As the year came to a close I took some time to look back. 2017 was not a stellar year, unless you count pain, disappointment, heartbreak and loss as stellar and in that sense it was. As I pondered where we are, and how we got here I was reminded of an essay written about me by my friend Mark St. J. Couhig. I’ve never really shared all the personal notes that he pulled out of me, and in the openness that transparency calls for, I decided to share that essay with you here. It was written in 2014 and few things have changed. I’ll comment on that at the end. In the meantime, here it is. Thank you, #MarkCouhig. It’s rather amazing for me to read it again.
“Katherine McDermott is an accomplished artist, with her paintings hanging on the walls of art collectors around the world.
But that hardly begins to describe her.
She’s also an accomplished businesswoman, a teacher, a successful promoter of the arts and an adventurer.
But that, too, hardly begins to describe her.
For example: In 1994 she built – by hand! – the spectacular mountain home she now shares with her husband John. More on that in a bit, but for the moment, let’s just say that McDermott is what folks call a go-getter. It may seem a little odd to the outsider that someone as energetic as she is – lightning in a bottle, as they say – has so thoroughly succeeded in a field that requires considerable contemplation and painstaking care.
But McDermott sees it differently, saying all of these facets of her personality were necessary to her current success.
McDermott’s earliest story – too early for a memory – concerns an event that took place when she was three months old. It’s a sad story, but she tells it matter-of-factly. “I was found on a kitchen table with a note pinned to my chest. “My mother had gone away – and she just left me on the table. I was crying and the neighbors heard me.”
The neighbors called McDermott’s grandfather. Some called the police. But, Grandpa got there first. He and Grandma took McDermott in until she was four, by which point they knew they had a budding artist on their hands. “My grandmother used to tell everyone that I was born with crayons in my hand. And that was pretty much the truth. By the time I was 18 months old I was coloring everything: paper, walls, pillowcases. I was fairly quiet,” she said, “and I would entertain myself that way. As I grew up, I kept doing just that. My solace was a pencil and paper, charcoal and paper – anything to help me put my passions on paper.”
She said it’s still her “solace” – and more. “It’s everything. It’s calming, it’s exciting. It’s my retreat and my inspiration at the same time.”
By the time she turned four, her grandparents’ health was in decline. They told her father, a career Army man whose job took him around the world, that it was his turn. As it happened, little Katherine introduced her father to the woman who would become his wife and her step-mom. “Miss Joyce was my babysitter. Because my dad was traveling the world, I knew her before I ever really knew my father.” McDermott delicately notes that her father was only 20 years old “when all this happened.”
“He skipped the country and was in Europe within days of my rescue.” Miss Joyce stepped into the breach. “I’m not sure when I first met her, but I must have been pretty young, but for sure, at four years old, Miss Joyce was my babysitter.” When her father returned from Europe and was formally introduced to Miss Joyce. His parents had a few succinct words for him: “This girl needs a mom.”
“My father was obedient,” McDermott says with a laugh. Dad lavished Miss Joyce with gifts, and they dated for two weeks. Yes, two weeks. Then he popped the question. “this may sound weird, but because she already loved me, she married him,” McDermott said. Miss Joyce joined dad in New Jersey where he was then stationed, and the two prepared a home for themselves and Katherine. Then “they came and got me,” McDermott said.
The three were then off to see the world, including a long stay on Okinawa while her father served in Vietnam. They moved 19 times in 21 years, and two sisters were born along the way.
Through it all, McDermott kept right on drawing, eventually turning pro while attending high school in Alaska. She sold her wildlife drawings – pencils, charcoal and pen-and-inks – in the local stores in downtown Delta Junction. As the end of high school approached, McDermott planned to take the standard path for a young lady on the rise. She would go to college.
Then life threw another curve. “The day after I was accepted to college, my dad was transferred to Germany.”
“My Dad was in Germany when I was living with my Grandparents. I always wanted to go there, to see what kept him there.” Plus, by this point the travel bug was too well burrowed in her psyche. She laughed. “I said, ‘screw the scholarship.’ I went to Germany.”
Once established in Germany, McDermott auditioned for a local traveling theater company, earning a two-year contract. The 17-year-old went on the road, performing in England, Scotland, Wales, France, Scandinavia and more. “All over,” she says. Then dad retired, the family moved back to Albuquerque, and the fun and games came to an end. At least for a while. “I got a regular job because nobody told me I could be an artist and make a living. In fact they said I couldn’t.”
“My dad said, ‘I know you want to be an artist, but you really need to get a job.’”
McDermott was lucky. She was hired as a secretary by a local very successful insurance executive, one who was more than happy to teach her new Girl Friday the tricks of the trade. “She took me under her wing and taught me everything she knew.” When her mentor retired, McDermott was just 23, but the company offered her the position. “I had to learn how to manage a department, but it was perfect for me – I was in such a learning phase in my life. I was able to learn to make that work.” For the next ten years, she threw herself into the business. Through those years, she says, “I let go of art.” But then she offers a caveat: “Until the end. By that point I was getting antsy to see if I could make it as an artist … if I was good enough, could be productive enough.”
Around that time McDermott founded a performing arts group of her own, Actco, and appeared in theaters all around New Mexico and as far away as El Paso. A few years passed, and, “That’s when John came into my life. We were married in 1989.” Theater, which “takes all of your attention,” had to go. But the opportunity to once again take pencil to paper opened up. “I actually enrolled in an art school in Albuquerque. A drawing school,” McDermott said.
