Katherine McKay: California Roaming

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Ed. Update–We are sorry to report that Katherine McKay died of cancer, in Richmond, Calif., on October 12, 2011.


Editor’s Note—We’ve been telling you about the early desert painters; with this essay by Katherine McKay we shift into the present. This is the first of an ongoing series about (and sometimes by) artists who are now exploring the deserts.

Although I am based in the San Francisco Bay area, the entire state of California has become my home. Since 1989 I have been traveling for part of every year to the deserts, mountains and seacoasts of California.  I live in my van and paint and draw on site. My desert series, in both watercolor and colored pencil, includes work from Anza-Borrego State Park, Joshua Tree National Park, the ancient bristlecone pine forest, and the Mohave Desert.

Life Cycle No. 3 Datura, Anza Borrego

Anza-Borrego is my winter home – I spend more time there, and more of my paintings have been done there, than anywhere else. I have come to love certain places in the Southern California desert like members of my own family and return to them year after year. To me, the feeling of a place can only be got at after long acquaintance.

As for inspiration, I have received the most from my three watercolor idols: Turner, Homer and Sargent. All three began in oils but later turned to watercolor, which they mainly used in landscape. J.M.W. Turner was the first well-known artist to work directly in watercolor as an end in itself. He was able to do this because of a technical improvement in paper during his time. Where earlier paper had been suitable only for dry media or pen/ink, around the turn of the 19th century paper was developed which was sturdy enough to hold lots of water. It is thought that Turner’s glowing colors and splashy strokes inspired Monet and other French artists in the direction of Impressionism.

Ocotillo and Hummingbirds, Anza-Borrego

Turner traveled on horseback and carriage throughout the British Isles, making sketches to take back to his London studio, where he would turn them into the large oil paintings which were much in demand. Winslow Homer made many trips away from his studio on the coast of Maine, to Canada, Florida, and the Bahamas. John Singer Sargent traveled widely all over Europe, the Middle East, the American Rockies. He was even sent officially to battle sites during WWI to record what he saw. During his trips his usual way of working was to plunk himself down in a field or mountainside and paint whatever was in front of him in watercolor.

The watercolors of all three men are vivid in color, loose in form, filled with self-confidence and virtuosic drawing skill. Homer and Sargent used wax, scratching, scraping, lifting out and gouache in their watercolor paintings, and they made some use of photographs. My inspiration comes from both their travels and their experimental attitude toward watercolor.

Ram Skull, Anza-Borrego

My own artwork has several themes. One is the power of erosion to shape objects and landscapes.  The rocks and trees I portray have been shaped by wind and water into unusual configurations, and I see them as individuals worthy of respect and admiration. Mountains and canyons owe their individuality to the long effect of rain and flowing water.

Rock Portrait No. 7 Arch, Joshua Tree

Another one of my long-standing themes is natural sculpture, both of inanimate objects and of plants. One of my favorite subjects is sand dunes, found both on the coast and in desert areas.  The dunes are ephemeral natural sculpture–shaped by wind and changing with the changing sunlight.

Dune No. 5, Imperial Dunes

In recent years I have turned more to the desert plants: cacti of all types, agaves and ocotillo. These living sculptures are endlessly fascinating and have the advantage of sporting beautiful flowers in season. By allowing the watercolor itself to become a collaborator, I can achieve unexpected textural effects that mimic the roughness of the desert floor. The additives I use to achieve these effects include salt, wax, and alcohol.

Young Agave, Anza-Borrego

Some of my watercolors, often combined with colored pencil, portray small overlooked objects such as dried seed pods, shells and twigs which I bring to life again in the artwork.  One series shows the life cycles of plants.  Most people’s attention is usually directed to the flowers of these plants, but I find the stalks and dried seed pods equally interesting.  By combining them all into one composition, I can stretch out the time encapsulated in a painting to the entire life cycle of the plant.

I have been traveling in vans since 1973, and my present van is my fifth. My vans are tiny homes in which I live and do my artwork. In my capacity as coordinator for the Berkeley Simplicity Forum, I give a presentation every May about tiny homes and mobile living, emphasizing my life in my van on the road, and it always draws the largest group we get all year.

I have designed each tiny home from an empty vehicle, since I don’t like commercial van conversions or RVs, and I have made sure my houselets are free of toxic building materials and have a good amount of space to breathe freely, exercise on the floor and feel comfortable. For twenty years I have carried photovoltaic panels on the roofs of vans. Connected to household batteries inside, they provide electricity for a reading lamp, water pump, and charging for iPod and cell phone. I have a propane tank, two-burner stove and small propane refrigerator. I now carry a laptop with DVD player, as well as the iPod, which makes my long stays in the desert more entertaining.

Interior and work space of McKay's van.

Katherine McKay

In order to take time off from working during the year to pursue my art career, I have had to exercise my ingenuity and be very frugal. I find that simplicity as a lifestyle is conducive to creative pursuits, since unnecessary activities and expenses are pruned away, leaving me with that which is most important. I don’t own or rent a house (other than my home on the roam), keeping a small storage unit for my framed work, art and teaching supplies, and other things that don’t fit in the van. When I am in the Bay Area, I housesit or live in the van. It has proved to be a workable, if eccentric, lifestyle.

Since retiring from college teaching, I now travel about six months a year. Giving slide lectures of my travels, I have found people to be as fascinated with my lifestyle as with my artwork. I believe this is because people long for freedom from the tight obligations they have wrapped around themselves and welcome ideas about how to live more simply.

For more on my artwork, classes and greeting cards, see my website: www.MckayArtworks.com.

Red Cloud, Anza-Borrego

11 comments for “Katherine McKay: California Roaming

  1. Interesting article. Just a few days in Big Bend area created a hunger for more! Enjoy your artwork very much. Article was informative. Thank you.

  2. After a grueling fight with Ovarian Cancer, my sister died on October 12, 2011, but she worked as long as she could. Her trips to the desert were well known to her brothers and sisters. I am in possession of her entire body of art and am in the process of appraising and evaluating what I have. Not all her works are on her website, and the website is in the process of restructured by her nephew. Please feel free to contact me with your interests in her art.

  3. Just read about Katherine in ‘Tiny Houses’ by Lloyd Kahn that depicted her roaming van lifestyle. I was so inspired by her creativity in living life on the road that I decided to trade my truck for a van and do the same thing with my own art! Thank you and I’m deeply sorry that she and I won’t get a chance to meet and chat-what a lovely free-spirit!

  4. I am a gallery assistant at Expressions Gallery, Berkeley. Could Margaret McKay contact us regarding her sister’s art? 510-644-4930

  5. I think I may have known Katherine in the ’60s when we were roommates and she attended Univ of Houston. Please let me know if this is the same Katherine McKay. I am happy to see she took up art which I also studied and still do. I love the idea of living in a van. She was a very independent and enterprising person even when I knew her. I am so saddened to see that she passed away before we could reconnect. would love to have visited with her and catch up on her life since Houston. I’m sure it was interesting.

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