In the Studio: Catherine Prescott and Theodore Prescott
Rural Pennsylvania—with its sprawling, unspoiled landscapes—is an ideal place for an artist to lead a peaceful, private life. Several painters and sculptors who spent years cramped in small studios in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and other boroughs are travelling west to Pennsylvania to build second homes or studios away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Catherine Prescott and Theodore (Ted) Prescott—a realist portrait painter and abstract sculptor, respectively—have been living in one such scenic area of Pennsylvania (the farmlands near Harrisburg) for more than thirty-five years. After meeting at Colorado College and later marrying in the 1960s, the artist couple lived in New York City for two years and eventually made their way to Harrisburg in 1980. There they raised their two daughters while teaching in the art department of Messiah College and also building their individual careers. They have lived near Harrisburg ever since, and now both in their early seventies are enjoying a semi-retired lifestyle that still includes plenty of painting, sculpting and professional accomplishments.
On a bright, sunny spring day in late May I travelled to Pennsylvania to visit their studios. After a long drive that led to back roads weaving through wide open spaces, I arrived at the Prescotts’ property, where a charming 1830s stone house sat on a hilltop, directly across from a red barn that was converted into Ted’s sculpture studio in 2002. The prolonged weeks of rainfall that preceded my visit turned the landscape into the sort of lush, verdant vista one typically encounters in Ireland or New Zealand, and it was clear why the Prescotts’ surroundings bring them continued contentment and inspiration. One of the most unique aspects of their property and farmland is the sense of seclusion it provides, as the closest neighbor is about a third of a mile away. After meeting the couple outside and talking briefly, I began my visit with Catherine, whose studio was added onto the first floor of the main house in 2000.
As it turned out, Catherine and I had much to talk about and shared mutual artist-friends, which quickly allowed our interview to turn into more of a comfortable conversation between two acquaintances. Her 25’-x-25’ studio is an ideal size—not so small that one feels confined and not so large that one gets lost—with high ceilings and large windows letting in plenty of light and natural views. The space was well-organized and clean, with only a few select works displayed, including a small sketch in progress on her easel. What stood out immediately was the wall above her desk, filled with postcard images of the types of faces that inspire her as a painter of people. A wide range of paintings and photographs were represented— from Velázquez, Vermeer and Van Dyck to Lois Dodd, Sean Cheetham and Stuart Shills—but they all had one thing in common: the artist or photographer captured something beyond just the physical appearance of the subject.
That ability to identify and connect to the “interior” of a person, as Catherine calls it, has been a primary motivation of her art since she first began drawing. It was, in fact, an instinct she had even before her art training began. She told a story of how, prior to her first semester at Colorado College, the students had to send in a photo and one-sentence summary of what was important to them, which would then be used to describe them in the “New Faces” freshmen book. The sentence beneath her photo read, “I like people.” “I laugh about it now,” the artist recalled, “but I think that still accurately summarizes who I am as a person and painter. That sentence could be interpreted in a few different ways, but for me it meant that I like people because human beings have these endlessly fascinating qualities about them, and a story to tell. I paint people because there is something about them that I am drawn to and because I want to learn more about their inner self and what makes them tick.”
Having attended Colorado College as a fine-art major in the 1960s, the artist was taught the abstract concepts of the time and attempted to follow her teachers’ assignments, even though her impulse was toward the representational. “I remember in one class the teacher gave us a piece of steel to create an abstract sculpture—I somehow sculpted a realistic head instead,” she said. “I would also ask friends to pose for me at night, but I never had any traditional training, so I was basically just trying to draw what I saw. I didn’t show the drawings to anyone in class, but when I decided to submit them to the year-end student exhibition, my teachers actually admired them. They didn’t teach those skills, however, and certainly didn’t demonstrate any methods, so there was not much they could do to help me. Instead they sent me to the library to look at pictures of paintings from art history.” From that point Catherine taught herself the skills of realistic drawing and painting by imitating what she saw in books and museums. As she advanced through her development in the years to come, she found ways of incorporating influences that were speaking to her strongly at specific times.
