By Bonnie Gangelhoff
Painting tableaux of sometimes unconventional subjects, Katherine Ace layers her work with hidden meaning
When she was 8 months old, Katherine Ace’s life was marked by a seminal moment that would linger in her imagination for years to come. In the 1950s, a traveling photographer came to her family’s home in Chicago, and Ace’s mother hired him to take baby pictures. For reasons that remain unknown, the photographer decided to pose infant Katherine in a roasting pan usually reserved for the family’s pot roast. Placing a pencil behind her ear, the photographer snapped away. So it is that decades later, when asked to provide a photograph of herself for this story, Ace replies without missing a beat, “Can I use a baby photo?”
Ace, who is admittedly private, chose not to send a current photo but noted that one of her paintings, self-portrait somewhere else, says a lot about her and her work. The large-scale still-life piece is rich with quintessential Ace characteristics—sumptuous fruits and flowers, mysterious narratives, references to art history, miniature replicas of ancient sculptures, and lushly textured fabrics. Beneath the table setting, photographs and magazine articles are scattered across the floor. The tableaux resembles a Dutch still-life painting gone amok.
“Did you see the photograph of me with Picasso?” Ace asks, pausing a few moments for impact. Then the artist points out, in deadpan fashion, that in the lower left-hand corner there is an image of her standing next to a figure of Picasso that is on view at Madame Tussauds wax museum in London.
Spend some time with Ace and it becomes clear that her sly, subtle sense of humor permeates her persona as well as her art. Careful perusal of self-portrait somewhere else reveals other intriguing elements: Is that Ace’s face on the rendering of Leonardo da Vinci’s mona lisa? Does the image of a baby in the newspaper on the table have special significance?
There are so many layers of meaning inhabiting Ace’s artwork that it’s difficult to know where to begin spinning the inventive painter’s story. Perhaps the best place to start is the obvious one—the first thing Sigmund Freud might say after hearing the roasting-pan story: Tell me about your childhood.
Ace was born on the south side of Chicago, a neighborhood with a tough reputation at the time, she says. “My baby buggy and doll were stolen once,” the artist jokes. When she was 4, the family moved to Elmhurst, a quieter suburb, and Ace can’t remember a time when she wasn’t interested in drawing or painting. “I think I was born an artist,” she says.
When Ace turned 10, her mother signed her up for an art class at the renowned Art Institute of Chicago, and she fell in love with the smell of studios—specifically the aroma of oil paint. At 14, she received her first set of paints, and her parents set up a discarded wooden table in the basement, turning the space into a makeshift studio. “That’s all I needed—an unfinished basement with no lighting and a couple of paints, period,” she recalls.
Her parents designated the area her terrain, Ace recalls, and promised that she didn’t have to keep it neat and tidy. They also honored her request to work uninterrupted. If friends called, her parents told the callers she wasn’t at home. After school, the budding young artist painted, anywhere from 30 minutes to five hours into the night.
At 16, Ace created her first painting with palette knives, experimenting with different styles. She recalls that early one morning, about 3 a.m., she was painting when a freak accident occurred. As she was trying to dig the last little bit of paint out of a tube with a palette knife, the knife slipped, dug into her thumb, and deposited yellow and black paint underneath her skin. “It was really annoying, but the colors were great with the red of the blood,” Ace says. Undaunted, she pulled the palette knife out, tied a rag around her thumb, and continued. “It was my Van Gogh moment.”
After high school, Ace briefly attended Ithaca College in New York and then transferred to Knox College in Galesburg, IL, where she studied ceramics and painting. In her junior year, on a whim, she dropped out of school and moved to New Orleans. Renting a one-room apartment in the French Quarter, she worked in a gallery, served drinks at a restaurant, and painted pastel portraits of tourists exploring Jackson Square.
When she returned to college, her advisers asked to see her artwork from New Orleans—she had also created oil pastel drawings in her free time. The professors were so impressed that they agreed to give her a year’s credit, and Ace eventually graduated in 1975. She considered graduate school but decided against it for two reasons: The role of women in art was narrowly defined, and their work was not always accepted as valid, she says; and the schools tended to target abstract expressionists. “I love abstract expressionism, but it’s not me,” she explains.
