85 Catherine Prescott
Catherine Prescott is a phenomenal, award-winning painter from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Catherine has been teaching art for decades in schools such as Messiah College, the Andreeva Portrait Academy, The Image Summer Institute, and now at Gordon College's program in Orvieto, Italy.
Prof. Prescott has won the TRAC Cerulean Award, the Salmagundi Club Award, as well as many first prizes and best-in-shows from the Penn. State Museum and the Harrisburg Art Association, among numerous other awards. She also served as a juror in several exhibitions. In 2018 she painted the Gov. of Pennsylvania's official portrait. And, in 2015 she was asked to paint the portrait of Rev. Clemente Pinckney, one of the nine victims shot and killed at the Emanuel Church Shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.
'Self Portrait with Memorials', 2011
Catherine Prescott was born in D.C. but grew up in Wisconsin. She earned her BA at The Colorado College and then taught at an all girl's school in Baltimore, before teaching five years as an instructor at Roberts Wesleyan College. Her portraits are captivating. Catherine is inspired by the novelist Thomas Hardy, who wrote, "Persons with any weight of character carry, like planets, their atmospheres with them in their orbits." Catherine finds this atmosphere in the expressions, poses, and settings of her figures, changing her paintings from mere portraiture into psychological studies. Catherine says in her artist statement:
"I work primarily with portraits and care very much about getting a likeness, but accuracy in likeness is not enough; we all know there is more to a person than meets the eye. In what we see of someone’s face, or hands, or way of sitting, there are a thousand clues to the interior behind it. One might call it soft observation, unspoken and unproven, but nonetheless a history of feelings in the presence of a person. I love to make the most of those clues in my paintings."
'Grace At Home', 2005
Up until a couple days ago, I didn't know much about Catherine's work, apart from this image of 'Grace At Home', shown above. It blew me away, and I knew right there, she had made the list. I've never seen a painting like this before or since. There's so much going on, and as a study of character and interior life, there's so much tension, based on paradox. Our sitter, Grace is relaxing in bed - while wearing a business suit. She's in her bedroom - during the day. It's a bright, sunny day - in winter. And despite all the sun, our figure is back-lit, and the light that fills her face is reflected off the bed sheets below her - lighting her face from below as if it were a flashlight around a camp fire.
Catherine frames Grace's head and shoulders in a window frame, a technique James Gurney refers to as 'flagging'. This high contrast painting of a face, centrally placed on the canvas, looks straight at you, and you can't look away. All the details fall away, and all you notice is the glow of the room like a halo as you wonder what Grace is thinking, and what she's up to in that suit? And the way she leans to the side (mirrored by the lamp on the left) suggests a momentary adjustment, that she's pensive and restless, ready to get up and do something. You're in the middle of a situation or story that's about to start.
As I wrote this article I found many more wonderful examples of Catherine's work, and you'll see she keeps this high standard of composition and care in each of her paintings.
In this interview for the Smithsonian Institute (2014), Catherine discusses her painting process, how she prefers to work alone, so paints from her photographs. She says:
"The model I choose for a portrait may have been on my mind as a subject for years, but the painting doesn’t begin to exist as an image until I have an idea for the content—emotional, narrative, or otherwise. Often the person says something or tells a story or makes a gesture that I connect with and the painting starts up in my mind. Sometimes I ask a stranger to pose, but rarely.
"When I photograph, I end up with perhaps 200 images, including a variety of poses, diverse lighting situations, different dress, and a lot of details. My aim is to maximize my choices for the painting. Drawing with these options is a way of beginning to compose the image, and eventually I stretch a canvas to fit the proportions of the drawing. The details come from the photographs, but the idea drives which parts I choose to put together."
'Legacy: Portrait of Val', 2005
In the same interview, Catherine gives an example in her description of 'Legacy: Portait of Val', seen above:
"For several years I wanted to paint Valerie, but I didn’t have an idea for the image. Val inherited her father’s artistic gifts and a powerful desire to make things, but her father was never able to complete a project. Both the house she grew up in and the house he started after the children moved out were perpetually unfinished. She told me that throughout her childhood a table saw took the place of a family dining table. When her father died, the family was left with what had become an albatross around his neck. The story, to me, became that of a poetic, even epic struggle between Val’s father and his house and reminded me of Captain Ahab and Moby Dick.
'Northern Interior: Portrait of Kate Stone', 2011
Catherine continues to explain how her process has changed with time:
"Slow painting has brought the biggest change, along with using smaller brushes when I need them, rather than spending so much energy on facile brushwork. A character in John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwicksaid, “Precision is where passion begins.” For me, the bravura brushstroke, which I once thought was the most important aspect of painting, was distracting and distancing, and something I had to give up in order to get closer to what I really wanted to make a big deal of.