The artist explained the effect painters such as Lucian Freud and Alice Neel had on her process, and how moved she was by the level of psychological content their portraits contained. Catherine showed me an early painting of her husband Ted, which was completed in 1993 before she came across Freud’s work, and the stylistic approach she used for the flesh tones was surprisingly similar. She used this as an example of how her instinct with painting has always been to create structure and form through shapes of color, which is a modernist way of seeing. Throughout the 1980s she also used large brushes and bravura brushwork to create her representational portraits. The artist remembers there being few examples of realist painters who had some connection to the contemporary, but how encouraged she was to discover those who did. Lois Dodd, Jack Beal, Alex Katz and Antonio López-Garcia were artists she admired greatly, and when she saw that they were painting similar subject matter but using different stylistic approaches it was a turning point for her. “I remember figuring out, for instance, that López-Garcia was using small brushes, and it made me realize I could work smaller and more refined,” she said. “I could fine-tune certain areas and slow down and take my time. This became an integral part of my process. I now can spend up to five months completing a painting. It’s not so much the initial composition or idea that takes time, but the revisions and changes. Freud worked a lot like this, painting and repainting for weeks or months.”
Throughout the 1980s Catherine drew and painted predominantly from life but in later years she began using photographs. “I know many artists are against the use of photography in painting—and as a teacher I understand why and do not let my students work from photographs—but I now use photographs not for the information the camera recorded but to remember details and what attracted me to the person in the first place.” Today Catherine’s process involves first observing her subjects in some natural setting or situation—for instance, there might be a person she sees every Sunday at church that she finds interesting, and after a few conversations she may ask him or her to pose—and then setting up a photo shoot at her studio, where she takes between one hundred and three hundred photographs. She next goes through all of the photographic reference to select a pose and expression, and will then enter her studio to piece together the composition together on canvas. “I need to be alone to really feel the person,” Catherine admitted. “I don’t want the model in the studio because there can be pressure that I owe something to him or her. I can’t have my feelings when people are present—this is just my personality as an artist, and I have learned to work with it instead of fighting against it. Besides, I am the one who took the photographs. I have already looked closely and seen something that inspired me. There are thousands of clues in a person’s face and behavior, and in the photographs I can find most of the pieces I observed during the real-life encounter. The photographs give me many possibilities to choose from in creating my own idea of how I want to represent this person. What the photographs don’t give me is the emotional content. That is in my head.”
People of all different backgrounds and ages inspire the artist. She has often found herself particularly drawn to young people, especially those who are transitioning from child to adult. “I was a child once,” she said. “And I have children and grandchildren, so I’m very interested in the changes young people go through: their relationship with their parents, their rebellion. I am also interested in the role parents play in this process. I have done a number of paintings that might eventually become a series titled ‘Children of the Faithful.’ I’m interested in children whose parents have been faithful to them during difficult times—and particularly whose faithfulness to and love for their children manifested in worry, fear and a desire to protect them. I did a portrait of a father with his teenage daughter at a time when he was worried about her risky behavior. Another painting from a few years ago was of a girl in high school preparing to graduate. It’s titled Leaning In, after the popular book Lean In, which is about women embracing leadership roles in the corporate world. But I think it’s a much harder job to 'lean in' to becoming a woman in the real world, figuring out who you are and what you want in life. I know many young people feel confused and misunderstood during those years, and I am sympathetic because I remember what it feels like.”
The artist is also drawn to adults who have an interesting story, unique personality or strong presence. Catherine explained the inspiration behind a large painting in her studio of a young woman in her early thirties. When Catherine was involved with the first Women Painting Woman (WPW) group in 2010, a group of twelve female artists travelled to Charleston to spend a week painting together. There was one woman in the group, the youngest among them, whom Catherine found interesting from the beginning: she was reserved and spent the first few days observing the others or reading a book in the corner rather than socializing. As the days passed, the woman’s dry humor, intelligence and directness piqued Catherine’s interest, and she asked her to pose for her. The title of the painting is Northern Interior. “This woman is from Canada, but the title is also about the woman behind the outward coolness and cautiousness,” Catherine explained. “There was something very spiritual about her presence and behavior, and the painting inadvertently captured that.” In particular, Catherine felt the artist’s eyes had a spiritual quality, especially when looking down, which is how they appear in the final painting. While recounting this story, Catherine pointed to a plaster-cast replica of the head of the Virgin Mary from Michelangelo’s Pieta hanging on her studio wall—given to her by her son-in-law, the artist Robert Armetta—and explained how she noticed that most women portrayed in Renaissance art had a particularly shaped eye, especially when looking down. When the painting of the young artist from WPW was finished, she realized her eyes had a similar shape to those in the sacred sculpture, something she hadn’t planned.
