Meet the Artist Interview Series - Katinka Hartmetz
Updated: Dec 14, 2022
When would you say you actually began to identify as an artist?
I was brought up in an artist household and have the good fortune to be a fourth generation female artist beginning with my great-grandmother, Candace Powell. My younger years were spent in Southern California, after which we moved to Portola Valley in Northern California when I was eight. From my earliest recollections I remember two things: watching my mother paint on a huge (4 x 8’) sheet of masonite on a wall through the bars of my playpen; and, in my grandmother's teaching studio, a large greenhouse room attached to one side of the house. Both women were artists and architects in their own right, and both had a profound impact on me.
My grandmother, Goldie P. Harding, was a very popular art teacher in Palm Springs. One of her students was Paris Hilton’s grandmother, as was Mamie Eisenhower. While the husbands played golf, including my father and grandfather, the wives painted. It is amazing that my grandmother was also an architect. In the early 1900’s she enrolled in college art and mechanical drawing classes; at only 16 years old she was the youngest student—and the only female. She went to the San Francisco Art Institute and The California School of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, California. Now known as the California College of the Arts, I attended the same school in 1980. My grandmother taught mechanical drawing at Oakland Technical High School for a few years. By 1930 she had her first designed house built, and it still stands in Oakland today.
My grandmother let me explore her private studio, which was yet another vast greenhouse room on another side of the house. It had the strong pungent smell of oils and turpentine. She’d caution me, “Don’t touch. Everything is wet.” More often than not, she would be working on at least three paintings on easels, all in various stages of completion. Palettes would be left out still wet with swatches of colors. I was fascinated by how you could make completely different colors by mixing paints, and by the choices she made for her under-paint colors: oranges and pinks for the sky; blue and brown for the earth.
My mother, Herrica H. Hartmetz, was mainly a figurative mixed media painter. Using a large black oil crayon and making her own paints out of casein and egg tempera she did large figurative abstractions, gluing cut pieces of painted canvas, burlap and butcher paper. She was the quintessential mid-century painter, and an architectural planner. She designed and built several homes in Southern California.
At five my grandmother introduced me to painting by sitting me down in front of one easel in the midst of a forest of empty easels, lining the tray with dixie cups full of paint, and telling me to paint. Both my grandmother and my mother gave me lessons. It was not something I had a choice in, but I didn’t mind, I liked doing it. I would show the results to my teddy bear, who followed me everywhere. I remember I spent a particularly sad day sitting on the floor of the laundry watching him go round and round in the dryer after I spilled blue paint on him. As I grew I developed an interest in architecture as well—one of my hobbies was to draw up plans and then build balsa wood models of them. I still jot down house plans in my sketchbooks today.
By the time I got to art classes in school I had way more skills than other kids. Luckily I had fabulous art teachers through both grade school and high school. In seventh grade I told my art teacher that I thought I should be a dancer and quit art making. She told me “No, you can do both,” adding that I should never stop making art. From that point forward, I was determined to be an artist.
Where did you grow up and how do you think that influenced your art?
I grew up on a creek in Portola Valley, California and spent my summers on the Russian River in Guerneville, California. This made me a kind of naturalist. I studied everything about the water, from the movement of ripples and shadows to the colors of the pebbles beneath the surface. I spent hours sitting in a boat, fishing and soaking up the world around me. I watched the willows sweep the edges of the bank, and the mist rise above the water. Herons and hawks soared, fish darted, frogs leapt...and clouds played hide and seek with the sun. All these things were—and are—important. All made their way organically into the world I desired to put on paper. Some of my first paintings and drawings were based on the shapes and colors of pebbles.
Have any particular artists influenced your style?
My mother and I visited museums and galleries almost every weekend in San Francisco and Oakland, and many others on wider travels. Some artists actively blew me away. My reactions were strong enough to have worried a few guards, I’m sure. I wanted to run my palm on the surface of abstract expressionist Clyfford Still’s paintings. He taught me so much about texture and color saturation. It was unbelievable that someone could paint so large and with so much paint. I wanted to walk into his paintings and be a part of that texture.
