Kathryn Stats has spent years capturing the wonder of the landscape
By Bonnie Gangelhoff
This story was featured in the March 2016 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art March 2016 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.
When Utah artist Kathryn Stats was a young girl, she recalls her mother offering a word of advice about career choices: Don’t become an artist. Very few people make a living at it, she warned. “Become a nurse or teacher, so you can always support your children if something happens to your husband,” she said.
Stats’ mother spoke from personal experience. Her husband, an agricultural engineer, died when Kathryn was 8 years old, and her mother, a teacher, had to support the family. As a youngster, Kathryn understood her mother’s cautionary tale, but over the years, she developed an interest in art nevertheless, even though it took some time before she made it her career.
As a child Stats often loped through the foothills of Utah’s Wasatch Range on horseback, sometimes riding from sunup to sundown. On her journeys she often encountered her uncle, LeConte Stewart [1891-1990], who taught painting classes in the rural countryside. Stewart was a prominent landscape artist and the head of the University of Utah’s art department. “I slowly began seeing the landscape through his eyes,” Stats says. “I was also living with his paintings every day because they covered the walls of our home.”
Today Stats is known for works that capture the majesty of the Utah landscape—the same places she galloped through on horseback as a child. Like her uncle, she is recognized for her talents at portraying the beauty of the western terrain without romanticizing the views. Stats’ expressive paintings depict everything from rugged geological formations to cascading waterfalls. And her body of work encompasses not only Utah’s landscape but also a range of other scenery, from Italy’s Tuscan countryside to the Pacific shores of California.
Jane Bell Meyer, who owns Illume Gallery of Fine Art, considered it “a real coup” when the award-winning artist agreed to join her gallery two years ago. “Kathryn has it all. She can paint light, dimensions, and shadows,” Meyer says. “Her paintings are alive. None are illustrative, trite, or cute. She paints traditional works but with pizazz.”
Over the years Stats has participated in numerous prestigious museum shows, including exhibitions at Oklahoma’s Gilcrease Museum and Utah’s Springville Museum of Art. She has also been featured in juried plein-air shows, such as Maynard Dixon Country in Mount Carmel, UT, and most recently her works were on view in miniatures shows at Legacy Gallery in Scottsdale, AZ, and Settlers West Galleries in Tucson, AZ.
Stats’ fine-art journey hasn’t been a conventional one. After graduating from high school in Salt Lake City, she didn’t rush off to art school. Instead, her progress came in many small steps that stretched across decades. Stats is the first to admit that she never was a “traditional school person”—the only high-school class she liked was art. She did consider taking an entrance exam for college, but on her way to the exam, she stopped and bought a dozen doughnuts instead. “The doughnuts tasted really good, too,” she says with her trademark blunt humor. “I have no shame.”
Six months after high-school graduation in 1963, Stats married her husband, Ken, and during the years that followed, her nascent interest in art would surface from time to time. For instance, Stats still remembers the rush she got when she played around with a friend’s oil paints while on a visit to see her. “I couldn’t ever allow myself to think that I could be a painter,” Stats says. “I didn’t feel important enough to even go buy paints.”
On another occasion while working in a sales office, she remembers borrowing pastels from an employee who frequently brought them to work. “I painted a tree and was smitten,” she says. “I went around to anyone that would listen and said, “I am going to be an artist someday.”
Soon after, Stats went to an art-supply store and bought a set of inexpensive pastels. By then she had two small children. During the day while they napped, she copied pictures from a how-to-draw book. Stats still wasn’t taking her art seriously, though. “I told myself I was doing it so we could have artwork on our walls that didn’t look like it came from a motel room,” she says.
In 1972 Stats’ husband, who worked in the financial industry, was transferred, and the family moved to Rio de Janeiro. By then Stats had discovered that not only was she not much of a student, she also wasn’t much of what she calls a “homemaking diva.” In Brazil she bought her first set of oil paints and painted as much as possible in her spare time.
When the family moved back to Utah in 1973, she was ready to sign up for art classes. Her uncle, Stewart, recommended she study with landscape painter Frank Erickson. For the next seven years Erickson taught her about color, how to see, and how to mix paint. In terms of subject matter, she was drawn to the landscape. “My heart has always been in the landscape and the wonder of it all,” Stats says. “Changing patterns and light are mesmerizing, as are nature’s structures and shapes—the way a branch leaves the trunk of a tree or the graceful flow of water over rocks.”
In the following years she would meet artists in other classes who shared her passion. Many would become life-long friends, such as Utah artist Bonnie Posselli. In the 1980s Posselli and Stats were among the founders of the Plein Air Painters of Utah. They often painted together in Alaska’s Wood-Tikchik State Park, in southern France, along the coast of Oregon, and in their own backyard, Utah’s red-rock country. “Our pursuit of painting the next spectacular scene took us to remote, exotic, and perilous places,” Posselli says. “Kathryn understands the construction of design and the illusive air of mood, and she can make it all happen through her amazing mastery of the brush, conducting the orchestration with color harmony in textural paint.”
Stats does not consider herself a plein-air painter, even though she has participated in many such shows. Her creative process may begin on location with a small color sketch and photographs as reference, but her paintings are created in her Salt Lake City studio. “Painting on location is vital for me to record color, get true values, and get the feelings of a place. But I don’t strive to get the work finished,” Stats says. “You can’t be a good studio painter unless you paint directly from nature.”
She delights in portraying not only the power and beauty of natural wonders but also the manmade remnants of life in the West—the ramshackle and the dilapidated. Take TIME TRAVEL, for instance. Stats recalls that one afternoon while driving south on Highway 89 just north of Panguitch, UT, she spotted a familiar old shed. She had painted it many times in different seasons, but this time it was a spring morning and the structure was backlit, with bright color surrounding it. “I was immediately drawn to the roof with its tin patches in various stages of rust, with the light coming through the beams,” she says. “By surrounding the subject in light while leaving the building in shadow, it provided the feeling that I was looking for—a bright, sparkling morning. Also, by not getting too precise, more interest was created.”
Early in her career Stats eschewed painting the red-rock country of southern Utah as being too obvious a subject. But gradually the ruddy landscape won her over, and today it regularly stars on her canvases. Capitol Reef National Park, in the heart of red-rock country, is a continuing source of inspiration. “Within a small area, Capitol Reef features excellent sandstone formations and scenic vistas,” Stats says. “One can find great lighting situations within the park at most any time of day. Some of the most interesting shadow and light situations occur at 2 p.m. on any given sunny day.”
Whether she’s depicting the red-rock landscape or a shabby shed, a key element in her work is light. Stats once said, only half-jokingly, “I am paid to paint light.” But capturing beautiful light is hardly her only talent. Tom Bassett, who represents Stats at Wood River Fine Arts in Ketchum, ID, says he was immediately taken by the artist’s “exquisite color sense and beautiful brushwork. There is directness and boldness to what she does that lures you in and compels you to take a closer look,” Bassett says. “She is an artist who commits herself to the highest ideals of the creative journey.”
As this story was going to press, Stats was preparing works for A Timeless Legacy: Women Artists of Glacier National Park, opening in May at the Hockaday Museum of Art in Kalispell, MT. The exhibition celebrates works by four living artists as well as works by adventuresome women from bygone eras who painted in the park. Stats’ mother won’t get to view the show; she passed away in December. But she lived to see her daughter’s many successes and kept newspaper clippings about her shows and awards. “She was really proud,” Stats says, “and she hung my paintings all over her house.”
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