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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane’s Kate Vita finds the realness in every portrait she paints

Poet Ellen Welcker is captured in a portrait by Kate Vita.
By Audrey Overstreet The Spokesman-Review

For women of a certain age, Kate Vita’s three rules for painting a portrait can be daunting. Number 1. Take a selfie on your smartphone. 2. No makeup. 3. No smile.

Vita started to tear up recalling when the first photo showed up on her phone about a year ago. “It took my breath away. These women, where we are in our lives right now, they were just so present, and open. Like, ‘Here I am,’ ” Vita said. “It was so powerful that I was like, ‘I’ve got to honor this.’ ”

Vita had warned the women, mostly her friends, that her unflinching closeups of their faces would be the opposite of airbrushed glamour shots. “These were going to be raw and unvarnished, and they trusted me,” Vita said.

That trust appears to have been well-placed. On Friday at the Kolva-Sullivan Gallery, Vita will open “Naked,” a show of nearly 60 above-the-shoulders portraits she has painted of mostly friends and family, almost all women, over the past year. Veering toward the abstract, the brushwork is clearly visible and vibrant. The color palettes are moody, almost odd, an arresting mix of haunting and garish.

Then there are the faces themselves. In all their exposed, vulnerable glory. Yes, there are crow’s feet, eye bags, dark circles, marionette lines, and wattles. But Vita’s magic is that none of it is ugly, or even unflattering. Rather, there is beauty and knowledge, power and defiance, experience and life.

Any one of these portraits is powerful enough to stare at for several minutes. To view all 60 portraits in a show will pack an emotional wallop.

Vita’s work highlights how many middle-aged or older women, sometimes at the height of their creative abilities and mental competence, typically become invisible. “As far as society goes, we are done, right at the same time that we feel at our best with so much to offer,” Vita said. “That frustration was the impetus for me to say: ‘I want to see you.’ ”

“I see them. I see these women,” Vita said. “Hopefully (show attendees) will look at the people around them and see them.”

Vita, 58, and her husband of 33 years, Richard Vander Wende, have raised two girls in their 1936 South Hill home in the Wilson Elementary School neighborhood. Now in their 20s, their daughters have moved to different cities in California, the state the couple first met. Vita and Vander Wende attended a drawing class together in 1983 at the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Vita, then 20, was a fun-loving extrovert who dated surfers and attracted a lot of attention. She took an interest in the shy and serious Vander Wende, then 18, after watching how he worked in class.

“With live models in front of the class there was limited time, but Richard would just sit there and he would just look … And look. And just almost as the model was about to quit, he would very deliberately choose which tool and very deliberately get it down,” Vita said. “It was just so different from the way I worked.”

One night Vita called Vander Wende and asked him over to eat a chicken she had cooking in the oven. “She told me to be ready in 20 minutes,” Vander Wende recalled. “I would have said no out of shyness had I not actually been working my first job, and felt like for the first time in my life I was actually contributing something to society or whatever.”

The couple moved to Mill Valley where Vander Wende’s career took off. George Lucas hired him to work on films such as “Willow” and “Inner Space,” which won an Oscar for visual effects. The couple married in 1986. Later, after relocating to Los Angeles to work at Disney, Vander Wende’s original art work became the inspiration for the blockbuster “Aladdin,” for which he served as production designer.

Vita was working in animation as well, but intentionally sought studios producing commercial work that was the opposite of Disney fare, working as a painter and color designer for such irreverent shows as “The Ren and Stimpy Show,” “Squirrel Boy,” and “Duck Man.”. “Otherwise I’d always be in Richard’s shadow,” she said.

She continued to telecommute after the couple moved from California to Spokane in 1994, when Vander Wende joined Cyan Inc., famous for creating the blockbuster CD-ROM game “Myst.” Vander Wende helped develop “Riven: The Sequel to Myst.” The move from Southern California to Spokane was a culture shock for the pair. But Vita found her people when she started acting in local theater.

“That was my salvation, to find all the oddballs and misfits in theater,” Vita laughed. She landed a role as a character voice in Riven, and has acted in several local plays, including “The Laramie Project,” “The Women of Lockerbie” and “Gypsy.” In addition to acting, she has done design work over the years for several local theaters.

It was just in 2014 when Vita first picked up a paintbrush to create her own art. To overcome the mental obstacles of painting just to paint, she came up with rules. Paint every day. Subject matter was unimportant. Two-hour time limit. And there was no going back to re-work the painting. Oh, and most important perhaps, she had to take a picture and post her finished work every day.

Social media proved to be the factor that has kept Vita going with her painting. “Of course people started to respond with very positive feedback,” Vander Wende said.

“Which goes back to when I was a kid asking, ‘How do you like me now?’ ” Vita chuckled. “I didn’t realize it, but one of the problems I had with visual art was that I didn’t have that immediate connection to the audience that I got with theater. I needed to tap into that (immediate feedback) loop.”

The Kate Vita Studio Facebook page is a delightful behind-the-scenes look at Vita’s process. Fans can’t get enough of the time-lapse videos Vita posts of her two-to-three hour painting sessions. Every day she positions a video camera in her basement studio so it focuses on her canvas as she starts many of her portraits, often by painting the face upside down.

“(Painting upside down) helps me to paint what I’m really seeing, instead of what I think I know,” Vita explained. “It helps me to see the shapes more objectively.”

Local poet Ellen Welcker is one of the subjects portrayed in Vita’s “Naked” show at the Kolva-Sullivan. “This collection turns the idea of the selfie on its head – there’s so much depth and emotional intelligence in her portraits,” Welcker said. “I saw myself as powerful and vulnerable at the same time. The self-indulgence and I-was-here-ness of the selfie cliché is totally absent.”

“In this age of ubiquitous social media where everybody is applying a filter between themselves and who they really are, Kate wanted to try to do something to dismantle that,” Vander Wende said.

Vita struggles with how real to be herself, as she deals with the recent recurrence of the breast cancer that she was first diagnosed with in 2009. She has been receiving weekly chemotherapy treatments for the past 5 months, and several of her self-portraits were rendered on the days of those treatments. Is there anything more vulnerable and raw?

“This is not a cancer show,” Vita said, laughing. “When this first happened ten years ago, even then I was like, ‘Wow! If this is all I get, this has been a ride,’ and who can say that really?”

“This is the part that makes it hard,” Vita said, gesturing toward Vander Wende and referring to her children. “I am surrounded by so much love, and love actually makes it harder, but I wouldn’t trade that either.”