Kate Sammons incorporates a lifetime of aesthetic journeys into her still-life and figurative work
by Norman Kolpas
This story was featured in the June 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art June 2013 print issue, or get the Southwest Art June 2013 digital download now…Or better yet, just subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss a story!
Consider the mastery evident in any figurative or still-life painting by Kate Sammons—its harmonious composition, its flawlessly realistic rendering, its fresh and expressive take on even the most familiar subjects—and you can’t help but think that this is the work of a woman who was born to be an artist. So it may come as a surprise to learn that Sammons doesn’t recall a particular childhood moment when she realized she wanted to become a painter. She admits, in fact, to “a lack of interest in any studies” in art during high school, a time when so many teens begin to focus on their career paths.
That may have been due to the fact that Sammons’ entire childhood was so deeply steeped in a broad range of aesthetic activities, it simply took her a while to hone in on one particular pursuit. Her life has often seemed like an artistic odyssey. After accumulating a list of travels and studies far beyond those of most artists twice her age, her diverse and well-honed interests have, at last, found powerful focus, and they continue to inform and enrich every one of her paintings.
Born in 1972 in Seoul, South Korea, Sammons was adopted at the age of 1 and spent her childhood in Urbana-Champaign, IL. Her mother, who became a hospice nurse, and her father, who coordinated correspondence courses at the University of Illinois, raised Kate and her younger brother and sister in a home where cultural pursuits were paramount. “They severely limited our television,” she recalls with a smile. “My earliest memories of artistic inspiration were my mother taking me to the opera. When I was in kindergarten, my teacher asked the class what our favorite TV shows were, and I said that my favorite operas were Don Giovanni and Madame Butterfly.”
Opera instilled in her “the whole thrill of seeing the theatrical spectacle, the costumes and the colors,” she says. Six years of classic piano studies also expanded her “sensitivity to artistic things, to rhythm and pattern.” Her love of opera and music inspired her to read about those subjects, which introduced her, in turn, to the visual artists who collaborated on operas. Books began to steep her young mind in fine art, as did regular visits to the Art Institute of Chicago. “I was struck by the presence of great oil paintings in person,” she remembers. “Their impact was so powerful, and I couldn’t think of anything that was more beautiful or more awe-inspiring.” Soon she had become a fan of 19th- and 20th-century artists as diverse as John Singer Sargent and Henri Matisse, Andrew Wyeth and Jim Dine, Vincent van Gogh and Francis Bacon—as well as the illustrators of countless classic books of mythology, folk tales, and fairy tales she loved to read.
Yes, she also liked to draw. “But mostly I drew things that were right in front of me. I copied the Sunday comics. When you’re a kid, you’re fairly successful if you can reproduce Garfield. During middle school, I drew a lot of fashion sketches and heads from glamour magazines.”
Others took notice of her talent. On and off from the age of 13, her parents enrolled her in Saturday figure-drawing classes offered through the nearby university campus. In high school, her art teacher recommended her to draw the yearbook cover and submitted a watercolor of Sammons’ that went on to win a statewide competition. “But I didn’t take those accomplishments seriously,” she admits.
Sammons needed time to think more deeply about her goals. “I took a little hiatus of five or six years to cut loose and explore,” she says of the time following her graduation from high school. Eventually, she returned home intent on pursuing art. But first, she says, “I needed to get a job to pay my way through school, so I trained for a professional certificate in hairstyling. I didn’t realize it at the time, but with its very flexible hours, it was the perfect profession to do while studying art.”
In 2002, Sammons earned a bachelor of fine arts in painting at the University of Illinois campus in her hometown. The studies provided a useful foundation in art history, theory, and analysis, she says. Through the university’s Japan studies department, she also spent a month that year at Nihon University in Tokyo, studying traditional woodblock printing, the Japanese art of flower arranging called ikebana, and the tea ceremony. Japan was “a huge artistic discovery, where I experienced an aesthetic culture fully integrated into daily life,” Sammons says.
