Katie Dobson Cundiff | Quest For Meaning

Katie Dobson Cundiff embraces her true calling

by Elizabeth L. Delaney

Katie Dobson Cundiff, Fernandina Boat Docks, oil, 24 x 36.

Katie Dobson Cundiff, Fernandina Boat Docks, oil, 24 x 36.

This story was featured in the July 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  July 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

Florida artist Katie Dobson Cundiff channels the spirit of her surroundings into colorful, vibrant impressions in paint. Her passion for making art, coupled with her love of the outdoors, finds her working en plein air as often as she can, despite weather conditions or challenging environments. She has painted in the jungle, adjacent to forbidden farmland, and while floating down a river in a kayak—all the while fulfilling the dream that began as a young child.

Cundiff grew up in Chicago. The daughter of artists, she was intrigued by the prospects of creativity from the beginning. Her earliest memories of art were part of the nightly bedtime routine in her house. As her mother readied the other children for bed, she would place Katie in a chair next to her illustrator father while he worked in his studio. Katie would watch as he drew, fascinated by his tools and techniques. Cundiff says she cherished the time she spent in that studio—watching, and even drawing and painting alongside her father—and she continued the practice well into her teenage years. “It was part of my life,” she recalls. “I think I really grew by being around him and having all these materials available to me.”

Her father decided to formally teach her when she was 14 years old, after he discovered some sketches she had made by copying his National Geographic magazines. “I had a really hard teacher. But he was also a really good teacher,” she says.

Cundiff didn’t enroll in art classes at school until after she was introduced to the Ringling School of Art while on a family trip to Florida. She and her parents visited the campus, and Cundiff immediately fell in love. “When I got there and I saw the studios and all the kids drawing, and everyone was carrying paints around, I thought, ‘this is where I want to be.’” She returned home eager to add art credits to her academic transcript. She began entering illustration contests as well, for which she won a number of prizes and awards. By the time she reached her senior year, Cundiff had earned a national Scholastic Art Award. Perhaps serendipitously, the prize was a scholarship to the Ringling School of Art.

Cundiff graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, and she immediately began working with her husband, a fellow Ringling alumnus, at his business creating custom, high-end decorative art pieces. She learned to weld and sculpt in metal and ceramic. Eventually, they opened several successful retail galleries in various locations around Florida. She had put her painting dreams on hold, however. “I wasn’t really painting at all,” she says of that time. It wasn’t until they started producing t-shirts featuring renderings of local wildlife that Cundiff realized how much she missed the fine-art world. Creating the animal drawings reminded her of the two-dimensional work she had loved since childhood, and this impelled her to seek out her first love once again.

She soon traveled to Guatemala on an artists’ excursion, where she rediscovered painting among the flora and fauna of the rainforest. “That was it!” she says. After 30 years of working in the commercial arena and raising three children, Cundiff knew it was time to return to her original calling. She arrived home to Florida and immediately reached out to her father—her first mentor—to arrange weekly painting sessions. She joined local painting groups as well, and by 2000, she had returned to painting full time. Four years later she entered her first plein-air show in St. Petersburg, FL, despite a bit of hesitancy, and she won an award and sold her painting.

Today, Cundiff spends as much time as she can painting outdoors. She leads her own workshops and has also returned to her alma mater as an adjunct professor. She is a member of the Oil Painters of America, the American Impressionist Society, American Women Artists, Women Painters of the Southeast, the Cumberland Society of Painters, and Plein Air Painters of the Southeast.

Cundiff has always been drawn to painting the landscape and, in particular, manmade constructions within the landscape. She especially enjoys exploring Florida’s rural areas and coastlines, where she frequently paints the oyster and shrimp boats that populate the shores, with the goal of harnessing the distinctive vitality of indigenous, out-of-the-way environments. The “old, crusty” textures and elements found on the boats, houses, barns, and other structures provide an intriguing juxtaposition with the pristine, natural landscape. “It’s not all so pretty, but it’s interesting,” she says.

