Cate Whittemore is a Cold Spring artist. She also paints scenic art for theatrical productions and television and has worked as a courtroom artist. Philipstown.info’s Michael Turton recently spoke with her at her third-floor studio/apartment. Their conversation ranged from Whittemore’s approach to art and what inspires her to what she might cook for dinner this week and the sense of loss she feels when she sells a painting. Their conversation has been condensed and lightly edited.
Philipstown.info: Was there a “eureka moment” when you discovered your interest in painting or was it a gradual process?
Whittemore: I’ve always been interested in painting even as a young child. My goal then was to be either a trapeze artist or a painter like Picasso.
Philipstown.info: What media do you work in?
Whittemore: I like them all but I sort of fluctuate. I like to do water colors when I’m traveling. Oil as well. I do drawings. Right now I love painting using stain on wood.
Philipstown.info: Do you prefer abstract or realism?
Whittemore: My job doing Broadway shows includes a lot of work in many different styles and media. I used to really be into capturing reality but as I’ve gotten older I’m more into what comes out of my unconscious, instantly – and that becomes very abstract.
Philipstown.info: How do you create most of your paintings “¦from your imagination… or from locations?
Whittemore: Both. Those three watercolors are from Brazil, Minnesota and Greece. I’m really inspired by locations. I really love it here in Cold Spring. Some ideas do come out of my head. I don’t know which I prefer.
Philipstown.info: Where did you study art — formally or otherwise?
Whittemore: I started in high school in Italy and then went to Connecticut College, then the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, DC. I also studied at the New York Studio and Forum of Stage Design for two years. That was sort of a non-credit graduate program. I also completed a MFA at the University of Minnesota.
Philipstown.info: In the other half of your artistic life what sets/backdrops have you painted for theatrical productions?
Whittemore: I worked on Spider Man, That Championship Season, South Pacific, The Importance of Being Earnest, A Free Man of Color. Jillions of them really. I’ve also worked on television productions such as The Big C – with Laura Linney. We paint the backdrops standing up — with the canvas or other material on the floor. It’s very physical work. I also worked as a courtroom artist for Wired.com in the RIAA vs Jammie Thomas – the illegal downloading trial.
Philipstown.info: When you paint a set you follow someone else’s vision. Is the feeling much different when you finish a set you are happy with versus finishing a painting of your own?
Whittemore: Oh yeah! You can be satisfied when it’s someone else’s vision. With my own work I may not know until two years later whether I like it or not.
Philipstown.info: Is one more difficult than the other?
Whittemore: My own work is way more difficult. It’s self-critical and that’s never easy.
Philipstown.info: Do you have any artist heroes?
Whittemore: I have a lot of them. I really like the drawings of Van Gogh. I like the structural quality of his drawing. I like Rouault — a French painter. His paintings look like stained glass. And Winslow Homer’s watercolors.
Philipstown.info: What kinds of paintings make the biggest impression on you?
Whittemore: I think the work of Caravaggio, an Italian painter; one of the primary users of “chiro scuro” meaning light and dark. His figures are lit so dramatically, so articulate.
Philipstown.info: Do painters experience the equivalent of writer’s block?
Whittemore: I’d say so. I think it’s good though. It’s like you’re editing.
Philipstown.info: Is there a pattern to how you choose your subject matter?
Whittemore: I’m looking for it all the time. The most important inspiration is stuff that is just suddenly in my head and I want to manifest it. Second to that is finding shapes in nature. I like wood paintings. I have an idea but the wood is sort of in charge. I see a lot in wood grain. I’m a landscape artist. I’m a traveler — I love to go to beautiful places. Swimming is also very inspiring.
Philipstown.info: Do you ever swear while you’re painting?
Whittemore: No just when I’m driving! That’s a good question though. I’m just so engaged when painting I lose track of time. I spend hours in that state. Sometimes it’s kind of emotion-free. I feel I have to get somewhere — I have to get it out. It’s a pretty good groove. Once this summer I was actually weeping while doing a watercolor. I was saying “What’s the point?” I entered it in a juried show in New York City and it got in. Getting in cold like that is difficult.
Philipstown.info: What was the last book you read for fun?
Whittemore: “The Worst Date Ever” by Jane Busssman.
Philipstown.info: What do you have to say about how art is taught in schools — elementary through high school?
Whittemore: It sort of depends on the school. I sent my kids to a Waldorf School. It’s a very creative and different way of learning – very tactile. They had to play an instrument, recite Shakespeare at an early age, learn to knit. There’s such a stigma attached to drawing and how people say they can’t do it. In ancient Greek culture — which our culture is based on — there was no goddess of visual arts. There are the nine muses but not even a muse for visual arts.
Philipstown.info: When you select a subject or idea to paint — how much of it is simply what you like and how much is about what you think others might like?
Whittemore: I have this painting — of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of wisdom. It’s a work in progress. People say they liked it better before”¦so then feel I have to change it. But”¦then I don’t.
Philipstown.info: What is your favorite kind of pizza?
Whittemore: Pepperoni, but I don’t eat meat any more. There are lots of favorites. How about garlic, spinach and goat cheese?
Philipstown.info: In at least one other art form — music — “covers” are very acceptable and sometimes considered better than the original. Is that possible in painting or is that blasphemy?
Whittemore: No that’s very good. People do it all the time. It’s called “appropriating.” I do it constantly in my job.
Philipstown.info: What’s the least amount of time it has taken you to complete a painting? What was the longest?
Whittemore: I have an abstract painting of trees. It took me about an hour. I finished it and I said “This is what I want.” That’s why I like it so much. The longest go on for years.
Philipstown.info: When you sell a painting, apart for the practical aspect of earning money, how does it feel? Like you have lost something?
Whittemore: Yes, I have a hard time with that. It’s detrimental to my health. I should sell more paintings but I hoard. But I do forget them when they go away.
Philipstown.info: What’s your favorite time of day to paint?
Whittemore: As long as there is natural light. The morning is the best though. By afternoon you’re tired. It isn’t as easy to focus.
Philipstown.info: If you were to cook your best dinner what would it be?
Whittemore: This week it would be salmon, baked yams and rainbow chard.
Philipstown.info: When you finish a painting do you rank them in your head? Totally satisfied? Almost satisfied? Unsatisfied etc — or are they simply what they are?
Whittemore: They can’t be allowed to be “unsatisfied.” They have to be all the way good. That’s why it’s such a struggle. That’s why if I say it’s finished — it’s a big deal.
Philipstown.info: Do you have an ultimate subject in the back of your mind that you haven’t painted yet?
Whittemore: I’m still waiting to do my Hudson River School landscape — that all-encompassing view of such a large area. It was different then. The landscape was misty and green and the river was filled with white-sailed boats. But things are different now. The landscape has changed. I probably won’t ever do that painting.
Philipstown.info: What made you choose Cold Spring as the place to hang your hat?
Whittemore: I was working across the river in Cornwall. I was really lost up here. I had never been to Cold Spring but when I drove here the first time I said, “What???” This place is so fascinating. It’s so beautiful — the mountains, the river, the old houses. It’s not like anywhere else.
Photo of artist by M. Turton
Photos of artwork courtesy of C. Whittemore