Catherine Prescott completed her graduation from The Colorado College, Colorado, the US in 1966. Later in the same year, she also attended the graduate painting class at the University of Wisconsin. She gained a formal entry into the world of art. But, inside herself, she knew that she was yet to learn the art that she wanted to create.
A tour to Spain the next year proved to be an eye-opener for her. The grandeur of European art affected her profoundly and perhaps, for the first time she realised how deeply she cared about art. The experience, that life has so generously infused in next forty-five years or so, provided the artist with a perpetual source of inspiration all of which come into play as she continues painting her masterpieces on canvas.
How the environment of Wisconsin, where you grew up, was a contributory factor in the growth of the person and the artist that you are today? Did the artistic atmosphere at home owe to her musician father and painter mother impress little Catherine since early days?
I grew up in a rural town of 1500 people. The village was surrounded by cornfields and cow pastures. My everyday experience was to ride a bike out into the countryside on narrow roads between those fields. Two of my best friends were from farm families and my father sold equipment for dairy barns. When, after living in several other states and cities, I moved to Pennsylvania in 1980, I felt like I had come home. That was when I started painting landscapes.
Our town was, however, two hours from Chicago. My parents, being art and music lovers, took us to museums and concerts of all types, and considered art, music, and literature to be highly valuable to their daughters’ education and experience. I was given private painting lessons as a young teenager, and, at fifteen, was doing large figure drawings from the model. I was also, during college, a professional jazz singer, an art I learned standing at my father’s piano, as well as listening to his jazz records.
You felt a growing dissatisfaction with the kind of formal education you received in college during the 1960s and travelled to Europe for finding artistic inspiration and guidance. Did this experience help you in understanding the ‘self’ more and find your own way in the world of art?
I went to Madrid in 1967 to study Spanish and encountered the Spanish Baroque painters there. That was the first time I knew what I really cared about in a painting, which had nothing to do with understanding myself. In fact, understanding the self-was precisely what I did not like about abstraction and the modern art I had been taught. I was bored with it. I learned that I would be more likely to find my way apart from the art world, not in it.
How important a role Richard Maury’s work played in your artistic metamorphosis?
How to paint what I wanted was another matter, since no one was teaching those skills at the time. Much later I met Richard Maury in Italy, an American who had left the U.S. precisely because the paintings he wanted to do would never be accepted there. I learned two things from looking at his work: first, he was clearly painting very slowly and going back and changing it until he got it right; and second, he was using small brushes. Up to that point, I believed that bravura brushwork was the only good brushwork for a living artist.
You love mingling with people, particularly, the ones that are subjects of your paintings and understand their immediate surroundings. How do you create the profiles of the characters from your observations and insights? Once the subjects travel through your imagination to be translated on canvas from photography do you see any transformation in them?
I don’t create profiles of characters. Creating profiles and calling them characters is distancing them from me. I like to look at people whose life experiences and thought life show on their faces, in their poses and gestures. That is what I want to paint. I want to make the interior exterior. If they have a story that explains some of what I see, I sometimes bring some part of it into the painting, but not with any idea of exposing them, nor with the purpose of illustrating them, and not even because I’m after an anecdote. It’s about knowing humanness and wanting that to be what the viewer connects with.
Do I change the images in the photographs? Most certainly. What I end up with the painting comes from the idea I had before I even asked the person to pose for me. I paint until I see what I wanted, or, if I change what I want, I paint until I see that. It’s more about memory than imagination.
Does the emotiveness of nature leave you creatively fulfilled as you paint the vastness of blue sky or green valley on canvas? Describe the sensations that you experience as you find your paintings developing in perfect synchronisation with your imagination.
This is a question I can’t answer. It is much too romantic a vision of what it is like to paint. What I experience as I paint could be anything, sometimes related to what I am doing but often not. The act of painting is not emotional. It’s just hard work.
You have been involved with teaching young students both in Europe and in the US. Is there any difference in approach in art education and in the availability of opportunities?
The opportunities for a student to study figurative painting in the U.S. are wide open; one can take classes almost any time, anywhere. There are a number of well-established classical art schools which teach classical, step by step training, throughout the United States. Some colleges and universities are becoming more interested in figure painting. The students I teach in Italy are American students studying abroad in American schools.
Do you have a favourite piece of work that you personally adore? If so, then why? Which emotion do you love featuring on canvas most?
There are so many paintings that I personally love; I cannot possibly name one. And naming a favourite emotion to paint? I would not want to do that. I am more interested in the complexity of emotions, the mixed and ambivalent ones, which we all experience all the time.
In the maze of life, how did Catherine’s time on earth evolve, what her lessons have been and how satisfied does she feel?
I am very grateful for the gifts God has given me as well as for the difficulties I have encountered; they have together taught me to seek and trust God. I would love to call myself content, and very often feel that way, but what the Bible says about us is true, that ‘Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward’ — Job 5:7.
Catherine Prescott prefers…
A finalist for Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, Catherine’s work is on display at National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, February 2013 – March 2014. Catherine was also a finalist in Art Renewal Center, 2011-2012 International Salon, figure category and ACOPAL competition, America China Oil Painting Artists League, 2011.
The artist received grants from Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Individual Artists Fellowship, 2008 and also from Pennsylvania Council on The Arts and National Endowment for The Arts, Artist in Residence, York Public Schools and Cumberland Valley Public School, 1988 – 1989.
Find more of her work at her website.