Location: Seattle, Washington
Interview date: August 23, 2015
Early on in the project I wrote a blog post about my frustration around people’s response to my criteria for selecting artists. “That type of artist doesn’t exist” (or some variation of that statement) was the most frequent response to the criteria for my project, another one was “that will be a very small group.” My sister shared the blog post on her Facebook page and many indignant responses followed; I heard “we exist” loud and clear and I hope that others heard it as well. One of my sister’s FB followers, Pamela, contacted my sister in response to the post with a note that said said, in so many words, not only can she suggest a name that meets my criteria, but oh boy do she have a good one for me. She then proceeded to provide such a beautiful description of Cathe Gill that I was immediately intrigued when my sister forwarded the email to me. Pamela wrote that Cathe is “absolutely magical [and] very adventurous. I think anyone meeting her would agree.” After spending an afternoon with Cathe, yes Pamela I agree wholeheartedly.
While it is not surprising that a plein air painter would have a beautifully lit studio, Cathe’s studio also has a bit of sparkle to it (must be her magic!). The space is large and comfortable and ready to host the many activities that happen there including (but not limited to) teaching workshops, filming instructional videos, experimenting with other mediums - such as clay, selling her work, receiving visitors, and of course some painting happens there as well. It’s the kind of space you want to hang out in all afternoon.
When I arrived I felt a bit like the interviewee because she had questions for me about my project, how it started, where it’s going, etc. Her genuine interest in Art Stories and her enthusiastic participation warmed my heart. I soon learned that this is how she approaches life in general, with genuine curiosity.
She was raised in a family that valued artwork of all kinds and grew up with Andrew Wyeth prints hanging in the house, visiting museums, and she has a clear memory of her mother making her and her sisters stand while Robert Frost read “The Gift Outright” at the Kennedy inauguration. She also had an artistically talented sister who mentored her beginning when Cathe was about 5 years old. I enjoyed listening to all of Cathe’s stories, but listening to her talk about her how her sister Marion (10 years Cathe’s senior) submitted assignments Cathe completed for an artist correspondence course was one of my favorites.
Marion had enrolled in the Famous Artist Painting Course when she was an early teen. Cathe began doing the assignments with Marion, who quickly recognized her young sister’s talent and let her draw alongside her. Eventually, Marion began to get swept up in teenage life and the course became less and less important. However, Cathe was still completing the assignments so Marion began sending in Cathe’s work as her own. Given the close relationship Marion and Cathe had, I am going to presume that Marion’s motivation for doing this was not nefarious rather she simply wanted her sister to be able to keep developing her artistic skills. Little did the famous artists know they were commenting on the work of an 8 year old and not that of an 18 year old young woman!
I was so happy that Cathe kept the binders from the Famous Artists Courses.
Although Cathe demonstrated extraordinary artistic talent, as a young woman she initially followed a much different path by completing her bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics and then going to work for American Electric as a computer designer. She was very humble when discussing this part of her life, but it quickly became clear to me in our interview that Cathe must be a bit of a math and computer prodigy because American Electric quickly sent her off to NYU to complete a master’s degree in computer science. She also downplayed the significance of being a young woman in the 1960s learning to code and design computer systems. This is a field that is still dominated by men, in the 1960s a woman in this field was rare.
Although Cathe had initially chose the “practical” career path of math, and even though it did interest her, the pull of the “right-brained” work of painting was always strong. When her husband was transferred to Toronto Cathe used the opportunity to leave her career in computers behind and pursue painting full time. She’s never regretted this decision and she never looked back.
I have to confess that despite the fact that my cousin is married to a plein air painter, I knew little (actually nothing) about what that meant. Even when I looked up the definition of “plein air” meant I thought, OK they paint outside, I understand. But no, I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand how hardy these artists are, how brave they are to put themselves out in the elements for hours and days on end to capture their paintings. Nor did I have any understanding of what it means to put you work at risk for getting knocked over at the whim of mother nature.
When I asked Cathe to talk about what being a plein air painter meant to her, I thought it was a beautiful definition of plein air painting:
Plein air painters want to be outside to [create their painting], rather than working from a photograph in a studio or still life, with the knowledge that when you work outdoors, when you’re standing in the light you have so much more visual information to convey into your painting. Not that you’re copying exactly what’s out there but there is a level, a depth of information that your body experiences when it’s windy...if I paint outdoors in the snow...the marks are different because it’s cold. Because I feel the wind, it’s more authentic. The color range I would have on whatever object I was painting is different when I am outside.
Having the wind knock your easel over, maybe it rains...so there's nothing too secure about heading out in the morning with your painting pack, planning to do 2-3 paintings that day, you’re not sure you’ll come home with anything. You’re actually not even sure where you’re going to land. But you’re ready for the experience.
I have a new appreciation for the painter set up outside with his painting pack!
Cathe was one of my early interviews and I was still learning how to use my equipment. We talked for little over an hour and then decided to take a break before continuing. During the first part of our interview I would occasionally glance at the recording to make sure it was still going and then at some point became so absorbed in our conversation that I stopped. When I looked at the screen of the recorder when we stopped, my heart sank. It was blank - meaning it was turned off. After playing around with it I realized that the batteries had died sometime during the interview. Ironically, my mother had offered to just offered that day to give me a huge pack of batteries. I have no idea why I didn’t take them other than I just didn’t think I would need them. But I did have an extension cord and so I plugged in and continued. I had to hold it together so we could continue, but I was crushed and I had no idea what and how much had been lost.
The loss of the interview was, of course, frustrating. But it was also another opportunity to see just how great Cathe is. She took the whole thing in stride. I think she took it in stride for a couple of reasons. First, she has a background in computer science and understands that machines fail and don’t always do what we want them to - she even said something to this effect. I also think that she handles many of life’s frustrations like this - she is a hardy plein air painter after all.