Kathleen Kolb details the finer points of art
LINCOLN — Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start with an artist who’s been painting for more than 50 years. Especially an artist like Kathleen Kolb, whose work is so subtly refined and elegant it feels effortless and natural. But here’s the dirty little secret… it’s not. It’s still hard work; beloved work, yes, but work nonetheless.
So we’ll start at the very beginning — a very good place to start.
“Art has been with me since early childhood,” Kolb said in an interview last week. “I can’t remember the beginning.”
But Kolb does remember the art classes she started at age 6 at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
“When I was 6 (back in the ’60s) kids just didn’t have that level of enrichment. Art class was special,” said the Ohio native. “I remember playing hide and seek among the sarcophagi with a friend… museums became a very comfortable place for me.”
“VILLAGE, SPRING,” A painting by Kathleen Kolb
Kolb never questioned if she should pursue a career in art. “It was like a forgone conclusion,” she said.
And a pretty serious one at that.
By age 11 or 12, Kolb was taking Saturday classes at the Cleveland Institute of Art. She remembered in the first months of a watercolor class they were only allowed to use one color from their Prang sets. Why? Because the instructor wanted them to learn how to achieve tone. “It was all about workmanship and skills,” Kolb explained.
She and her family moved to New Jersey when her father (who had his PhD in digital systems and worked on early computers and type setting) was transferred there for a job. Kolb attended the Rhode Island School of Design and graduated with her BFA in 1976.
“I focused on illustration for two main reasons,” she said. “One, the capacity for money making potential; and two, it had the least requirements so I had more options for taking electives.”
At RISD, Kolb met “a fellow” who was homesteading in the North East Kingdom in Vermont. “We wound up having children, growing food, and building a home in our community effort to make the world a better place,” said Kolb, explaining how she ended up in Vermont. When the kids were approaching high school, they decided to move to a “warmer part of the state” and settled in Cornwall.
“GRAPPLE SKIDDER, WINTER morning,” a painting by Kathleen Kolb
In 1996, Kolb moved to Lincoln and turned her full attention to painting.
“I settled on really loving observation (I had always loved that since preschool),” said Kolb who paints in watercolors and oils — with very small brushes. “I just like looking at things, coming to understand them more, finding secrets in things by close observation — it’s a practice, it’s meditative. Paying attention is hugely important in the way that I work, both to the thing I’m looking at and the thing that I’m making.”
Another aspect that defines Kolb’s realism is her discrete variations in color.
“I love mixing color,” she emphasized. “The level of detail that I tend to get into is a little nutty, that’s who I am I guess. That seems to be my nature: to look closely and revel in detail.”
While Kolb is painting in her studio above the barn of her Lincoln home, she listens to jazz, classical and folk music (without words). “Words put my brain in a different space,” she said.
“ICE,” A PAINTING by Kathleen Kolb
Her cat stays in the house, but she carries over big quarts of tea to drink in her studio — green jasmine in the morning and herbal in the afternoon.
“I spend a significant amount of time on one piece, so a lot goes through my mind and all of that informs the painting in some way,” Kolb added. “It might be animals, plants… your mother… It’s all in there.”
Kolb’s subjects range from portraits, to neighborhoods, to logging, to icebergs in Newfoundland, to daily life in Ireland and beyond. But she has a few basic principals that flow throughout all of her work.
“One is ‘belonging and home,’” she said. “It’s a heart connection to place that persists through all my work. The other is ‘light.’ I really love the effect of light. I think of light in two ways: first, emotionally it is very compelling; then, intellectually as our timepiece. The movement of sun marks our days and in that way light is a reflection of our mortality. Light gives us the sense that the moments of our lives are precious and fleeting, and that they have meaning. All of that is what I want the work to be about.
“Like any kind of work there’s a flow, or not,” she said. “Sometimes the work is accomplished in less time; either way, I persevere until they’re done.”
But “done” is a tough word for Kolb, a self-described perfectionist.
“It would be nice to say it’s ‘done,’ before I put in the last couple days of work,” she half-heartedly joked. “In the end, I’m not unhappy with who I am and what I make.”
“STREETLIGHTS,” A PAINTING by Kathleen Kolb
And that’s all that matters, right?
Well kind of.
Kolb is realistic about her work, too.
“What’s ‘in style’ does make a difference to your capacity to make a living,” she noted. “What comes in and out of style matters, but you can’t really direct who you are as an artist. I think I’ve always been ‘out of style.’ The art market isn’t crazy about realism, but people in general recognize and revel in it. I think realism has a lasting hold on the popular imagination.”
Kolb considers herself part of the legacy of Andrew Wyeth, along with Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer and lots of 20th century artists who also work from observation.
“I don’t think I’m extraordinary in any way,” Kolb deflected, acknowledging her fellow art compatriots. “It means an enormous amount to me to understand that people enjoy looking at my work. But I do need people to purchase it if I’m going to keep going.”
“BIRDFINDER,” A PAINTING by Kathleen Kolb
Ain’t that the truth.
Kolb makes much of her income through commissioned work, which she says is primarily from local people. Over her five decades of painting she has done thousands of pieces, but only has a handful of prints. Her small watercolors start around $1,200 and go up from there.
You can see two of Kolb’s paintings on display at the Shelburne Museum in the exhibit “New England Now,” which will be on display through Jan. 13.
“This handpicked show features work by 13 artists,” Kolb said. “They are images of New England that are not about our picturesque scenes, but are true to New England even so.”
At the Shelburne Museum, Kolb is exhibiting “Street Lights,” which portrays a neighborhood in Bristol at night, and “Ice,” which shows the Lincoln General Store in the winter.
As you might imagine, Kolb has been in many exhibits. Her work has been represented by David Findlay Galleries (2003-2010) and Sherry French Gallery (1996-2003) in New York City, and by Clarke Galleries (1992-2009) in Stowe. She is currently represented by three galleries in Vermont: West Branch in Stowe, Furchgott Sourdiffe in Shelburne and Gallery North Star in Grafton; as well as by MA Doran Gallery in Tulsa, Okla. She has participated in roughly 40 solo shows and 80 group shows in New York and New England.
In the fall of 2015 Kolb was an invited fellow at the Ballinglen Arts Foundation in Ballycastle, Ireland. Together, with poet Verandah Porche, she created and managed a collaborative touring project called “Shedding Light on the Working Forest.” The show opened at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, and traveled to the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury and eight other locations across six states, from Maine to Ohio.
Coming up, Kolb will spend the month of March at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson and will be refining her ideas for her next show in August at the Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro.
“I feel like I’m in a place that’s fungible right now,” she said. “I feel very open to other ideas. There’s a bunch of ideas swirling in my head… like large still-lifes of pears, large portraits of individual trees on the Long Trail that intrigue me, and of course architecture — that has been my most popular theme.”
We’ll have to wait and see what Kolb produces next, but it’s a good bet that the work will resonate her love of light, belonging and home.
“I have an enormous affection for Vermont,” she said. “I’ve made it the center of my work.”
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