As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked Catherine about any upcoming events or exhibitions, and she talked about a special recent project she was honored to be a part of. The artist Lauren Tilden organized a group of painters to memorialize the lives of those killed last year in the Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston. Each of the nine artists involved in “Tribute to the Emanuel Nine: A Portrait Project” —Stephanie Deshpande, Paul McCormack, Greg Mortenson, Ricky Mujica, Catherine Prescott, Mario Robinson, Terry Strickland, Judy Tackacs and Lauren Tilden—were asked to paint one of the fallen, and Catherine was chosen to paint the Honorable Rev. Clementa C. Pickney. Principle Gallery in Charleston exhibited the nine paintings and held a reception on May 29, when they presented and donated the work to the families of the deceased. The press release for the catalogue accompanying the project summarized the powerful role art can play in the face of tragedy: “In collaboration with Principle Gallery nine noted artists seek to combat that which is false and cruel with truth, beauty and unity. … Through this gift, we hope to bring a small measure of comfort to our brothers and sisters who have lost so much.”
Catherine also shared that she will be participating in Women Painting Women’s upcoming invitational exhibition titled “Women Painting Women: In Earnest.” The show will travel to museums across the country beginning in the fall of 2017. Curated and organized by one of the original WPW founders, artist Alia El-Bermani, the exhibition will debut at Texas A&M University’s museum in the fall of 2017. More details will be posted shortly at womenpaintingwomen.blogspot.com
After a break for lunch, I walked up the hill to Ted’s studio on the top floor of their bank barn to learn more about his sculpture process and life’s work. There was a young man—one of Ted’s student-assistants—standing outside sanding long planks of wood, which will be used for one of the sculptor’s recent projects. The inside of Ted’s studio is spacious, full of light and filled with all the tools and machinery—drills, saws, vices, piles of wood and other materials—needed to craft and construct the large-scale structures for which he is known. The sculptor is also known for his educational contributions as a college professor, as he founded the art major at Messiah College in 1980 and chaired the art program for a decade, eventually achieving two five-year Distinguished Professor of Art distinctions. He has also written professionally about art and culture, and his articles and essays have been published in The New Criterion, American Arts Quarterly, Image and more.
Much of our conversation centered on the means by which content is conveyed through abstraction in sculpture—I found it interesting to learn about the origin and intentions behind his various sculptures, which I might not have otherwise surmised without the artist’s explanation. Much of the language Ted used in discussing his process mirrored the language representational artists use in describing their work. In fact, Ted made the correlation between his abstract sculpture and realism by explaining that it is real in two important ways. First, in terms of the materials he uses: real wood, real honey, real light, real salt, real paper ash, etc. “The idea of ‘real substances’ is not only a modern school of thought but also pre-modern,” the artist explained. “Prior to the Renaissance, which was concerned with likeness, the emphasis was on the materials used. This is why certain relics had such power in medieval culture.” The second way in which Ted’s work is real is that in most instances he thinks of the work as representational—in the sense that it is representing recognizable feelings or experiences by association rather than through mimesis. “When I was in school there was a belief that representation was an imitation of something that already existed while abstraction was creating something new,” the artist explained. “There was also a lot of talk that the more spatial a work of art is, the more real it is. Sculpture at that time was oriented toward ‘truth in materials,’ meaning that the material should look like the material itself and not pretend to be flesh, etc. I now believe a lot of that thinking was short-sighted. I have come to have a lot of respect for tradition and representation, but those were the prevailing modernist ideas that we were being taught.”
Ted continued to talk about where his ideas come from, who his influences are and how he became the type of sculptor he is. His father was an engineer, and Ted himself always loved building and making things, but he didn’t put this together with art until college. Up until that point, he had been drawing and painting realistically from a young age. He enjoyed wood-working and is still drawn to sculpting with various types of wood. His love of materials is immediately apparent in his studio—the back of the barn alone is filled with the remains of 1,500 feet of apple wood that he cut down himself from a nearby orchard for a commission. I learned that a portion of Ted’s creative time, like most artists, is devoted to commissions—projects done to a client’s specifications—while the rest is spent on personal work: the ideas and visions that truly inspire and/or challenge him and that he can spend as much time as he likes finishing and refining.
Ted’s current works in progress in the studio include one potential commission and three personal projects. The commission is for the interior lobby of the Penn State College of Medicine, which is part of the Milton Hershey Medical Center. I asked him about his process for working with clients, and he explained that the first step is to visit the site to get an instinctual read on what will work for the space. For this particular project he asked a sculptor-friend to collaborate with him on the proposal so they could consider all of the spatial, compositional and material factors together. The artist explained that at this initial stage he is also thinking in decorative terms. “When Cathy and I were in art school, ‘decorative’ was a dirty word,” he said, “but art frankly does have a decorative element to it, especially for public commissions. I look for what is going to fit best, what design and materials are going to work with the space, what is going to work against it. I tend to like a fair amount of visual punch, and I like contrast. So if the architecture of the building is, for instance, rigorously geometric, I would work with some organic forms for balance and contrast.” The artist said he thinks best three-dimensionally, so his next step is to make a model to see how the structure will sit in space. He then presents photographs, a written proposal and the model to the client for their feedback and approval.