'Sam with Miraak', 2018
She explains her college experiences further in this article by Allison Malafronte (Newington Cropsey, 2016):
"I remember in one class the teacher gave us a piece of steel to create an abstract sculpture - I somehow sculpted a realistic head instead," she said. "I would also ask friends to pose for me at night, but I never had any traditional training, so I was basically just trying to draw what I saw. I didn't show the drawings to anyone in class, but when I decided to submit them to the year-end student exhibition, my teachers actually admired them. They didn't teach those skills, however, and certainly didn't demonstrate any methods, so there was not much they could do to help me. Instead they sent me to the library to look at pictures of paintings from art history."
'Daphne Holding Her Neck', 2015
When asked about favorite artists, Catherine states:
"When I was twenty, I went to Spain to study at the University of Madrid. The first time I went to the Prado and saw the seventeenth-century Spanish painters I decided that they were at the center of what it means to make a painting. I didn’t go back to study them as a painter until much later, but the visceral response stayed with me. It wasn’t only the art, but the entire culture of Spain that altered my vision. The expression of tragedy in pure flamenco and the drama of both the religion and the religious made the paintings true. I’ve been back to the Prado many times, where I learn over and over what I love."
'Gregory & Suzanne Wolfe', 2008
In the same Smithsonian interview, Catherine explains the problems inherent in painting commissioned portraits:
"Commissions are really a challenge for me because I don’t know the subjects well, and yet I want them to have a measure of interiority, what Hilton Kramer called “a face expressive of experience, a face marked by life and thought.” Further, the painting has to have an official and somewhat flattering presence. I’m interested in the way those values relate to the history of the grand portrait painters, but it’s hard to know what to emphasize.
'The Honorable Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney', 2016
In this article for Culture Care (2016), Catherine discusses her portrait of Rev. Pinckney (shown above) and the role art can play in healing:
"I think the most awful feeling is that of being alone, and only Scripture can teach us fully and convincingly that we truly are not alone. But art can be expressive and personal and full of feelings; it can point us to new ways to understand our own longings, and offer us something outside of ourselves. Insofar as it does this well it may be able to help people, the viewers of the work, to know they are not alone. If art is to do this it needs to be the opposite of what social media teaches us. Social media suggests to us that we are left behind, that the world is passing us by, that everyone else is having fun and being brilliant and on the cutting edge, with pictures to prove it, and we have to drum up something new to boost our selfness. We become inventive about things that don’t need to be invented if we are actually known. We scheme about how to be liked. It’s pretty much about being alone.
"I can’t speak about all the other kinds of art but I can say what I saw in this project: I think commemorative portraits can offer the sense that someone was known. They require a lot of skill and devotion in getting a very good likeness and a convincing presence of the person on an emotional level. The emotional content comes from the way it is painted: the background and all the colors, the way the skin is painted, the expression on the face, the brushwork, the clothes chosen, the details that were noted from the photographs, and those that were left out, all have to indicate that the artist was looking for something, seeking a connection to the person no longer here: not to suggest they are still alive, but that they mattered and have a place in the world, still, and always will.
"In the context of Principle Gallery Charleston’s beautiful hanging of the nine works, the church members and the families seemed to receive that idea, that their loved ones were being not just remembered or even honored but that they were specific, loved individuals and that we were all connected to each other. People said to me that they could see in the painting that I understood who Clementa Pinckney was to them, how special he was, and it’s because he became special to me. In the act of painting I had come to know him.
"So making is knowing, which sounds like Genesis 1. And all of the artists had a similar experience. Insofar as a painting can convince us that the subject is known and therefore loved, then perhaps we can see that we are not alone. That’s how art can become culture care."
She goes into more detail about the process in her interview with Kate Austin (CIVA, 2016):
"I think my response was just simple humiliation before God that I should be given such a gift and such a huge responsibility. Of all the social ills, race has always been the one that upsets me most. I hated racism as a little kid. I grew up in a very small town in Wisconsin in the 50’s but had close relatives in Louisiana. On our trips south I saw and heard some of the worst of it without actually growing up there and becoming embedded in the talk and attitudes. It remained strange and terrible to me; after every visit we got in our car and drove back past the tiny shacks with no doors. I remember so clearly the faces and clothes of the children standing near the road on bare ground with no grass, no tree, no swing, watching us go by on our way north.