At the time she was refusing to play “the art game,” Ace says. And her New Orleans sojourn turned out to be the beginning a vagabond period filled with a host of moves and jobs—what she calls a “fringe existence.” Between 1974 and 1990, Ace crisscrossed the United States, residing in three beach towns, two mountain ranges, remote rural areas, and major cities—never staying in one place for very long. At one point she made her living as a potter in Vermont, and a few years later she painted portraits of gamblers at a hotel in Reno, NV—a low point, she recalls. Ace remembers setting up her easel in a casino gallery and waiting for customers to stop by. “Many of them were cowboys who wanted something to send back to their moms,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘This is a big joke, me sitting under a clown painting, painting cowboys.’ It was a real down moment for me.”
Eventually her means of support became more rewarding. In 1980, she moved to Nevada City, CA, and then to the San Francisco Bay Area. During the next decade, she established a successful business in commercial art, with clients ranging from publishing company Simon & Schuster to rock groups like Motley Crue. “It all turned out to be a fabulous education,” she says. In her spare time, Ace continued to paint. But in 1989, when the Loma Prieta earthquake shook the Bay Area, Ace was married with a young daughter and decided it was time for the family to head north to Oregon for a more affordable and desirable quality of life.
For the past 16 years, Ace has been comfortably ensconced in Portland. The city suits her, she says. Her neighborhood in the southwestern section is scenic, with rolling hills and a quiet atmosphere conducive to painting. And she notes that the City of Roses boasts an unusually supportive art community.
These days, her world revolves around her daughter Corinna, 18, and her art. (She is now divorced.) “I live very much of my life in the studio,” she says. “It is, alongside with my daughter, where my life really happens.” Her studio is situated, in part, in the basement of her home, which harks back comfortably to her childhood days. The space includes an attached workshop with a 14-foot-high roof punctuated by a skylight. It also boasts two easels on pulleys, so she can crank her large-scale canvases up and down since she prefers to stand while painting. Not surprisingly, given Ace’s subject matter, her studio is generously stocked with found objects, including toys, figurines, fabrics, and insect collections.
For Ace, a painting usually begins with an image in her mind but no clear idea of the finished work. The tableaux are inspired by what she sees, memories, photographs, historical references, and sometimes by accident. “I have always used part reality and part ‘other lenses,’” she explains.
Often the painter is compelled by sheer curiosity. The inspiration for self-portrait somewhere else, for example, came from people telling her that she should paint a self-portrait because artists throughout history have done so. She wasn’t entirely convinced and decided to investigate the topic thoroughly first. As she explored art history books, she discovered that many women have used their likeness as subjects but in unique ways.
“It started me thinking on a deeper psychological level about who I am, and the fact that I have never quite lived my life as ‘Here’s me,’ but rather ‘This is what I am interested in and passionate about.’” The last thing Ace added to self-portrait somewhere else was a depiction of her outstretched arm holding a pair of scissors on the right-hand side of the painting. The shears allude to her presence as well as her penchant for clipping and collaging various images into her paintings.
What fascinates Ace most, she says, is the intersection of opposites: agony and ecstasy, humor and tragedy, reality and imagination. “I am interested in the role of dark feelings, thoughts, and states of mind; I am drawn to the fire beneath reserve,” she says.
Ace is also attracted to water imagery. In her hypogean purview, a woman treads water amid a bevy of fish beneath the water’s surface while her companion swims nearby. Are the fish friend or foe? Is the figure drowning or simply enjoying the beauty of the sea? As usual, the piece inspires questions. And as usual, Ace hesitates to offer too much explanation. She does comment, however, that the two figures in the water are a visual inquiry of sorts on how humans are connected to each other and other forms of life—a reoccurring theme in her paintings.
The piece also provides a good example of how Ace handles paint. Its surface ranges from smooth brush strokes to thick impasto sections applied with a palette knife. To further add to the texture, Ace has embedded plastic beaded stickpins that are not visible from a distance but catch the light and give what one observer has called “a flickering, rippling quality to the painting surface to great effect.” In other paintings, Ace has incorporated buttons, fishhooks, miniature human figures, silver charms, feathers, and insect wings.
Ace says she focuses on representational art but approaches the canvas in an abstract style reminiscent of Jackson Pollock. “I throw paint at the canvas and sculpt the surface using painting knives, nails, pins, bottle brushes—anything that is lying around—into the surface,” she explains.
Today, her gypsy artist period is but a distant memory, Ace relates. She has no desire to move again. Her adventures now unfold in the studio, where she continues to examine and re-examine what she wants to express in her art. “I know it sounds corny, but lately I’m looking at painting from deep in my heart,” she says. “I want my art to take me to someplace completely unexpected.”
Ace is represented by Froelick Gallery, Portland, OR; Woodside/Braseth Gallery, Seattle, WA; and Hidell Brooks Gallery, Charlotte, NC.
Featured in May 2006