K.L. McKenna | The Call of The West

K.L. McKenna paints a contemporary vision of her first love

By Elizabeth L. Delaney

K.L. McKenna, The Hole in the Wall, WY, 34 x 64.

K.L. McKenna, The Hole in the Wall, WY, 34 x 64.

This story was featured in the August 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art August 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

Artist K.L. McKennahas always been happy on the East Coast, living in upstate New York among forested glens and tree-covered mountains. However, she has never felt called to paint that part of the world. Instead she looks west for creative inspiration, continuing a love affair that began long ago, when she went on digs with her paleontologist father and spent summers at her grandparents’ Colorado ranch.

The archeological digs came first, when she accompanied her father on field excursions to sites in Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana. There she connected deeply with the wide-open spaces and expansive skies. “I go back to those same places to try and capture those same feelings,” says the artist of her creative drive. “There’s a geology out West that’s visible and interesting, and that’s what I like to paint.”

And so, regardless of where she hangs her proverbial hat, McKenna lives and breathes the immense, unadulterated spaces of the American West. Her expressive, color-rich compositions reveal its unique energy and light, while also serving as contemporary hallmarks of its beauty and history.

“Since I was a small child, I’ve always approached life from an unorthodox and idiosyncratic angle,” says McKenna. She has routinely chosen pictorial avenues to investigate the world around her. When she was learning fractions, she would draw geometric shapes in order to understand them. In college, she produced a photographic essay instead of writing the paper she had been assigned. While recognizing this as innate behavior, McKenna also gives a nod to her first-grade teacher, who encouraged her to embrace her own expressive character at an early age. In fact, after learning about artists like Klee, Kandinsky, and Miró, young Katharine figured that making art was the crux of school.

Although her assumptions about school changed once she advanced into more academic classes, McKenna carried with her that love of abstract expression and visual problem-solving. In high school, she took up photography, spending all her free time in the darkroom she had constructed at home. McKenna graduated from Wesleyan University with a degree in American studies and anthropology, and after spending time working for an exhibition designer in New York City, she returned to school and earned a master’s degree in industrial design from Pratt Institute. She then began working with computers, designing graphical user interfaces for corporate clients.

After years in the technology industry, McKenna felt that she needed a change. A visit with a career counselor revealed what she had been longing for that had remained under the surface: a return to the unfettered expression she had experienced as a child. When the counselor asked what McKenna would regret never having done when looking back on her life, she answered, “I would regret never doing one painting.” It was in that moment she realized, I’m supposed to be a painter! She picked up canvas and brushes, sought out instruction, and dove headlong into a new life as a fine artist.

Today, McKenna continues to live and work in her longtime home of Woodstock, NY. Her paintings have been shown at the Rockwell Museum, the Booth Western Art Museum, the Yellowstone Art Museum, the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, and the Desert Caballeros Western Museum, where she won the People’s Choice Award at the 2015 Cowgirl Up! exhibition. Her work is also featured in the permanent collections of the Rockwell Museum, the Booth Museum, the Desert Caballeros Western Museum, and the Woodstock Artists Association & Museum. In addition to painting and exhibiting, McKenna teaches at the Woodstock School of Art, where she offers an ongoing painting class for beginners and an intensive four-day color workshop based on the theories of abstract painter Josef Albers (1888-1976).

McKenna began her foray into the fine-art world painting figures and still lifes under the tutelage of her seasoned instructor in Woodstock, who could trace his own art-education roots back to Matisse’s teacher. When he was no longer able to teach, McKenna decided to get out of the studio and turn her attention to the landscape, in particular to the open spaces that had enchanted her as a child. She set out for points west, in search of the big skies and mountain vistas she had visited on her father’s digs.

Today, McKenna’s annual pilgrimages out West are an integral part of her life. Every summer, she and her husband load up their RV and make the cross-country drive, seeking out new places and visiting ones she has known for years. “My paintings of the West begin on site, where I have spent my summers for over 40 years. The reds of Wyoming and Arizona, the brilliant
yellows and greens of Colorado and Montana, are my passion and inspiration,” she says. This past summer saw treks to their favorite ranch and the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming, and to her family’s ranch near Boulder, CO. She has additional plans to visit New Mexico later in the year.

McKenna takes a carpe diem approach to her creative practice, relishing the adventure inherent in each new canvas. “I never know how a painting will turn out,” she says. “It’s the surprises along the way that excite me and that I learn from. Suddenly, there is a new color combination or a new shape I didn’t know I could create before. It’s an ongoing process, and whatever I learn from the last painting carries over to the next one.”

Though they end up as stylized expressions of her encounters with the land, McKenna’s paintings originate as plein-air studies. She begins each piece on site, where she arranges the composition and captures the immediate feel of the environment. Then, in her studio, she can experiment with color, value, shape, and line to elicit the energy and emotion she experienced while interacting with the landscape. She paints subjects she has previously identified as well as scenes that just happen to find her. “Sometimes I’ll follow a dirt road and let it tell me where to go,” she says.

McKenna describes her style as one inherited from the post-Impressionists via her own teachers, and she employs certain elements in her work that reflect their philosophies and aesthetics, including an emphasis on line and a flattening of the picture plane. “That is basically how I approach a scene,” she explains. “I don’t approach it from some kind of perspective. I try to approach it as though it was already flat, on two dimensions, and then try to capture different shapes that are captured by boundaries.” She enjoys the gestural quality of mark-making and how the movement of her arm translates to movement on the canvas—trees swaying, clouds building, or light shimmering.

“The line and space in my compositions combine abstract elements with the figurative, which are sculpturally fused by bright color,” says the artist, who regards color as being on par with the landscape as her other great aesthetic passion. “The landscape becomes a platform for me to experiment with color, in essence, combining two things I love on one canvas,” she says.

Ultimately, McKenna sets out to generate energy through color and the subsequent light it produces. She layers pigment upon pigment in complex arrays of warm and cool, complementary and analogous, tint and shade, forging nuanced hues on the surface. She remarks, “My basic philosophy is that there is no such thing as one color. I apply oil paint to canvas through
a process of layering paint and letting it dry between applications in order to successfully build a matrix of interacting color. Each painting has three to five applications of dried paint. The more interactive it is, the happier I feel.”

Throughout her career, McKenna has learned a great deal about the technical aspects of painting, honing her color technique and establishing her own voice. “When you look at the body of work, you can see progression over time, instead of the same painting one after the next. It is in this manner that I feel each one of my paintings has its own personality and purpose, although
not without a greater voice that is unique to me as a painter,” says McKenna. Moreover, she has learned not to judge her own work, to let each painting resolve the way it needs to, both visually and psychologically.

Even as her vibrant paintings engage viewers with dynamic aesthetics, so too do they embody the artist’s narrative of personal exploration and reverence for the land that inspires her. Concerned about the growing decline of natural spaces at the hands of industry and overpopulation, McKenna seeks to capture the purity of space and spirit alike in the scenes she paints. “It’s like I’m documenting places that still maintain the feeling of remoteness,” she says. “It’s like a visual poem honoring that place.”

She also aims to evoke the sense of adventure she feels when exploring the captivating western landscape—not unlike a visual exposition mirroring the digs she went on with her father. She describes her artist’s journey as akin to going down the Yellow Brick Road and documenting her discoveries. “That’s how I feel these places are for me,” she explains. “You don’t know what’s at the end.”

Hanson Gallery Fine Art, Sausalito, CA; R Alexander Fine Art, Norcross, GA; Visions West Contemporary, Livingston, MT, Denver, CO, and Jackson, WY.

This story was featured in the August 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art August 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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