'The Spanish Profile: Portrait of Catarina', 2005
Catherine was gracious enough to agree to a written interview for this feature:
1. When I was in grad school, one of my professors, Stephen Locke, told us there are two kinds of artists, those who love nature and those who love people. I know this is a simplification, but as a painter, I definitely prefer nature, and the more litter I find there, the more I can’t stand people (and there are plenty other reasons). In your interviews, you say you love people and that they’re fascinating. The fascination I get, but don’t you ever feel exasperated? Especially considering all the terrible things we do on Earth? You even said people are God’s most beautiful artwork? What about cats? Or cranes? Or mountains? I don’t see how anyone can compare to the beauty of an ordinary house cat. And cats never committed genocide. I know this is a strange question, and I apologize, but I’d like to hear what you have to say.
"I love the creation and paint it. I used to paint a lot of landscapes. They are challenging and I learn a lot doing them, but I don’t have the deep drive to make them in comparison to portraits. I think it is psychology that drives my fascination with people. I love what is going on behind the eyes, including someone’s history of experiences and what they have inherited and all that, but to me some of that is visible in the face and posture and movements in a person. I don’t want to intrude or analyze, and I may get it wrong, certainly only partially right, but interior life is still visible to me. Some people are naturally more poker-faced than others, so I don’t have as much interest in painting them even if I love them. People I know well are more expressive to me, so it is relational, but the challenge for me is to note and separate out the visible clues as to what is in a person’s mind and emotions. That’s why I take a lot of photographs to choose parts from, and also why I don’t want to paint them from life. They are posing when you paint them from life so that’s not as interesting to me, except for commissions when I am obligated to let them choose how they present themselves. Still, even then I take a lot of photographs to get as much choice as possible in what I paint. I can see them get a little bored or tired and then they let down their natural guard and I can see more variations in the face and pose. The larger question you are asking here is about sin and evil. What about Tsunamis? Have you ever been to Pompeii? Nature, including animals, can be very cruel. I adore birds but they sometimes steal eggs from others’ nests or even put their own eggs in the nest and roll the others out to replace them, and then use the mother’s innocent instincts to bring theirs to the fledgling stage after hers died. It is not unusual for my cat to bring me a bird he has killed. I painted those birds. There is no stopping death and sin and evil."
'Wayne Longing, Swallowing', 2004
2. What do you think about death? I see it in so many of your still-lifes, I’m curious what message you want to convey.
'Death is Not a Domesticated Pet', 2009
'Death is as Vast as a Planet at Night', 2009
"Your second question is about why I’m interested in death as a subject. The titles for those still lifes you refer to are quotes from John Updike’s novels. He writes about love and death, all the big stuff. First, death is pervasive and persistent. We all have to do it. Second, it teaches us to apply our hearts to wisdom: to not waste the time we have been given. Third, it is the most humbling thing we will experience, because ultimately we can’t control it. It is the end point of our own frailty and finitude and faults. It’s good to pay attention to that so we can forgive those things in others. Nobody, including God, says these things are easy, but I prefer not to look away. The Bible is the best book about being misunderstood and about suffering. Jesus was the most misunderstood human who ever walked the earth and suffered terribly because of it; and He is the only one who can help us deal with all the suffering now. When you ask me what message I want to convey, the answer is that I am not interested in conveying a message. I don’t need to tell other people what to think. But I am responsible for telling the truth if I’m going to say anything at all."
'Map: Portrait of Brendan', 2003
3. You talked briefly about teaching at a black, all-girls’ school in Baltimore during protests and riots, and how police came into your school to beat these students, and how even colleagues tried to stop you from protecting them. This is a nightmare situation, and I hate to have you relive it in an interview, but there are so many questions about this. Why would police invade a school? And an all-girl school at that? Were students participating in the protest? Were any of them arrested? Were you arrested? This is an important moment in history, I hope you’re willing to tell more of this story.
"Don’t worry about causing me to relive pain from the Baltimore riots. That will always be painful, just as the current 2020 riots are now. The girls I taught were in a public high school, with the boys’ counterpart across the street. Even in 1968 that was very unusual and old fashioned. I guess you know something about the Civil Rights era? Jesse Jackson had started a breakfast program in the public schools for kids that were coming to school hungry. Kids were very influenced by the Black Panthers and other more radical groups. The violence was directed at Civil Rights leaders but also at anyone who protested and caused trouble. The grocery store behind our house was boarded up. My students were doing things like setting wastebaskets on fire in the bathrooms. I tried to stop them and warn them that they could get badly hurt but they were angry and they were encouraged to show it. Of course it snowballed and of course they had no way of seeing what was coming. When the police came in they were in full riot gear as though the girls were throwing bombs or shooting people. There was a lot of screaming. No one was arrested in that situation, but the girls were beaten with billy clubs. I wrote a testimony of what I had seen and had it notarized. But I was never called into court."
'Wild Bill', 2002
4. You’ve stated you don’t like when art gets political. Have you ever seen it done right? What about Norman Rockwell, who painted ‘The Problem We All Live With’?
Do you ever find inspiration in this kind of work?
