By Susan Gallacher-Turner
“I’ve spent many, many years waking up in the morning saying what do I feel like doing today? As an artist, do I feel like going into the studio? Do I feel like going out meeting people? Do I feel like getting reference material? I’m very young looking for my age. And I think that’s one of the reasons,” says Kitty Wallis.
From the streets of New York to a California commune, Kitty has always lived an artist’s life. As a child growing up in a small, poor Pennsylvania town, Kitty’s mother was proud of her artistic daughter and encouraged her to draw. Later, it was a high school counselor who, saw Kitty’s talent, took her to New York City to apply for a full-tuition art scholarship at Cooper Union. Only 10% of the applicants to Cooper Union are accepted into this privately funded 150 year old college. After passing the difficult 8 hour entrance exam, Kitty was accepted into the program. Making her first move away from her small town home, in 1956, Kitty describes how it felt in the big city, “Culture shock! The first day was traumatic because I didn’t realize the importance of the fact that no one would know me. Because everybody knew me when I was growing up, there were only 2,500 people in my town. But people helped. By the end of the first day I had a place to live and a job. It’s amazing.”
Although being a student at Cooper Union is an honor and Kitty learned to work in a variety of media, she had her difficulties. The school was embracing abstract impressionism, the new wave of art in the 1950’s and Kitty wanted to do realistic work. Walking from her office job to school one day, Kitty passed by a group of sidewalk artists looking for customers when one of the artists said, “Get your portrait done.” Kitty replied back, “If I wanted a portrait of myself I would do one myself.” He challenged her to do his portrait right there and then. “So I did. And I was so excited by the whole thing because I did a good portrait of him. It was just a little charcoal sketch but it was right on.” The artist was so impressed with her skill, he suggested she set up her own street portrait business. Kitty says, “I was out there the next night with my chairs, easel and art supplies, the whole thing. That was the first move I made to be independent instead of having a job.”
Kitty’s journey began doing portraits on the streets of New York, but has taken her many places along the way. After three years at Cooper Union, Kitty got married and with her husband set up a shop in Philadelphia. He made sandals and she did portraits. Deciding to join a commune, they moved to California and a year or so later, Kitty moved to Santa Cruz. Kitty has traveled the country and the world making art and money, seeing old friends, making new ones and setting up gallery shows featuring work from her travels. Kitty says, “I first wanted to travel around the country so I could learn to be a traveler. So I got a van and some art supplies and started across the country for a year and a half.” Kitty found ways to make money along the way doing portraits, plein air painting and working with a therapy community. This led to a unique opportunity Kitty explains, “I got to a gallery in Dallas that had a few of my pieces. They were excited by what I was doing and said let’s do a show of your work when you get back.”
For a while, Kitty settled back in Santa Cruz, California enjoying the artistic lifestyle there. Then, she moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico where the gallery scene was thriving but after a few years, missed California and moved back to Santa Cruz. It was in Santa Fe, she overheard an art store conversation that led her down another professional road. “I had been using sandpaper and that gave me that painterly quality, rich hard edges color on color. It was sold in art supply stores as pastel paper even though it was disposable paper,” says Kitty. “I heard the art company rep tell the store owner that they weren’t going to supply the sandpaper anymore. I knew I had to have a paper with that texture and a product that wouldn’t fall apart after 50 years. And it had to have the sandpaper surface but smooth.”
It was a personal need that drove Kitty to develop her now famous Wallis Sanded Paper. At first, she made it herself on a Santa Cruz hilltop. With a spray gun in each hand, she sprayed resin on the paper first, then pumice. At the end of the sessions, covered with paint and pumice, Kitty would have enough paper to last her several months. But when her students wanted to know how she achieved her unique pastel effects, she realized she had to share her paper with them. And it was a student with manufacturing experience who helped her find a way to get the paper mass produced. Introduced at the first semi-annual International Association of Pastel Societies in Denver, Colorado in 1995, the paper was a hit and Kitty began receiving a regular salary for the first time in her life. “When I first got into this business I was very excited about finally having an income that didn’t depend on selling paintings. I wanted to see what I would paint if I didn’t have to pay the rent with the sale of my work. So the first thing I found out was, I depended on that need to sell for my painting discipline,” explains Kitty.
About that time, Kitty moved to Portland from Santa Cruz, bringing with her the studio tour idea that she’d been involved with there. “When I moved to Portland, my heart was so much involved in the open studios idea that I felt that Portland needs this,” she says. “But I didn’t want to come busting up here with, “In California this is how they do this.” So, she waited 3 years, meeting artists and collecting the names of artists whose work she liked. Kitty explains, “I got eight people to come to a meeting in August of 1998. We put up our own fees for the first year, $80 dollars a piece, enough money to print applications and send them out. And when we got applications back and juried, we had 49 people in the first tour.”
Ten years later, the Portland Open Studios Tour has grown to feature 100 artists at work in their studios all around the Portland Metro area. Kitty has watched Portland Open Studios grow with pride. Although she’s not as actively involved, she still enjoys participating in the tour every year. Kitty says, “I am so proud of how people took the ball and ran with it because you don’t want your baby to die. And to have such strong legs on your baby is a very nice thing. Because it’s growing in strength, vitality and popularity every year.”
In addition to Portland Open Studios, gallery shows, Wallis Paper company, teaching around the country and doing her own studio work, Kitty, at 71, is busier than she’s ever been. Retirement is not in her future, says Kitty, “I have never been so busy in my whole life. I’m 71 and I’m far from retiring. “I never thought of it as a goal. I would brag to people I’m so glad I belong to a profession that I don’t have to retire from.”
All those years ago as a young Cooper Union student, Kitty says she wanted to develop the chops of a master. As an internationally known, award-winning artist, teacher and entrepreneur, she’s done all that and more. Now as she works in her studio, she’s painting not just what she sees around her but what she feels within. “I finally allowed myself to understand that I was bored with realism,” she explains. She wants the colors and shapes to come from her gut, and her work continues to grow and evolve. “Now I seem to have found a new challenge. I’m doing something new and I don’t know how to do it. It’s a good thing. I want to learn how to create an expression that is mine,” Kitty says. “This is who I am.”
You can visit Kitty’s studio during the Portland Open Studios Tour, October 10, 11 and 17, 18 from 10 am to 5pm. Tour Guides are for sale at New Seasons, Art Media, Powell’s and on our website at Portland Open Studios.
Hear the podcast about Kitty Wallis at Voices of Living Creatively website.