“Then my life got upheaved again.” In 1994 the two moved to Eagle Nest, a tiny village on the shores of Eagle Nest Lake in northern New Mexico’s Moreno Valley. The breathtaking beauty of the place, including the land they were able to purchase, was too good to pass up. McDermott envisioned long days spent in tranquil contemplation of the beauty of her new surroundings. “I didn’t plan to do anything,” she said. “I certainly didn’t expect to build my house. But then the contractor reneged at the last minute because we were building an outrageous house made out of dirt.”
Reluctantly at first, McDermott took on the project. Soon the two-foot-thick walls were going up.
McDermott was hands-on at every step. “I did a lot. I laid all the brick, put in all the tile work, hung beams and did earth work (I did have help along the way…it’s a long story, and this is supposed to be about me and my art!)”
In the end, it took two years to build the house. “When it was done, I slept,” she laughed.
“But then I went to the post office one day and there was this flyer on the wall. I could have missed it, but it reached out and grabbed me. It was for a watercolor thing in Eagle Nest – a workshop. I yanked it off the wall and I signed up.” Because she had never worked in watercolors, she didn’t know what to expect. When her teacher left her a note following the first class, McDermott anticipated the worst. “I thought, she’s going to tell me not to give up my day job.”
In fact her teacher remarked on McDermott’s obvious talent. “You could sell your work if you want,” she said.
That was all McDermott needed to hear.
“I talked to John, and we agreed we would set aside space in the house. And he would give me three years to prove myself. And then I started painting.” Six months later she sold her first painting. “One year later I got my first award.” Within three years, she said, “I was not only paying for my supplies, I was making a profit.”
These days McDermott is busy in her Eagle Nest, New Mexico, studio where she produces her award-winning art.
These prized pieces, with their splashy palette and distinctive style, are selling in the local galleries and on the Internet.
In years past, McDermott’s busy schedule often cut into the time she could spend in her studio, including the ten years she spent running a successful gallery in nearby Angel Fire. Since 2012 she’s been able to devote much more of her time to her own work. “It’s a blessing,” she said. “Now I spend my time focusing on how I can make my work better and better.”
She continues to find new surprises in working with watercolors. “I particularly enjoy watching how different pigments work together … or don’t. The delicate balancing act of water and pigment – and how to manipulate it – is a forever learning experience. It’s a dance.”
McDermott has also extended her craft, with new ventures into pastels, scratchboard and drawing.
“They’re all very tactile, which I like. It’s drawing. That’s where I started”
McDermott says she doesn’t have a specific style, beyond a kind of contemporary realism. “You know what it is, but there’s more to it. It’s “interpreted.”
“I am particularly drawn to flowers because they speak to me.” McDermott is well known for painting “poppies that pop.” She said she has an almost spiritual affinity for the flowers, which are ubiquitous in New Mexico. “It strikes me that poppies are one of the most delicate flowers that grow. But wars have been fought over them. Through the years they’ve tried to destroy poppies.”
“Every rose has its thorn – the poppy has its thorn. It’s a beautiful, delicate flower that is abused. I think that’s a very powerful idea. I do enjoy working in different styles, but I have a common palette. I love vibrant colors. It’s a cliché, but the light in New Mexico … there’s something special about it. There’s clarity in the light you don’t find anywhere else. That’s why my colors are so vibrant. And that is what I paint..it’s what I see.”
When she’s not making art, McDermott is promoting art, including a decade and a half at the helm of the Moreno Valley Arts Council.
She’s a natural fit: the Council promotes the arts within the community, bringing in musicians, dancers, and the Missoula Children’s Theater. The Council also operates the ArtsFest, an annual art show now in its 33rd year. With assistance from New Mexico Arts, a division of the state’s Department of Cultural Affairs, the council promotes an annual Artistic Vistas Art Trail, bringing visitors from near and far to visit galleries and studios along the more than 100-mile route through the mountains of Northern New Mexico.
But ask McDermott, and she’ll tell you the work is the thing. That means time spent in solitude in her studio.
She recently posted on her blog her thoughts during a momentary pause in her work. “The comfortable chair in which I sit is in our amazing home in the beautiful Moreno Valley of Northern New Mexico. My mortgage is current, the heat is on and the lights, too. The well gives water and the coffee I just brewed is ready. I’ll pour a cup before I go on … .
“I’ve been in painting bliss, letting the strokes wash away the stress, the fears and the frustrations.
I painted and painted and painted. Sunflowers, poppies, hibiscus and landscapes. Spring, fall and summer. There are so many new pieces my little studio is bursting at the seams with color and life.”
It’s that sense of gratitude and, moreover, of the possibilities of art, that daily enliven McDermott’s life, and infuse each artwork she produces.”
Mark St.J. Couhig has been a writer, editor and publisher for more than 30 years. He now lives in Sequim, Washington, where he is a freelance journalist specializing in art, travel and the environment.
So, The Moreno Valley Arts Council has morphed in to Art UP Northern New Mexico. and I have moved on. I now spend more time here, at home. I do still work with creatives…notably the New Mexico non profit Creative New Mexico where I help them with their digital presence and messaging. My passion is unchanged though my energy is not quite as Lightning in a Jar as I was. The 4 years since Mark wrote this have taken a toll on that. His perceptions of me prompt a teary response. Thanks for reading. I guess you now know me a little better. I hope that is a good thing.
So now, looking forward. May 2018 be a far happier, healthier more prosperous year for all of us.