"The Rockwell painting was done in 1964 almost at the height of Civil Rights activism. It's an illustration of a very sad but charming anecdote that certainly was meant to elicit sympathy for the little girl and her plight. The charm is in the irony that it takes 4 big, strong U. S. Marshalls to accompany her to school and make sure she gets there safely; her brave and dignified posture suggests she would be just fine and able to get there by herself but for the hatred spilling out onto the wall behind them. But today that scene wouldn't be political at all. It would be infuriating and a call for action. Sympathy and sentimentality are among the points being protested in 2020. The trouble with sentimentality is that it always has some untruth in it. If you are going to make something political it has to tell the truth. Norman Rockwell has always been sentimental and charming. He's wonderful, but it isn't politics.
'Lois in My Landscape', 2005
5. The details you gave about studying art in college sound extremely frustrating – teachers with no skills, telling you to find your education in the library. It’s all so irresponsible, and this is still prevalent in many classes around the globe. Since you’ve been teaching for decades, what do you focus on, and how have you corrected this educational neglect in your classes? Basically, what should art education be doing differently?
"I wasn’t at all frustrated with my art department in college. I got a very good education. I was taught how to “fill a space in a beautiful way,” as Georgia O’Keefe put it, how to research, how to label, how to identify, how to seek, how to think through messy things, how to use materials and get the best out of them, and, most important, how to look, but I wasn’t trained in how to get an effect or how to use techniques, or how to get a certain desired look, how to paint a hand, how to get right proportion, or anatomy, or a style. Those latter things were anathema to modern art. I would, even now, choose the former over the latter, but what I wouldn’t choose is the strong bias against portraits and the level of realism that I had to learn by myself. However, that bias did send me to the greats, to the museums, to the art history books, to figure it out on my own. I just had to do it outside of my official education. What my teachers did teach me was and is invaluable and, precisely because I was never taught “how to,” I have my own way of doing it. That in itself is a modernist way of thinking. And I have, since finding my own way, learned from looking at the classical realists who studied in contemporary academies, just as I have from the painters in the art history books."
'Lara Scott with Seven Self-Portraits: Long Have I Sought Thee', 2001
6. In your painting, ‘The Lamb & The Cleaver’ what does the cleaver represent?
'The Lamb & The Cleaver', 1995
"The cleaver is a gift my husband brought me from Italy. I had just come home from Spain where I had been studying all the 16th C. Spanish painters, who are my favorites. It was Good Friday, the day of remembrance of the sacrificial Crucifixion of Jesus on the cross, 3 days before Easter. Jesus was called The Lamb of God in several places in the Bible, and there are many paintings of a lamb, as a symbol for Christ’s sacrifice, and I had been looking at one very famous one in the Prado by the Spanish painter de Ribera. I wanted to start a still life so I spent time looking at objects in my house to find something that moved me. The stone lamb was on my grandmother’s porch all the time I was growing up and is probably the stone from a child’s grave."
'Anna with her Father Jake', 1999
7. What advice do you give to young art students?
"Don’t major in art or go to grad school just so you can be a college art professor. There are very few job openings for that. Consider art as a calling without necessarily being a job or career. Be curious!! If you’re going to paint, one goal for it always has to be to make a better painting."
8. What do you say to someone who thinks art doesn’t matter?
"How do you learn what an ancient civilization was about? Answer: look at what they made. I used to teach a lot of 1-credit art courses for non-art majors. At one point all students were required to take a hands-on course in the arts. Most of the students from other departments resented having to spend time in a class like mine that wasn’t going to help their careers. I liked teaching it and considered it a challenge to get them to think art is important. At the end of a class, there were always many who told me that they were converted, and one boy, as he was leaving the final critique, said to me that I had really changed him, and that one day when he has children, he will take them to museums. Also, making art will teach you a lot of discipline and how to take the time required to make it right."
'Fallen Bandit' 2006
9. So far on this list, I’ve focused almost exclusively on portrait painters – which I hadn’t planned on at all. In my search for powerful, meaningful art, I found that figurative works generally hold the most impact. I’m curious about your take on this, if I’m being too exclusionary.
"It’s hard to paint a good portrait…I suspect that you are impressed with the skills the people have who do it well. The skills required to paint a decent portrait are the kind of skills that most people recognize they don’t automatically have. They also see it would take a lot of work to acquire those skills. That’s respectable to most people. They say, “Wow, I couldn’t do that.” And it’s obvious to anyone if it is done poorly. But bad portraits can be correctly and even skillfully done and still be every bit as boring and meaningless as a bad abstract painting or a bad landscape or a bad illustration of a mechanical part. The viewer has to receive a sense of the emotional conviction, even devotion, of the artist, no matter what they paint. That’s what to judge it on, not the skill."