Artist Digs Deep to Get Happy
LIVING | Nov 16, 2017 | Orillia Packet and Times
The man at the corner store must have thought it was for her dad, the girlie magazine that six-year-old Kathryn Kaiser bought that day with her birthday money. Parents often sent their kids to the store to fetch things then, some of them even younger than Kathryn. Yet a magazine like that should have been out of her reach, both physically and as an object on her radar. It must have taken her mother aback when she discovered her little girl calmly sitting at the table drawing naked females splayed across the pages of a shady magazine.
Right back to the store they marched, Kathryn’s mother heatedly chastising the store owner for putting such material in the hands of a child; Kathryn downcast, wondering what she had done so terribly wrong. The women in the magazine were beautiful, such lovely curving lines for her pencil to follow, such mysteries in their eyes. People were Kathryn’s favourite subject; an artist had to tackle both their outside and inside, the surface of a person and the story behind. Something she couldn’t articulate, be consciously aware of at age six. Perhaps not even years later when, in Grade 9, her teachers recommended she be enrolled in advanced art classes.
Where Kathryn, the youngest student in attendance, was soon faced with drawing a nude model, a figure from her briefly owned magazine come to life. Only it felt a lot more awkward in her early teens than it had when she was six. And the awkwardness continued on the way home, Kathryn’s mother inquiring what she had done in class that day. Kathryn replying that she would show her if father would pull the car over, covertly opening the trunk under a streetlight to revealing the figure studies she had produced.
A sight Kathryn’s mother this time took in stride; glad perhaps of this proof that it was artistic ability that informed her daughter’s choices and not something more worrisome. Happy to let Kathryn continue. Able to let her go when, after a year at the University of Lethbridge studying fine arts and psychology, after a summer job as a commercial artist, after being put off by the seven years of education required to become an art therapist (a vocation that would have combined Kathryn’s dual interest in art and people), Kathryn, age 19, opted to hop in her car and drive all the way from Calgary to Toronto to study interior design at Ryerson.
She didn’t care for decorating, didn’t want to go shopping for fabric with which to upholster a couch. She’d rather design the couch itself, the room it was meant to inhabit, the whole space. Should have perhaps studied architecture, she thought later, had a career creating frames for people and their stories, designing settings for their lives.
Except that life can’t always be neatly contained, has a way of running off in unexpected directions. A recession putting the damper on Kathryn’s high-end design job, marriage and what was expected to be a six-month pregnancy leave leading to Kathryn homeschooling five daughters. Life in the city traded for 48 acres outside Coldwater (in 2002), for a slower pace, a herd of llamas. Kathryn getting back to her art work, working in tandem with her new partner (Kathryn’s marriage dissolved) as a design consultant, becoming involved in the community, with a group known as Mariposans for Refugees.
Unexpectedly sponsoring a Syrian family on her own. (An undertaking which inspired a friend to put Kathryn’s name forward for Woman of the Year after missing the deadline for Citizen of the Year — an award Kathryn didn’t mind losing, not being fond of accolades.) Doing what she could to raise funds, taking down the old barn on her property to sell the wood when things got slow.
Because she was still the girl who noticed people, the stories behind their facades. Still the girl whose mother told tales of her own early hardships, following the coal truck as a child, knowing every bump in the road, ready, when the truck lurched, to catch the coal that fell off and carry it home; unfamiliar with steak until Kathryn’s father took her out to dinner on a date. Kathryn’s artistic eye vividly visualizing the scene, absorbing the life of another into her core.
Just as, when she heard about Syria, she could visualize life there, what it must be like for someone like herself, an artistic woman with children in her care, to be bombed out of the home she’d always known, afraid her boys would be hauled away to fight and if they refused, hauled away and tortured. Able to picture what was happening and then unable to look away. Needing to do something, get them out of there, give them the chance of a better life in Canada. (The family Kathryn sponsored has settled in Kitchener.) Just as she needs to put such issues, the things that trouble her, war, residential schools, into her artwork.
They, Kathryn’s fellow artists, dubbed their current art exhibit The Happy Show. Not to be ironic, but in part to get Kathryn to paint from a happy place instead of always being serious, instead of channelling her social conscience into her art. To paint and draw, not as a means of social commentary, but simply for the joy of it. Something that didn’t come naturally to Kathryn, an exercise she found “interesting,” a bit out of her comfort zone, alien to her usual process.
She will tell you all about it herself on Nov. 26, 2017 when she and her fellow exhibitors (Patti Agapi, Meg Leslie and James Nye) give a talk at the drkrm Studio & Gallery, 18 Mississaga St. E. from 4 to 6 p.m. (rear entrance, upstairs). When they discuss the concept of “happy” from the artist’s point of view, how they sought to capture that elusive state, pursued that most pursued of all commodities with pencil and paintbrush.
The Happy Show continues until the end of the month.
Kate Grigg is an artist and writer who grew up in Orillia and tells stories of local people in her weekly column. If you have a story you think she might be interested in, email firstname.lastname@example.org.