“My favorite studio is outside,” remarks Cundiff, who feels that being physically present in her subject matter allows her to connect emotionally with it as well. She sets up shop in the middle of her scene, which allows her to hone in on and subsequently evoke the subject’s unique sense of place. Further, she feels that painting outdoors allows her to channel the energy of her surroundings. “Things happen outside that you don’t expect,” she says. “That’s what adds life to the painting, and it becomes something more than just a painting. Even if the breeze comes by and leaves fly all over the place, something happens or you get the energy from what’s going on around you. That’s why I think I like being outside so much—because I feel that connection with nature.”

Cundiff paints spontaneously, preferring not to labor over each detail, or lack thereof, but to present an active impression of her subject matter. “I’m a pretty fast painter—I don’t overthink it,” she says—she considers her best paintings the ones that leave a little information to the viewer’s imagination. “I’m not concerned necessarily with making a perfect rendering of what’s there,” she explains. “I like it when there’s a suggestion of something that’s not finished and the viewer gets to paint some of the picture.” This encourages viewers to invest in or converse with the artwork, to look more deeply and experience the painting’s visual and emotional facets. “I’m trying to replicate what I see or how I feel,” says Cundiff.

Her most powerful tool in delivering on this objective is her deft and intricate use of color. She employs a wide array of hues, varying in tone and intensity, to describe temperature and climate as well as the feeling of experiencing each scene. Deep yellows may indicate the stagnant coastal heat and humidity, while fiery ocean sunsets inspire deep, bright oranges and reds. Rich blues and greens denote the verdant, lush aspects of the environment, while shades of gray evoke the tranquility of calm, cool waters.

“Color has always played an important role in my work,” explains Cundiff, “but I also feel I have just begun to see and use color more freely to describe the mood I am trying to convey. Nature is full of neutral tones as well as saturated, pure color. To see subtle changes that make big differences is a challenge.”

Despite her fast-paced brushwork, Cundiff’s color story is astute and her arrangements well thought out. Giving an in-depth look into her process, she explains, “I usually start on an untoned canvas or board. Sometimes I mix up a gray tone using pthalo blue and black mixed with some painting medium, or I may use burnt sienna. Typically, I keep darker colors thin, while brighter colors will be applied more thickly. Darks will hold the compositional elements together, but the lighter areas will contain more information or detail. My application of lighter colors is usually thicker with bolder brushwork. Sometimes I add cold wax, painting gels, or use a lot of paint and apply it with a palette knife to describe lighter, brighter, and more colorful areas. I usually mix my darks using several colors and never use pure black.” Cundiff says she has recently taken to mixing her colors directly on the canvas, rather than on the palette. This method, for her, prevents over-mixing and preserves the freshness and life of the hues.

Ultimately, Cundiff strives to convey a snapshot of her environs—the unique vibrancy and lustre they emanate in a moment of suspended time. “I like to paint pleasant pictures, to paint something that speaks to me just for the pure beauty of it,” she says.

Looking to the future, Cundiff remains enthusiastic about continuing to mine the depths of her creativity. She recently opened a new studio and is eager to flesh out new techniques and ideas, while dovetailing her plein-air explorations into larger pieces. She considers her fine-art career an ongoing quest to discover herself as an artist and has learned to trust her instincts in following her passion. “Life is a journey,” says Cundiff. “Art is a journey. You never know where it’s going to take you. You have to let nature/God/whatever take over at some point.”

Brazier Gallery, Richmond, VA; Coconut Grove Gallery, Coconut Grove, FL; East West Fine Art, Russian American Art Museum, Naples, FL; Anderson Fine Art Gallery, St. Simons Island, GA; MadeBy Gallery, Ringling College of Art, Sarasota, FL, Mountain Mist Gallery, Cashiers, NC.

This story was featured in the July 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  July 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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