowl came to painting later in life, through a circuitous artistic and geographical odyssey. She graduated from Vermont’s Bennington College in the early 1960s with a degree in voice and a plan to pursue a career singing classical music. Soon after graduation, she moved to New York City, where she earned a graduate degree in music at Columbia University. For the next three years, she taught music at a private school in the city, and this was followed by a five-year stint as a professor of modern dance at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. By then she had married, divorced, and was raising two children. When she was accepted to a doctoral program in aesthetics education, Earthrowl returned to Massachusetts to study at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In 1978 she moved to Houston, where she was hired as an assistant professor of modern dance at the University of Houston. She also was a movement therapist at a large downtown hospital and taught dance at the Jung Center of Houston.
Meanwhile, Earthrowl’s doctorate had focused on the relationship between the arts and psychology, and in addition to teaching dance she applied for and received a state license as a psychotherapist based on her coursework. She began seeing patients more than 20 years ago and continues to take appointments one day a week. But Earthrowl had a major epiphany over a decade ago. On a whim, she decided that she wanted to learn how to paint—her creative side was languishing. A friend told her about a popular teacher, Dick Turner, and one morning Earthrowl called him to inquire about courses. “I have a class starting at 10,” Turner told her. Without giving it a second thought, Earthrowl canceled her appointments and rushed to the art class. “My heart stopped in that class,” she recalls. “I entered another zone, and in an instant I knew that this is what I wanted to do.”
At the beginning of her painterly journey, Earthrowl recalls being fearless. “I would take big canvases outside and let it go,” she says. Eager to absorb as much as possible, she continued to study with Turner and then followed up with additional classes and workshops taught by Albert Handell, Ann Templeton, and Wolf Kahn, as well as three-month forays to study at the Art Students League of New York. But it was Kahn’s words about the “looseness” of her approach that have stuck with her the most from those early days in her fine-art career. “In class one day, Wolf turned to me and said, ‘I like the way you work, rough and tough,’” Earthrowl explains. And he also held up a small painting she completed that featured the undergrowths of vegetation in a pond. “He realized that I wasn’t trying to create a pretty picture,” she says. “For me, it was, and is, all about feeling, texture, and the surprise in the painting.”
The arts have been a lifelong passion for Earthrowl. And she often compares painting to her past aesthetic pursuits. For example, she is fond of saying: “Painting for me is most like choreographing a dance—improvisation in movement with color, texture, shape, and soul. My paintings lead, and I follow.”
During the interview in her studio, the painter unwittingly offers a glimpse of her spontaneous process. While pondering her answer to a question, she casts a sidelong glance at a nearby work in progress. She pauses in the conversation, studies the painting, rises from her chair, and steps back to observe again. “I think it needs a little more darkness in the left corner,” she says eventually.
This particular landscape already shows the vigorous brush strokes and harmonious color palette for which Earthrowl is known. Such compositions, while seemingly improvisational, are also accompanied by regular rituals, such as covering the canvas with color in the beginning and then blocking out the basic shapes and colors in oils. This is often followed by the application of layers upon layers of paint. “I love to work with the thickness of paint, the textural layers,” she explains. “Sometimes I use the end of the brush to make lines in the paint. I like to play with the paint and mix the colors on the canvas.”
While the arts have always played a leading role in her life, Earthrowl still finds their healing effects on the mind, body, and soul fascinating. In fact, today all of her pathways appear to converge in a way that Jungian psychologists might term synchronicity, or the connectedness of seemingly random occurrences and life choices.
As 2005 draws to a close, Earthrowl is beginning a monumental commission—a 14-foot-long landscape painting depicting the Brimfield pond. The painting eventually will hang in the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston’s Texas Medical Center. “My life seems like it has come full circle,” Earthrowl says. “I can’t believe that the pond was so healing for me as a little girl and that the material is so alive for me now and may help heal others. I get so moved when I talk about it because I am 65, and I’m also connecting to that little child that was me.” The painting was commissioned by American Art Resources, a Houston-based company that places original artworks in hospitals across the country with the mission of creating a therapeutic environment for patients. “All of our life experiences are related,” Earthrowl reflects, “although we may not see the connectedness at the time.”
Earthrowl is represented by Harris Gallery, Houston, TX; Hunter Kirkland Contemporary, Santa Fe, NM; Howard/ Mandville Gallery, Kirkland, WA; Meyer-Milagros Gallery, Jackson, WY; Phoenix Gallery, Park City, UT; Allen Sheppard Gallery, New York, NY; and Coconut Grove Gallery & Interiors, Coconut Grove, FL.
Featured in December 2005