Kathrine Lemke Waste captures fleeting moments in exquisite still-life paintings
By Norman Kolpas
One afternoon in early March, as dusk was approaching, Kathrine Lemke Waste glanced at a few pink dogwood blossoms she had placed in her great-grandmother’s pink glass vase on the back patio table of her home. The sight brought to mind a poem by Emily Dickinson:
A Light exists in Spring
Not present on the Year
At any other period —
When March is scarcely here
A Color stands abroad
On Solitary Fields
That Science cannot overtake
But Human Nature feels.
“I felt that spring moment of promise and possibility,” Waste recalls, explaining her inspiration for a watercolor she eventually entitled THE PINK VASE. After taking photo reference shots to capture the fleeting moment, she worked up pencil studies in her sketchbook—a “very low-tech process,” she says with a chuckle—until she had her composition just right. In the end, she reduced it to a tightly cropped, elegantly spare image of the vase and flowers alone against the tablecloth.
Then she painstakingly, precisely drew the still life. To execute this crucial stage on the sheet of 300-pound Arches watercolor paper she regularly uses, she employed, as always, a “plain old number 2 pencil” with a blunt point, “because I don’t want a ridge in the soft surface.”
Only then, with the image fully realized in soft gray lines on the pure-white cotton-fiber sheet, did Waste start painting. She began by carefully covering every positive shape—the flowers, stems, and vase—with masking fluid to prevent her paints from seeping into those areas of the paper. Once the fluid dried, she relates, “starting from the lower-left-hand corner, I started running huge washes of color over the whole surface to give it a faintly warmish tone” that captured the glow of the setting sun in soft yellows and peaches. Next, in shades of blue and purple, she added the soft-edged shadows cast by the objects she had masked. Only after those colors had dried completely did she peel off the mask, like strips of latex, and begin the even more precise and time-consuming task of capturing the vase and flowers in layer after layer of watercolor glazes, bringing them to near–three-dimensional reality in rich, luminous depths of color.
The painting, and the process by which it came to life from initial inspiration to final execution, sums up the particular sensibilities and talents of Kathy Waste. It also helps explain the reasons why, over just 12 years, the 55-year-old watercolorist has gained ever-wider respect and acclaim, with demand for her creations consistently growing.
Waste brings to her works a heightened poetic sensibility that has evolved naturally from a lifelong love of painting combined with a background in communications, media, and theater. A longtime fan of pop art, she approaches each highly realistic piece she paints with that movement’s celebration of everyday objects. Indeed, she proudly recalls one gallery owner who, upon reviewing Waste’s portfolio, declared it “awfully representational.”
But there’s something more to her work as well. Warmly personable and deeply spiritual, she feels a simple desire to touch people meaningfully through her images, helping to re-attune them to the simple, often sublime, beauty that surrounds us all. “Every day, we’re each hit with upward of 5,000 messages,” she says, citing studies from the academic journals she still avidly reads. “So, how do we cut through the noise and the clutter and get people to just stop and look and notice a single moment in time?”
Waste has long been inclined to capture life’s fleeting moments of beauty through art. For most of her life, however, doing so was more a beloved hobby than a calling. “I was always drawing and doodling around with crayons,” she recalls of a childhood that, with her father in the Navy, was spent in various locations “all around the Pacific Rim.” A “loving godmother” provided her with early lessons in watercolor, and Waste recalls using that medium in second grade to create “a pretty darned good painting of another landscape painting. I was really proud of that.”
She may have dreamed then of a life in painting, but other satisfying, if more practical, pursuits beckoned. She concentrated on communications studies with emphases on performance, theater, media, and traditional rhetoric, doing “a patchwork of courses” at different institutions including the London School of Economics and the University of Delaware, where she got her master’s degree. Meanwhile, her husband, Bob, was earning his academic stripes in political science and urban policy, including time at Brown University—which enabled Kathy to take some art classes at nearby Rhode Island School of Design.
Eventually, after a few years in San Diego, in 1985 the couple moved with their 3-year-old son to the small Northern California town of Chico, where both Bob and Kathy taught for 10 years at its Cal State campus. During that time, she also seized the opportunity to study painting with local master watercolorist Salvatore Casa, recipient of the prestigious Gold Medal from the American Watercolor Society—a period she refers to as her “five-year apprenticeship.” One of the lessons she absorbed most profoundly from Casa was his guiding statement that “the process of creation is not addition but subtraction.”
Waste’s urge to paint full time grew as she gained experience wielding a brush. Within a few years of the family’s move to Sacramento in the mid-1990s, she decided, “I might as well embrace it. Painting is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.” Today her studio is in the detached garage of the vintage-1938 house she shares with Bob, now professor emeritus of public policy at the local Cal State campus
Rather than focus, as so many others making a midlife move might, on the drawbacks of coming late to a professional art career, Waste chose to take a more positive view. “I didn’t get caught up in an MFA mafia,” she says, referring to a tendency among some pursuing master of fine arts degrees at prestigious institutions to feel they can dictate what is and isn’t good cutting-edge art. “I wasn’t part of the ‘in’ crowd. I came to the art world from other worlds first, and I can bring all those experiences to my work as an artist.”
Among those preconceptions she so deftly sidestepped was an ages-old prejudice against the watercolor medium itself. “People think of watercolors as faded old things from 19th-century England,” she says, referring to the sketches and studies made back then by professional artists and well-educated aristocrats alike, using materials that faded and yellowed with time and exposure to light. Today, however, paints and papers are far more stable, as are archival framing methods, so that “a work on paper can have a life of its own.” Yet, she adds, “some really fine artists who paint in watercolor are always being called on to defend their choice.”
Waste herself feels no such defensive urges. “To me, watercolor is this beautiful, fluid medium that I use the way another painter might use oils,” she says. Working from light to dark, while leaving untouched those parts of the paper she intends to be white in the finished work, she builds up her tones to a point at which they “create richness and depth with an essentially luminous medium. I’ve had a lot of oil painters look at my work, shake their heads, and say, ‘I can’t do that.’”
Some may wonder why Waste turns such skills to subjects as seemingly mundane as the wrapped loaf of Wonder Bread featured in her recent OUT OF THE BLUE. Citing painters of everyday objects she admires—from pop great Wayne Thiebaud, who lives just a few blocks from her, to photorealists Janet Fish and Ralph Goings to the late, great Georgia O’Keeffe—Waste says, “You can almost count on one hand those little moments that you’ve had when everything is just right. If you can put together a painting where you stop time for one moment and get people to see things in a way they haven’t seen it before, then that’s a big win. And these other painters found a way to do that.”
For Waste, such moments often focus on the kitchen and the garden. “It’s very simple,” she says. “I’m a gardener. We grow a lot of our own food. I’m a pretty darned good cook, and I like to eat. We belong to an organic farm. We have a lot of friends who are good chefs.” And she’s thought a lot about the ways in which such images connect with those who view them. “My paintings are of objects you recognize. I attach my own narrative to them. But, even still, viewers are going to have their own narratives. Because of that shared narrative, the objects have a life.”
Articulate as she is about her work, it’s not surprising that Waste recently concluded a year-long weekly series for the Sacramento Bee newspaper, in which she wrote a brief, eloquent profile of a local farmer or artisanal food producer, accompanied by a watercolor, like GRAPES AND MELON, that captured the subject’s creations more vividly than a photo ever could. Perhaps not surprisingly, the series was entitled “One Perfect Thing.” Indeed, that’s an apt summation of what Kathrine Lemke Waste strives to achieve in each of her paintings.
Featured in January 2012.