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Home and Garden

Art from her heart

Published April 27, 2007


Folk artist Katherine Michael's paintings feel like whimsically imagined storybook pictures: A yellow beach house beckons with a hibiscus-red front door; a girl in an ocean-blue shirt displays her first fish; a turquoise cottage is wrapped in tropical foliage.

Her paintings aren't from the pages of a children's book, but plucked right from places she has visited or wishes she has: Haiti, Kenya, Anna Maria Island, Giverny in France.

"I always try to bring optimism to my work," says Michael, a 43-year-old mother of two who wears her red hair short and sophisticated, a carryover from the days when she ran a one-chair beauty salon in Naperville, Ill.

Michael, who moved with her husband, Brett, and daughters, Charlotte and Andi, to New Tampa in 1999, started painting eight years ago. She paints her bright, folk-art style images at the kitchen table of the 1,400-square-foot house they built in the West Meadows development.

"I'm completely self-taught," says Michael, who grew up in the Illinois farm town of Plano and spent years as a licensed foster parent to high-risk infants.

Her expressive, unschooled style pays off for an artist who paints fast and uninhibited, four to five hours daily, sometimes at the rate of a painting a day. To get ready for an art show, she once painted 60 paintings in 60 days.

She often paints a series at a time, focusing on a geographic area or a subject: Family trips to a rented beach house on Anna Maria Island inspired a series. So did a CD-ROM her daughter brought home while studying African-American history.

Those pictures, taken by former Peace Corps volunteer Lisa Carlock - now a zoology and honors biology teacher at Freedom High School - inspired a series of paintings, "The Women of Loitokitok, Kenya." Michael has donated all of the profits from those paintings to the group of women who live in the remote southern Kenyan town and who have formed the charitable group Friends Fighting AIDS Together (all of the women have HIV).

"It was interesting to see the paintings of the women as seen from someone else's eyes," says Carlock, who initially was against the idea of the women being painted from her photos because she was worried about how they would be viewed.

"I didn't want people looking at my friends' lives in a National Geographic sort of way," Carlock said. "But once I met Lisa it was so hard not to like her. She's great."

Work on that series of paintings, like the rest, was juggled with her part-time job as a nanny for a couple in New Tampa.

"It's great because it allows me the time to paint," says Michael, who works on her art in the mornings, beginning with a quick 10-minute sketch on canvas and then an underpainting to fill out the space. Sometimes she paints with a gel medium to create texture and add movement to her subject.

"A painting is finished when I'm happy with it," she says.

Michael is the current artist of the month for the North Tampa Arts League and her work is on display through the end of the month in her first solo show at the New Tampa Regional Library, 10001 Cross Creek Blvd.

Art lovers may have seen her work at Arts and Crafts Under the Palms, a New Tampa art fair held in the fall. She also will have work in the Temple Terrace Community Arts Festival (also in the fall) and the St. Augustine fall Art and Craft Festival. Her work can also be seen at www.katherine She typically sells her "quick" paintings for $40 each, a bargain in today's art market where even relatively unknown local artists fetch high prices for their work.

"The people who buy my art are real people and this is what they can afford," she says.

Anything around her can inspire a painting: Her old sofa, her English bulldog, her daughter Charlotte eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the beach at Anna Maria Island.

Her work at the kitchen table consumes the bright great room. The table is topped with its own still life: a small easel and a pile of acrylic paints. Her upholstered dining chairs, each in a different color, hint at years of artistic use

Both Michael and her husband love to cook, as evidenced by the assortment of olive oils and herbs, and the espresso machine on the kitchen counter.

Brett Michael went to cooking school on a recent working vacation to Umbria, Italy, while she painted every day with other artists and a retired art professor from Eton College.

Travel, she says, remains an integral part of their lives. They take regular beach holidays along Florida's west coast, sojourns that have provided rich fodder for her paintings. A walking tour through Provence, France, was life-changing, she recalls.

"Travel is so important to me and my work," she says. "I don't want to live my life without doing that, even if that means I can't buy a new car or climb the corporate career ladder. I believe new experiences and seeing new things changes you and makes you a better person."

Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at


. if you go

More art

See more of Katherine Michael's work as well as that of other artists in a North Tampa Arts League show, "Spectrum 300," through June at the New Tampa Regional Library; in "Spectrum" June 1 to July 22 at the John F. Germany Library in downtown Tampa; and in a summer exhibition in July and August at the Jimmie B. Keel Regional Library.


[Last modified April 26, 2007, 07:46:56]

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