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Sketch Pad

Katherine Dunn
It's only natural
by Kathy Anderson

earning for new terrain and a change in the weather, Katherine Dunn visited relatives in Portland and instantly knew that she'd found her place. Since making the move from Minneapolis a year ago, Katherine has been gardening "like a crazy person," dreaming of fly fishing, reading Rumi poems and expressing it all through painting and illustration.

Surprise ending
Katherine Dunn rarely tells the stories behind her paintings. She's learned that viewers usually find stories of their own.

"Leaves woman"

"It's not that I mind being asked," she said, "but the words just never sound too good. And, after all, if words could say it, why paint it? Ninety percent of the time, a painting comes from nowhere, but somewhere. I don't even know what I'm going to paint when I begin. Sometimes, much later, I see things in a painting that make sense as to what was going on in my life at the time."

Katherine works in acrylic because of its quick drying time. She often layers and reworks a piece several times and, if the mood strikes, she'll mix in pastels, ink, collage or even words.

With illustration, Katherine starts out knowing she needs to paint a certain subject. But since much of her work is about color and emotion, exactly what the finished product will look like is a mystery till the end.

She recently began creating some pieces on fly fishing and is happy to express her feelings on the subject:

"Fly fishing has become another great passion – to be able to spend time in a mountain stream with trees and fish and sky all around me!

"Simple Damsel"

"I recently did some images of flies, as in flies for catching fish," she said. "I'm also working on a series of abstracts, which all seem to involve trees and the feeling of lushness I get from living here."

Like a sponge
Writers, poets, movies, TV and nature all influence Katherine's work. She can see Chagall – whose art she's enjoyed since age five – in the whim and color of some of her early work. Matisse was also an early influence.

"I love Emily Carr, someone from the Northwest that many don't know of," she said. "Her paintings are very strong for me because of the nature and trees.

"I think it took awhile, but I do feel like I have my own style now. Then there are always influences of the day and what you are reading. Like most artists, I'm a sponge."


Much of Katherine's inspiration comes from nature, music and personal feelings.

"So many different things can be inspiring," she said. "Children's art, the way a body works, how things stand up, like buildings and bridges.

"The way my landscaper boyfriend can think and see three dimensionally and transform a hillside in just a day is inpiring. I even inspire myself for moments at a time. But also just the everyday stories of people and the daily challenges, heartaches, fears and triumphs we all have and share. And trees!"

Trees company
After spending a lot of creative energy moving, remodeling and settling into her new studio last year, Katherine is now working on finding a Northwest gallery for her paintings. Meanwhile, she's launched her own Tree Ambassador project on her Web site.

"It's my way of honoring trees," she said. "There's a painting, a poem from a viewer and a photograph from a selected photographer. These will rotate quarterly. I'm also having a separate online gallery of children's art about trees. I'm hoping to have the first group of kids up by spring."

"Libra, the balance"

Every year, Katherine selects as many as three projects to which she donates her work; places that relate to nature, animals or children. Some of her pro bono recipients include: the Crisis Nursery in Minneapolis, the Animal Humane Society and auctions for a children's center, 9/11 and Planned Parenthood.

"Sometimes I'm asked to be part of something," she said. "The Children's Library in Brooklyn approached me and 20 other illustrators to create one piece for a wall mural. The children also made pieces that hung by ours. Then they were all auctioned off."

Medium cool
As a self-described "creative little elf," Katherine remembers growing up with impulsive ideas to paint things like the TV screen or the radiators. She loved covers from "The New Yorker" and William Steig cartoons, and had a European whimsical view of life.

"My father was an architect and had a wonderful library full of architecture books and other art periodicals. He traveled a lot and brought those perspectives into our home, but my mother brought a definite style and fashion sense that can be seen in my paintings.

"Prayer 33"

"It was just me and my brother, who was a little thinker/scientist from birth. So we both spent a lot of time in our own little worlds, and mine was out in nature where I had animal and tree friends all over our yard, including a salamander family.

"I think many of my paintings are poems or prayers to those days as a child, especially my earlier work. And recently I realized many of the women in my paintings look like my mother."

Katherine's painting and illustrating is self taught. She didn't much like art in high school, thinking it was always about how something looked versus how it felt. In college, she majored in arts and ceramics.

"Someone once told me that the medium you major in is usually not the medium you end up working in. I was always frustrated with the non-immediacy of clay, but I can see myself going back to it years from now for fun. I took one painting class in college, but that was it."

Being blissed
After college, Katherine worked a variety of jobs, gaining experience but never feeling satisfied.


"I knew in my heart that what I really wanted was to be a painter of some kind," she said. "But I wasn't sure how, so I kept avoiding it. At my design-firm jobs, I'd see illustrators come in with their portfolios and think 'I can do that.'

"I started painting and illustrating in the evenings, creating a body of work. I didn't tell anyone, it was just sort of my own little mission that I never questioned."

Then one night, while watching Bill Moyer interview Joseph Campbell about the belief that everyone has a responsibility to follow their own bliss, Katherine decided she had to become a full-time artist.

"The next morning I woke up and that's how I viewed myself," she said. "Within six months I quit my job, sold my condo, moved to a teeny house with a very low overhead and set out as a painter/illustrator.

"I never looked back, never borrowed money, and doors opened. That was 1996."

These days, Katherine's illustrations are seen in ads, articles, menus, product labels and greeting cards, to name a few.


Hanging around
Then there's the private commission market, which generally includes people who get to know Katherine and her art.

"Those are always fun," she said. "Sometimes they're portraits of children or pets, or sometimes they just want anything, so I do anything. Some people also come to me and buy my originals."

Katherine knows her art can sometimes move people, and that her work hangs in homes and brings people joy.

"I guess I also know that maybe my place in the world is to make these little poems as paintings that touch people one by one," she said. "Maybe I'll do a painting that will make someone look at a tree differently, or a flower, or their dog or mate.

"Maybe a young girl will be inspired to be a painter, just like I was."

E-mail Katherine at kdunn.illus@worldnet.att.net, and check out her Web site. You can reach Kathy at kanderson138@attbi.com, and draw on other Sketch Pads.

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