Mystical, magical, fantastical, mysterious—all of these words and more simultaneously describe the art of Kathleen Kinkopf. Painting detailed and stylized figures and lush elements of nature, the artist creates a narrative that is all her own. Kinkopf grew up in a small town where she was able to spend her time experiencing the beauty of nature. However, for artists, small towns can often come with a price: there is not a lot of exposure to art. At least, that was Kinkopf’s experience, leading her to quickly understand the importance of an artist’s inner creative flame.
Join us in conversation as the artist tells us about her love of the old masters, the emotional impact of nature, and her journey from being a graphic designer, to opening her own gallery, to now being a full-time artist.
When and where did your artistic journey begin? What led you on the path you are on today?
I don't remember a time when I wasn't creating. I was that quiet, artsy kid that won the poster contests, got A+s in illustrated history and geography projects, and designed and painted the backdrops for the school plays. I came out of the womb as an artist and always felt a little out of place growing up in a conservative, rural Midwest town, playing the accordion, and attending a strict Catholic school for 12 years. I remember a lot of cows but not a stitch of art within a hundred miles.
I was somewhat of an anomaly in this setting. I spent a lot of solo time making art, writing, reading, or was with my horse, in my own bubble, sometimes wondering if I was dropped from the sky by aliens. I had a pretty normal childhood, but did not get any encouragement to pursue my art professionally. But, as many artists know, creativity is a burning flame that can't easily be extinguished. I believe this unintentional imaginative world that I created for myself in my youth, along with the innate drive to be my best creative self, led me on a path toward this life as a successful artist, and contributed greatly to the magic and myth expressed in my work today.
Who or what are your main influences?
Although I have a fine art degree, I consider myself self-taught. Renaissance and Flemish Masters taught me about the figure, light, shadow, and storytelling. Depending on what I want to learn or brush-up on (i.e., anatomy, perspective, concept, etc.), I deep-dive into various art movements or study painters, both past and present and incorporate many elements from dozens of world cultures into my work. This include iconography, mythology, traditions, storytelling, and religious and native symbology, so the study of cultures is a huge influence in my work.
Sometimes while I am doing research, I unexpectedly come across an artist's work that I'm not familiar with, a new culture, or an inspirational video or podcast. These new discoveries may influence my approach to a piece I'm currently developing, or my direction for a new series of work. There is a fine line between influence and inspiration. To me, 'influence' talks to my brain and 'inspiration' speaks to my heart.
Your paintings seem to connect the human body to nature. Is this your intention? What is your relationship to nature?
Nature is a magical, complex tapestry in which we are only a single thread. Our connection with nature has positive psychological and emotional impacts on our brains and bodies. It calms us and enhances our personal well-being. This all sounds a bit clinical, but simply stated, humans instinctively want to connect to nature and their surroundings. I think this is why people are drawn to my work.
My approach to my work is fairly intentional in planning and execution, but rarely intentional in its meaning. I leave that up to the viewer. My primary subject is the female figure, usually in a natural setting or landscape, with either or both plants and animals. There are endless combinations and conversations between all the elements and subjects, which offer unlimited creative exploration.
The unintentional chance of growing up in a small, rural town immersed me into a life with nature at its core--running through fields of flowers, riding horseback into magical forests, and spending every day outside. This experience has stayed with me my whole life. My background and connection with nature was simple, pure, and respectful. It is part of my being and effortlessly weaves itself into my work. I feel blessed for this gift granted to me early in life.
Your paintings seem to convey an intricate and fantastical narrative. Are you inspired by certain stories, novels, or types of fiction?
Believe it or not, I am inspired by non-fictional stories about nature and animals. They are sometimes so extraordinary and stunning; it sometimes seems like fiction! A continuous miracle, nature is full of surprises and wonder, filled with impossibilities beyond our imaginations. I am inspired by the poetry of Mary Oliver and Emily Dickinson and spiritual masters such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Deepak Chopra. Beautiful words and spiritual teachings are sometimes my greatest inspiration because I am inspired not though my eyes, but through my heart and in my own imagination.
Can you talk a bit about what interests you about Magical Realism?
I came from a literal world of practicality and common sense. Of rules and straight lines. To be seen and not heard. While some of these serve me well in real life, I love coloring outside the lines with my work, injecting elements of the unexpected into my realistically rendered paintings. This approach has been described as Magical Realism or Narrative Painting. Incorporating these unexpected elements into my work allow the viewer to discover and interpret the piece in their own way, or to tell a story that speaks to them based on their own life experiences.
I understand that you’ve also worked as a graphic designer, a writer, and a gallery professional. Are you now a full-time artist? Have these career paths influenced your current painting practice?
I received a BFA at Miami University (Ohio), and began my journey in the graphic arts field (for "practical reasons"), as an art director, designer in Texas. I was a successful freelance designer and loved what I was doing, but my true, creative soul was never completely satisfied. So, I became an illustrator, had commercial reps, and worked on wonderful projects from companies across the country. By proxy, I made my way to Colorado and opened an art gallery, with the intention of showing my own work. Eventually I represented 25 artists and international folk art, all while continuing my illustration work.
Life took yet another twist and carved an unexpected path that led to the American Southwest. It opened my heart and eyes to stunning vistas, saturated light, new cultures, and the possibility of a career as a painter. The many art opportunities offered by this art-drenched part of the country ultimately allowed me to make a living as a full-time artist and exhibit my work in dozens of gallery shows and invitationals in New Mexico and across the country.
I still contract special design projects and recently published my first book, Inhabiting Bliss. It has been extremely rewarding to create, and has garnered 10 national awards for best of art, illustration, and/or inspiration.
All of these experiences informed each other. One's path is very organic. I have to admit, life has brought plenty of bumps and bruises. Aside from the refinement of my craft and experience, I have to say, the greatest rewards along my professional and personal path have been the fabulous people that I've met along the way. They have been my greatest cheerleaders and continue to believe in me and support my work.
Tell us about a highlight of your career.
It's difficult to name any one highlight in my career. I would say it was probably my first sell-out show or the selection of my work for my first museum group show. I've had some fabulous feature articles, too. But it seems new highlights are happening all around me in this current phase of my career. I am thrilled with the recognition and awards my work has received recently, and am excited about new opportunities on the horizon.
If you could go back in time, would you change anything about your artistic journey? Why or why not?
An artist's journey is rarely a straight path, and mine is no exception. Destiny chose my path; I did not choose it. Both failures and successes brought me here and made me who I am as a human and artist, so I suppose it would be a mistake to wish my journey was any different. As for all of us, life brings unexpected surprises and challenges, so there are a lot of exit ramps, detours, and U-turns along the way. It takes courage, belief in oneself, and determination to stay focused, and to keep looking toward the horizon and not at your feet.
I can't change my journey or look back in regret and have accepted all the speed bumps along the way. But, if I had only one wish that would have changed my journey, it would've been to have a mentor who saw my potential and help guide and encourage me along the way. My hope is to give back when the time is right, by being a mentor to another artist navigating their own unique journey. It helps to have someone else look out for the potholes when you're trying to keep your eyes on the road.