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Katy Kuhn Thrives In Her Second Act

Local painter who shifted to being a full-time artist seven years ago, talks about her process, her style and what keeps her in Mill Valley.

If you get out of the house occasionally, you've likely seen the art of Katy Kuhn.

The painter's work is seemingly ubiquitous these days, with current shows at the Sundance Kabuki in San Francisco and Peju Winery in Napa, an upcoming exhibit at  (Nov. 1) and her regular participation inICB Winter Open Studios (Dec. 3-4), for which she also designs the program.

A Bay Area native, the 51-year-old Kuhn lives in Mill Valley with her husband and two teenage daughters. She's actually in the midst of her second career after many years as a real estate marketer. Over the past seven years, Kuhn, a former Art Commissioner who came up with the idea for the , has immersed herself in her art. An introvert at heart, Kuhn can spend eight-plus hours a day at her studio converting a blank canvas into wherever it takes her.

We caught up with her in the studio, and got her take on her life as an artist, her artistic style, living in Mill Valley - and her love for painting rocks.

Mill Valley Patch: What brought you to Mill Valley from San Mateo, where you were born?
Katy Kuhn: I met my husband on a blind date bike ride at . We rode up Mount Tam – back in the day when I was strong [laughter] – and later he proposed to me on Mount Tam. We always wanted to move here one day, and here we are. Also, the town, art-wise, was very vivacious at the time. Susan Cummings' gallery used to be here in Mill Valley. The schools were great. I was involved in events and groups in Mill Valley like the Click-Off, the photography contest I actually started.

MVP: How did you get into painting?
KK: I have been painting professionally for about seven years. My kids got a little bit older, and I took a class in print making, and I just loved it right away. So, I just started painting and people started liking it, and I started selling it, and then I started selling more, then I got a bigger studio, and it's just kind of moved back and forth like that.

MVP: Where do you draw your inspiration for these works?
KK: A lot of these are landscapes. I like to work fast, spontaneously with a lot of energy, a lot of marks, but I am definitely influenced by having grown up around here, and constantly seeing the rocks, the water. I don’t do traditional pretty landscapes, I am not that interested in doing pretty things. That said, I like people to look at them and to respond to them, but not because they are pretty [laughter], but because they are interesting.

MVP: When did you start thinking, 'Hey, I might be kind of good at this?'
KK: The whole thing has surprised me. First, I would say that I still have an idea in my mind of where I want to be, and I am not there yet; and maybe that will never happen, maybe it means that someday I am in a museum, which I don’t expect to happen. Right now, I just want to gain more confidence. I start a canvas, I have a general color palette – I don’t use photographs usually – so I am starting fresh with everything, and it’s a huge challenge. 
It’s like writing a book. You might have some ideas, but until you get in it and let yourself into the process, I don’t know where it is going. And for me, that is an insecure feeling. So, I would have to say that, over time, I hope to get more secure with that, just knowing that whatever I get to will be OK. And I am more secure now than five years ago, because I have a sense for quality now.

MVP: And when do you know that a painting is complete?
KK: I often have people come in and say, 'Oh, I love that, it’s done right?' And I am thinking, 'No!' I know when it is done. When it is, it has a range of qualities: what is says in general, what it makes you feel like, are the colors quality, do they work, is the composition working. But the bottom line is: does it feel like it came from me and am I proud of it? Then I know.

MVP: Describe your favorite piece of your own art?
KK: Well, I can’t tell you just one, but I can tell you why it would be a favorite. It would be a favorite because I would look back and say, 'Oh my God, how did I do that,' and I wouldn’t be able to tell you, and also, when I looked at it, again and again, I would still see something different whether I intended it or not. It would still be interesting after along period of time.

MVP: Your figurative artwork contains no facial features. Why is that?
KK: With figures, I am trying to create a mood, and it’s much more about body posture and juxtaposition of where they are in the context of their background than the face. The face doesn’t matter to me. I am not interested in details, I am interested in essences of things.

MVP: If you could only paint one subject for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
KK: It would be rocks [laughter]. With rocks there is every shape form, they’re heavy, they’re big, they’re blanched, they’re dangerous, they’re strong, hard and natural. And there is no definite shape to them.

MVP: Tell us something about you that might surprise people.
KK: They would not know that I am actually very introverted [laughter]. People that know me think I am out there, but that is only one side of my personality because as an artist, I spend about 8-10 hours alone a day, and I like that.

MVP: If you were conducting this interview, what question would you ask yourself, and how would you answer it?
KK: If somebody asked me, 'Do you see yourself being an artist the rest of your life?' I would have to say, 'Yes, I do.' I look at art as more than a career, it’s a passion. The pay is only a bonus. And the bonus isn’t only about the money, it’s about people liking it enough to put their hard earned money towards it, hang it on their wall, and share it with people. It is amazing.

MVP: What is your favorite thing about Mill Valley?
KK: Quirky. Wherever you go, you know people, and it just feels like you are part of a community.

MVP: If there was one thing that you could change about Mill Valley, what would it be?
KK: It would be having affordable spaces for artists to work and live in Mill Valley. There are some amazing artists in Mill Valley.

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