Kate Starling | Home Ground

By Rosemary Carstens

Landscape painter Kate Starling feels a profound connection to the southwestern Utah terrain. Its multi-hued geology, expansive skies, and red-rock canyons speak volumes to her about nature’s power and the significance of familiar ground. As she expresses it, “The Southwest is a landscape stripped down to bare bones and light. It has an endless ability to move me.”

Southwestern Utah is a land of contrasts, an often stark stage upon which plants and wildlife struggle for survival. Starling finds unique beauty in this harsh landscape. She confidently wields the soft, restrained palette of a desert landscape. Her subtle hues portray the intensity of sun and heat, of red rock and blue sky. In RIVER CLIFFS, for example, the artist gracefully expresses nature’s balance of light and dark. She explores the play of a dazzling sun on Navajo sandstone, the deep shadows of distant cliffs, and the surface reflections of a life-giving stream edged with green tamarisk. “I’ve come to realize that I think more about the natural world when I’m painting, more than simply considering the raw information of light and shadow, form and composition,” says Starling. “But at the end of the day, the painting lives or dies because the basic elements of design work or not.”

She was inspired to paint LAMBING SEASON during a river trip with her family on the San Juan River. She was sitting in camp late in the afternoon—the dusty foliage and boulders casting mauve shadows on the desert floor—when across the river, 20 to 25 big horn sheep slowly made their way down the hillside to drink at the water’s edge. “It was all moms and babies,” she remembers. “I was already interested in the dominant diagonal rock outcropping in shadow and had made a little sketch of it when the sheep moved in and added drama.”

Inspiration is often close at hand for Starling’s compositions. As she says, “Two years ago a big flood came down North Creek, not too far from my house. It scoured the creek bed clean and exposed the bare bones of the canyon. I’m finding endless compositions that play off the high contrast of deep shadow and bright light along with the reflections in the water.”

Raised in Phoenix, AZ, Starling has always loved being outdoors. After high school she obtained a degree in geology and worked as a geologist for an oil company, first in California and then in Texas. In the mid-1980s, she and her husband, Jim, moved to a small town near Utah’s Zion National Park, where they worked for the park service. Kate, who had been creating art since her earliest memories, now attended nearby Southern Utah University to study drawing and painting. It was there that she met Yu Ji, her most important mentor and a continuing influence on her work.

An accomplished artist and teacher, trained at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, Yu Ji taught Starling the basic principles of art, emphasized an understanding of form in space, and was adamant about the importance of painting directly from nature. “Kate came to my class with a casual interest in painting, but she soon became very serious, working in oils and fine-tuning her skills,” he says. “Kate quickly became the top student in the class, not only because of her natural talent in reading a scene, but also because of her patience and ability to remain focused both in and out of the classroom.”

Starling and Yu Ji have now been close friends and colleagues for 26 years, and his admiration for her determination and ability continues to grow. “I am always intrigued by Kate’s paintings. She gives each scene such lyrical rhythm, combining bold brush strokes with resonant areas of color transparency,” he continues. “I appreciate her intellectual curiosity and sense of humor, her continuing willingness to stretch herself as an artist.”

When Jim was transferred to a remote Alaskan bush area, Starling decided to go to graduate school and entered a painting program at the University of Oregon. Shortly afterward, the couple returned to southern Utah. They rigged up a heavy-duty easel on their Toyota Land Cruiser to handle canvases as large as 40 by 60 inches, enabling Starling to bring an immediacy and energy to her work that can be difficult to achieve in the studio. Starling endeavored to follow Yu Ji’s instructions: “Paint what you see, not what you think you understand about a scene.”

Today, after 15 years of completing paintings entirely on site, Starling spends a bit more time in her studio working from reference material she has gathered. Several days a week she is outdoors, inspired by the landscapes within an hour or so of her home, completing field studies, taking photographs, and searching for compositions that reveal the intrinsic beauty of the Southwest. “I’m drawn to high contrasts, to light shining hard on a surface, casting shadows around it. I look for sites where I can play with those elements,” she explains.

Starling’s studio is in the home she and Jim built in a rural area of the state not far from Zion National Park. Natural light pours in from a large, north-facing window. Returning from her field work, Starling lays out a composition in her sketchbook and then begins to block in shapes with a brush on a lightly toned canvas. Working in a traditional manner from darks to lights, she tries to capture the heart of a scene, keeping it fresh, limiting details to just what is needed to reveal its essence. She strives to trigger a sense of recognition in those who view her paintings. Working on one canvas at a time, Starling brings each painting to near completion, then sets it aside, perhaps adding a few details before declaring it finished.

Early on in her art career, Starling became an adept multi-tasker. When her children were small, she’d wait until Jim came home from work and then take off outdoors to paint through the remainder of the day and early evening. Now that her children are 14 and 11, she gets outside regularly to seek new ideas and inspiration, returning to work in her studio as family activities bustle around her. Her children and their friends are in and out, the phone rings, the duties of motherhood intervene. Across the road, her mother runs a thriving organic garden, growing produce for restaurants and farmers’ markets. The whole family pitches in to help. They also can the excess produce and raise chickens for eggs. It can get hectic. In contrast, Starling often listens to books on tape on a wide range of topics, from fiction to science, but she also values the rare, quieter moments in her studio when no one else is around.

Being an artist can be a solitary existence at times, a challenge for Starling, who calls herself “a very social person.” But she counters those hours of isolation with activities with family, neighbors, and a group of close friends from the art world who take backcountry painting trips together. “Now that I think about it,” she adds, “I spend a lot of time with food. Both of the kids like to cook and bake so we enjoy our time in the kitchen. One of my favorite things in life is having dinner parties.”

Starling’s artwork has won recognition at numerous shows and has brought her to the attention of museums and galleries. “Kate’s work is refreshingly honest. The viewer is transported to the landscapes she portrays,” says Joyice Gere, owner of El Prado by the Creek in Sedona, AZ. “As a plein-air artist Kate has learned to capture the essence of a scene in a manner that leaves just enough to the viewer’s own imagination. She strikes that perfect balance of realism and impressionism.”

Starling is the rare individual who has found contentment in her own corner of the world. She is fully immersed in the riches of her everyday life, her family, her career, and the constantly surprising beauty of her home ground. When asked what she likes most about being a professional artist, Starling says, “It’s the fulfillment of a dream. I’m astonished I get to do this. It fulfills my need to be outside whenever I want to, off the beaten track, by myself, yet it also meshes with everything else of importance in my life.”

Settlers West Galleries, Tucson, AZ; El Prado by the Creek, Sedona, AZ; Williams Fine Art, Salt Lake City, UT; Worthington Gallery, Springdale, UT; Bingham Gallery, Mt. Carmel, UT; www.kstarling.com.

Solo show, Williams Fine Art, November 20-December 1.
The Great American West Show, Settlers West Galleries, November 21.

Featured in October 2009