My mother was a docent at the Leland Stanford Jr. Museum and, later in life, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. She would practice on me, who willingly trailed her around the museum and learned from listening to her talk. There was one day I remember like yesterday. My mother told me, “You have to go into the small gallery (at Stanford) and see. You’ll love it.” Seeing it made me feel as if I had just opened a jewel box. Small Paul Klee watercolors and gouaches—both bright and dark—danced along the walls in a language of color and shapes that only Klee could design.
I love Georges Braque, for the drama, Cubism and using graphic design in paintings with large letters and printed items for collage. Charles Demuth captured my interest with his foray into architecture, and his way of breaking up space with line and dramatic colors. Paul Cézanne, with peaches in the most beautiful soft shades that I call Cezanne's colors, is another favorite. He painted with an admirable discipline of brush marks, using the same short stroke.
My modernist side loves Stuart Davis’s graphics and bold colors, and also Frank Stella. And now Stella is cutting out his shapes and they pop out of the canvas. Brilliant! My other top favorites are sculptor Louise Nevelson and, of course, painter Paul Klee. I cried the first time I saw one of Nevelson’s constructions. She made a lasting impression when I discovered she was a woman doing such large pieces out of wood that she rummaged through the New York dumps for materials. And Klee’s colors and line work are so inspiring.
How do you decide what to work on next?
When I’m out looking at art I always bring a small blank book with me and jot down notes on color and composition. When I get home I might do some sketches of ideas I get from my notes. I am inspired to work by seeing other’s art. That drives me back to the studio to translate those thoughts to canvas or paper. A Northern California contemporary artist whom I think is amazing, Robert Brady, says this: “When working (on art) a connectedness occurs with the tools, materials and everything else, and just falls into place where something (art) can be birthed instead of dug up.”
What can you share about what qualities to look for in a well-curated exhibit?
I have been on the installation team at The Main Gallery since its inception in 2000, and stepped up to lead it in 2017. Curating is what I’ve always wanted to do. There has to be a story you want to tell through color or patterns. Texture plays a big part as well. I look for a give and take of texture by mixing other mediums, creating a flow for the eye to follow.
Do you think viewing original fine art is different than seeing digital or print versions?
Digital or screen viewing can work with graphic arts, but can be too flat when trying to represent original fine art. Seeing the real thing is more immersive and experiential. Details of color, shape and form; relative lights and darks; balance or asymmetry; contrasts, layers and marks; choices both intentional and whimsical—all are revealed when you stand before a piece. I want my eye to be able to travel to a nook or cranny and feel what is happening on an emotional level.
What guidance would you give to viewers of abstract art?
In a way, it can be much simpler to understand representational art because we share a common visual experience and understanding of the subject before it is rendered, either realistically or interpretively. There is usually a line of thought, a consideration, a curiosity or query that precedes the creation of abstract art. Some artists use math and engineering to determine the lines and angles they include. They can be as elemental as parallel lines of different weights or in a mathematically based sequence...or as complex as lines based on the Golden Mean or angles based on the Celtic Triangle. Sometimes colors are selected for balance and overall composition, as in Richard Diebenkorn’s abstract work. Sometimes, as in Mark Rothko’s Color Field paintings, they are selected specifically to play with moods or tension. Pablo Picasso chose to explore shades of blue, blue-green, pink and orange as well as Cubist form. In all these cases the artists began with more realistic expressions of art and deliberately redirected their creative journey to explore abstractions. As a result of their willingness to risk departure from “the real,” each artist ended up paving the way for new avenues of exploration and connection for generations of artists and art patrons that followed.
Taking the time to probe the story behind the art can open up a much more dimensional experience of it. Without knowing the story - either the museum or docent’s researched version of it, the artist’s history, or the artist’s own description - the viewer is left to try and assimilate the art without reference. In this case it is human nature to try and compare the work in some way, either to representational accuracy or colors and shapes that one prefers, or relative to the techniques the artist was fearless enough to attempt. We are left at a bit of a loss emotionally, and have to try and find connection rather than digging a bit for context or to stand in the shoes of the artist. The fruit of this digging is the possibility of an enhanced emotional and intellectual understanding of the piece, and can literally move the viewer as well as open up new curiosity and wonder.
For more information about Katinka and her art, please visit Katinka Hartmetz.