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an artist’s ourney BY SHERIL BE NNE T T TURNER

On a cool, overcast day in spring, a woman paints quietly at her easel at a park overlooking a beautiful lake. As the muted colors wash over the blank canvas, the misty, surreal landscape comes to life with hazy, purple mountains, soft green trees, and cloudy, blue-gray water. This is the 198th painting for Kathleen McKenzie, but the first of her new environment — Lake Robinson.

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or twenty-three years, Kathleen and her husband Myron, an electrical engineer, resided in Torrington, Connecticut where they raised two children, Kara and Austin. Passionate about art and nature, Kathleen explored scenic parks, lakes, and unspoiled wilderness searching for images to recreate in her impressionist oil paintings of picturesque country scenes, sweeping landscapes, seascapes, and vivid close-up studies of cliffs, wildflowers, and other natural elements. When her husband’s job recently transferred them to Greer, Kathleen’s love of nature and the outdoors led them to explore the beautiful unspoiled area of Lake Robinson. “We knew we were home,” she remembers. Kathleen, a fifth-generation artist, has been studying privately with different mentors since age thirteen. More recently, her mentors have included such renowned artists as Neil Jenney from the American Museum of Art, and Arthur Getz, cover artist for The New Yorker, who helped her refine her drawing skills. Her last mentor, Curt Hanson from the New York School of Design, gave her his color palette. “A painter uses a combination of warm and cool paint colors called a palette,” Kathlees explains. “When a painter teaches, they use their own palette colors to demonstrate their unique techniques of using and blending colors, and in that way their palette is passed down from teacher to student. “Even though some artists will not divulge their color palettes,” Kathleen relates, “if an artist, or anyone

else for that matter, didn’t learn and share, or give back, we wouldn’t know much about anything in painting.” From her earlier work using the dark browns of raw umber and burnt sienna, to her current work with it’s new fresh palette, Kathleen has evolved into a master of color. “When I look out the window now,” she says, “I see cadmium green with a touch of cadmium red with a little bit of lemon yellow. I see the sky is kind of washed out, it’s got cerulean blue, it’s got viridian green, white, and it’s got alizarin crimson. All of those colors combine in the sky to give it that milky look.” For fifteen years Kathleen involved herself in a Connecticut educational connection program for four schools where, as part of her “give back,” she taught young children to paint. Classically trained in atmospheric conditions and light, she showed the kids how to interpret a photograph while painting. “If you’re not thinking back to where you stood, you can get trapped into copying a photograph asis,” she explains. “Our planet is constantly shifting and shadows look different

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every hour or so as the light shifts with the rotation of the earth. There’s always a changing atmosphere when you paint.” By using the see-hear-do approach — watching her paint, listening to her direction, and then doing it themselves — Kathleen’s students soon became adept at not just looking, but seeing. As if painting and teaching weren’t enough, this energetic artist also started a faux-painting business. “I received a telephone call out of the blue one day asking me if I knew how to do faux. Faux,” Kathleen muses on the word. “I’m old enough to remember when it was just called marbling, feathering, sponging, and ragging!

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Well guess what?” she laughs, “I can paint whatever I see, no matter what you call it!” Her projects have included stenciling, murals, various faux treatments on walls, and even painting simple plastic light fixtures to look like marble. With her mastery of color and ability to recreate anything with paint, Kathleen’s work was popular in many Connecticut homes and businesses. A self-proclaimed perfectionist, Kathleen starts her paintings using only canvas that she has prepared herself. She explains the lengthy process. “Using Belgian linen, known to be the finest because it doesn’t have any knots, I stretch it on stretchers, size it with rabbit skin glue, and sand it after about a week. I then size it again and let it sit for about six months. Then, I paint my first coat of lead-based white paint. You use leadbased paint because you have to have something heavy for everything to bond. All of these steps help make sure that the painting surface is separated from the linen, otherwise the oil will ‘eat’ through the linen. I’m very careful at this point that it’s nice and sealed, since there is lead involved. After this has dried for another six months, I paint my second coat of white lead-based paint in the opposite direction. The canvas is cured for two to four years and then it’s a Cadillac!” After preparing her canvas, Kathleen embarks on a study of the site to be painted. “Masters like Rembrandt,” she says, “always went on site with their book bags or satchels to do a color study and make notes of the atmospheric conditions. They’d bring the study back into the studio to reference while painting. They had to Zen it,” she jokes, “since there were no cameras back then. I do the same thing with a clayboard, a hardboard. I go and I read the conditions, especially if it’s a place I’m only going to visit briefly. I’ll set up and paint the first layer of color before the light shifts. I take photos so I can finish the painting later in the studio. That’s the key to capturing color as I’ve experienced it.” Kathleen has tried various mediums throughout the years, including sculpting and watercolors, where she says she threw away a lot of paper. Told that sculpt-


ing would give her paintings “roundness” and a more three-dimensional quality, Kathleen’s first soapstone sculpture was of a little Scottie dog. “Scottie,” she laughs, “has really short legs because when I was cutting the stone, a big chunk fell off the bottom.” She also noticed that each time she had a new stone delivered from a quarry to her home, a new courier arrived every time. “UPS didn’t like me too much during my sculpting phase!” she laughs. She can still remember them walking up her steps with a heavy crated stone and a confused look on their face as they asked, “Did you order this rock ma’am?”

Under the name K.J. McKenzie, Kathleen’s work has been shown in New York City and throughout the country, as well as internationally in England and Italy. Her paintings, which have won numerous awards and are included in the Encyclopedia of Living Artists, are collected by corporate and private collectors around the world. But Kathleen’s outlook on her talent is reflected in her simple philosophy. “I was placed on this beautiful planet. God would find it pleasing that I would document it and I would pass it on,” she says. Currently nursing a broken ankle from a skiing accident and avoiding unpacking the stacks of boxes still occupying her new home, Kathleen hopes she will soon be able to continue painting, meeting other artists, teaching, and pursuing her faux painting business in her new Greer community. l

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06-06 An Artist's Journey