Ted next showed me the three personal projects he is working on. The first was a large cone-shaped structure that he began several years ago. The veined gray marble, called Bardiglio, from which the artist carved the structure was imported from Pietrasanta, Italy. “This sculpture is just a beautiful form, there is no deeper meaning to it than that,” the artist said. “I wanted to carve something uniform and thin, which is difficult to do. With every sculpture, whether a commission or a personal project, I try to incorporate something I’ve never done before—perhaps using a new material or attempting a different approach—so that I am constantly challenging myself.” The second sculpture, a tripartite structure with a contorted column in the center—the two exterior shapes are made of old apple stumps, the center is made of soft maple—had a roller-coaster quality to it: there was a feeling of great movement and motion that came from the energetic interaction of shapes but also a sense of precarious stability, provided by the artist consulting the laws of physics. “I actually worked with an engineer on this sculpture to calculate the proper dimensions, arrangement and angles of the units that comprise the central column,” he said. “It’s funny how things come full circle. I never thought I would be oriented toward engineering like my father, but here I am depending on an engineer’s complex calculations to ensure the sculpture is structurally sound.”
The artist went on to explain that while the first sculpture was primarily about form and its beautiful surface qualities, this second piece had a story behind what is immediately seen. Titled The Dance, the structure—which is inspired by the long history of dance imagery in art—embodies his relationship with his wife of close to fifty years. “There is a lot of connectivity between the various pieces of the sculpture,” he explained. “The two separate structures in the piece, two ‘motions’ if you will, are related to each other through the round column in the center, the connective tissue. I was thinking of Cathy and me over time and how there are many invisible connections between a couple who have been together for decades. What connects you in a lasting way comes from the inside, not the outside.” He went on to explain another reason for titling the work The Dance: besides alluding to movement and musicality, he liked the concept of how when two people are dancing, even when they are not touching, they are connected.
The final project the artist discussed is a current example of the “realism-through-materials” point he made earlier and how material substance in sculpture directly participates in and helps to convey meaning. The structure is a cross created for the church he and Cathy attend, and the congregants participated in its creation. “During Lent interested participants composed a list of things they wanted to confess and be forgiven for with indelible ink on heavy rag paper,” the artist explained. “The lists were then shredded. One Saturday people joined me on a trip to a colleague’s glass studio, and during the glass-blowing process they placed their shredded paper in the hot glass, which quickly incinerated the paper. The glass forms were then closed, and after annealing and cooling, the ash from the paper was visible inside the glass forms. I am now assembling the glass forms into a crucifix, and when it’s completed it will be placed in the church. Its physical presence will be a reminder for the participants of their place in the church and in the body of Christ.”
Throughout our conversations that day, Ted’s explanation of both his artistic intentions and his preferred mode of expression helped me to appreciate his beautifully streamlined sculpture in a new way, and to realize the amount of effort and genuine inspiration that go into them. One of his final points addressed visual criteria in abstraction and the idea of the esoteric as it relates to the viewer. “A huge part of twentieth-century modernism was its desire to overthrow the past,” he said. “Many modernists associated representation with being obvious, easy and repetitive and believed that abstraction required an educated viewer. Some modernists prized difficulty and wanted to ‘challenge’ the viewer. The problem is that, over time, what is thought of as challenging can become obvious, easy and repetitive too, and often in modern and contemporary art the idea or concept is more valued than the actual physical object. I do not believe ideas are superior to the materials they supposedly reside in, and good ideas do not justify inept or poorly made art. Abstraction has the same need for the integrity of formal results that representational art has—and I would argue, the same need for beauty. But a viewer’s response to abstraction can be somewhat different. Unless someone knows the story of abstraction, they are much more dependent on their intutitutive and visceral responses. I remember someone approaching me after viewing the abstract sculpture I created for Messiah College’s center for worship and performing arts, titled The Psalm. She said, ‘I don’t know anything about modern art, but I really like how this piece makes me feel warm and human in this space.’ For her, it created those feelings, but there are a range of other possible responses too.”