Kathy Anderson leads viewers on a passionate journey into nature
By Norman Kolpas
This story was featured in the April 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art April 2013 print issue, or get the Southwest Art April 2013 digital download now…Or better yet, just subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss a story!
Electric-blue morning glories spill down a garden wall, intertwining with snowy white geraniums. Lilies, roses, and pansies spring from the ground in a riot of whites, reds, and greens. From behind a shadowy tree trunk, a young deer peers shyly, camouflaged by golden and ochre autumn foliage. Kathy Anderson’s paintings look so, well, natural. Any particular work, be it a floral still life, a scene from a garden, or a woodland landscape, seems so vibrantly alive that it feels as if the artist had miraculously snatched it from nature and transferred it directly to canvas.
Watch Anderson in the midst of composing one of her oils, however, and a very different impression soon emerges. “When I am getting ready to do a painting,” she says, “I’ll take glass flower tubes with me so I can cut and move flowers, if it’s appropriate,” she says. “Or I’ll use bungee cords to hold branches out of the way,” she adds, a trick she has used while painting trees en plein air.
“Something in nature may be perfect,” she continues, “but it’s very rare that it will be perfect for a painting. Whether I’m in my studio or outdoors, I move things around constantly. I’m definitely helping out nature.”
Lest that admission give the impression Anderson thinks she’s got an edge on Mother Nature’s own powers, she hastens to explain the reason behind such efforts. “The design, for me, is the most important stage of making a painting,” she says. “I’m looking for some kind of a path or movement through it, some kind of sign or feeling that it’s perfect.” In other words, she wants each of her works to distill the very essence of nature for the viewer—to bring alive, at a glance, a scene and the spirit behind it with an immediacy and power that may have taken the artist herself hours, days, or even many weeks or months to grasp.
Flowers and art have shared Anderson’s heart as far back as she can recall. In fact, flowers trump art as a lifelong passion. Born in New York 67 years ago, she grew up on Long Island in a home surrounded by a well-tended garden. “There were peonies and roses everywhere,” she remembers. “And wherever we went, my mother was drawn to the flowers.” Young Kathy shared that attraction.
Though she long enjoyed drawing, she doesn’t recall receiving any particular art lessons until high school. “That was when I did my first painting ever,” she says. “I copied a picture of geese in a field.” The painting still hangs on her wall. “It’s really good,” she adds with a self-deprecating laugh. So, when the time came for her to apply to college, the path seemed clear. “I loved art,” she says, “and I didn’t know what else to do.”
Wanting to pursue painting and drawing in a way that might lead to a career, she enrolled in the advertising art and design program at the State University of New York’s Farmingdale campus, not far from home. But it turned out there were no metaphorical glass tubes or bungee cords that could make that particular path a pleasurable journey for her. “I just hated coming up with concepts and ideas for advertisements or doing precision airbrushing of the image of a stapler,” she admits. At least one good thing came of the program before she left it, she says: “I must have learned to do watercolors there.”
Watercolors, in fact, became Anderson’s way into the working artist’s life as she eventually married John, her husband now for 43 years, and became a stay-at-home mom to two boys, now 36 and 34 years old. “I painted watercolors of flowers and animals and entered them into those outdoor shows where you hang things on makeshift structures under the blazing sun,” she says. Then a small gallery in Connecticut, where the family had settled, picked up her works, and she had a show in the local library. After a while, Anderson also began to add oil paintings to the watercolors she displayed and sold.
And so it continued until her older son was in high school, when Anderson found herself volunteering to paint a 20-by-40-foot backdrop for the school’s production of West Side Story. “That was the first time I ever worked big,” she says, going on to explain a personal trait that has always served her well: “Whenever anybody asks me to do something, I always say yes, and then I figure it out.”
Large-scale work suited her. So, of course, she said yes again when two friends who did faux finishing for a living asked her to paint six huge arched windows and the entire back room of a design store they were opening in the town of Westport. “I based the back room on Monet’s paintings of Giverny,” she relates. “It was an enormous project, and I worked on it for months.”
Its successful outcome led Anderson into a new field, as a successful muralist working on commission, while also frequently doing oil paintings for exhibition and sale in area galleries and outdoor shows. And just as her mural business began to die out in the late 1990s, and she was worrying about how she could continue making a living as an artist, another turning point came—perhaps the most significant in her career.
At a summer outdoor show in 2000, Anderson learned that an oil she had painted of pansies had been bought by Richard Schmid, one of the most celebrated and respected realist artists living today. The following year at the same show, Schmid did a painting demo, and Anderson, urged by a friend, “very shyly went up to him.” She introduced herself as the painter of those pansies and asked, “Could I sign up for one of your workshops?” Schmid very kindly informed her that he didn’t really teach workshops but that he invited a select assembly of artists for regular group painting sessions in and near his home studio in Putney, VT.
“Come paint with us,” Schmid told her.
As simply but profoundly as that, Anderson became one of the Putney Painters, a group of a couple dozen or so accomplished artists who have been assembling 16 or more times a year. They work side by side under the warm welcome and occasional mentorship of Schmid and his wife Nancy Guzik, herself an acclaimed painter known for portraits and still lifes executed in an exuberant realist style.
For Anderson, the benefits of working regularly in Putney began to emerge right away. “What I first realized was that you could actually make a living as a painter,” she says with a sigh of relief. “But that was probably the smallest piece of the puzzle.”
Buoyed by the support of like-minded people, and occasionally guided by incisive but gentle demonstrations and advice from Schmid and Guzik, Anderson saw her already-good work steadily get better. “I lacked so much knowledge in my painting,” she says. “Improving was a very slow process that built and built and built until I finally got it—not one moment but a million moments of really working at it with discipline and passion.”
Over the past decade-plus of painting regularly in Putney and almost daily in and around the spacious studio of her garden-surrounded home in the Connecticut town of Redding, Anderson’s own burgeoning artistry has steadily won respect and recognition nationwide. She now belongs to such prestigious organizations as the Oil Painters of America, the National Arts Club, and New York’s Salmagundi Club, and she has been invited to participate in a slew of major events and shows—including, for the eighth consecutive year, this summer’s Telluride Plein Air.
Her productivity has grown accordingly, too. “I’m maybe working actively on three or four or five paintings at a time,” she says. “I can paint from morning til night, but not on the same painting. When I get drained from one, I can easily pick up another.” As much as possible, she likes to paint from life—or at least start her canvases from life and on location, then finish them in her studio. During warmer months, she says, she’s “following the flowers, doing a lot of really strong block-ins roughly drawn with my paintbrush, plus color notes,” for works she’ll complete later in her studio “from photos I take or from my head.”
A painting will never leave her studio before she follows a lesson learned from Nancy Guzik. “I look over every single spot,” she says, “and make sure it’s beautiful, even if it’s an unfinished brush stroke. To me, that’s the most exciting part of the process.”
Such enthusiasm epitomizes an artist who is now in, you might say, the full flowering of her professional career. “I have so much fun,” says Anderson. And, in the spirit of her regular Putney pilgrimages, she looks ever forward to improving her already formidable skills. “The great American portrait painter Everett Raymond Kinstler, when asked what he thought was the best painting he ever did, said, ‘The next one.’ That’s what I think. I will never put out something that I don’t think is my best work, ever. I can’t wait to see what I can solve, what I can do, on my next painting.”
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