Nonetheless, she left Illinois “really wanting to learn how to draw well and paint well.” And that, she realized, would require a more classical, atelier-style training.
Research led her to enroll in a one-year program in classical drawing at the school of respected figurative painter Michael John Angel: the Angel Academy of Art in Florence, Italy. It was “a very disciplined experience,” she says of the course, which largely focused on completing a set of Bargue drawings, a curriculum of almost 200 lithographs designed for copying to learn drawing fundamentals, originally created and published between 1866 and 1871 by the French artist Charles Bargue in collaboration with his friend, the painter and sculptor Jean-Léon Gérôme. “That was the start of my ability to develop my eye,” Sammons says. “I came away with a very refined sense of accuracy in drawing.” And weekend travels around Florence and to Rome and Venice enabled her to see “some of the really great artworks of the Renaissance and the Baroque, which was a very moving and broadening experience.”
Still, Sammons felt she had yet more to learn. Back in the States, she took a workshop in Philadelphia from the renowned portraitist and teacher Nelson Shanks. She was so impressed with his approach that she went on to enroll in two years of figurative and portrait studies at his Studio Incamminati—all the while steeping herself in the artistic treasures at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Barnes Foundation, and the works and studios of the Wyeths at the Brandywine River Museum.
In 2006, at a point when most painters would have felt more than prepared to launch themselves as full-time professionals, Sammons, with sensibilities and sensitivities already fine tuned by a lifetime of aesthetic immersion, still believed something was lacking in her artistic arsenal. “I felt I had gained a lot of fundamental skills to build a painting,” she says. “But I wasn’t able to grasp the precision, polish, and finish I was hoping to incorporate. And I began looking for an atelier that could offer that.”
She found the place about two hours north of Philadelphia at The Waichulis Studio (now the Ani Art Academies Waichulis), the atelier of acclaimed representational painter Anthony Waichulis. “I immediately admired his paintings,” she says. “They had all the polish and finish I was hoping to incorporate in my own work, and he offered intimate instruction in a very small atelier with just five or six students at different levels.” She stayed there three and a half years, all the while still making a living as a hairdresser in her spare time. “And by the end of the program,” she concludes, “I felt very comfortable with being established as an artist.”
By the time she’d earned her journeyman certificate from Waichulis in 2010, her work was already garnering national recognition from the likes of the Portrait Society of America and the National Portrait Gallery, and she signed with her first gallery shortly after completing her studies. Later that year, she moved to Los Angeles to accept a teaching position at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art and to be with fellow figurative artist Adrian Gottlieb, with whom she’d had a long-distance relationship since 2007. They both live and work in a warehouse studio/loft complex on a quiet backstreet not far from downtown Los Angeles. “Adrian is an energetic and passionate painter who is constantly pushing himself to accomplish more in his work and expand his horizons,” she says. “At the same time, he can be funny and warm and enjoys lightening a serious day in the studio with jokes and stories.”
And Sammons is at last spending her days in the studio full time as an artist, having quit teaching last year—and having long since bidden farewell to hairdressing—to “focus on my gallery work.”
One thing she hasn’t left behind, though, is her lifelong quest for knowledge and growth. In recent works like MOONDREAMS—a moody figurative piece of a sleeping woman whose dreams materialize as part of the background—Sammons has begun, with great self-assurance, to move her work to yet another level.
“I have always strived for three elements in my paintings: balance, refinement, and originality,” she says. “But as I continue to live and work as a painter, my paintings have taken on a more intimate feeling and reflect a broader spectrum of human sentiments.” So she now adds “expressiveness” to that list of elements for which she strives, seeking to engage viewers more actively with each painting. “It’s important to me that my work not only expresses my most elevated feelings toward life—spirituality, awe, inspiration, love—to myself alone, but also communicates universal human sentiments that are felt by other people as well.”
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