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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Kate Vita, Spokane portrait artist who captured life in all its color, dies at age 59

Kate Vita photographed in front of her “Naked” show description at the Kolva-Sullivan Gallery in downtown Spokane in 2019. (Rajah Bose / The Spokesman-Review)

Kate Vita was “always trying to weave color into her life,” said her husband, Richard Vander Wende.

Well-known in the Spokane arts community, Vita was a painter, actress, mother and wife. She died on Saturday at age 59 after battling cancer for more than a decade.

Vita grew up in San Diego and attended the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena where she met her husband in 1983.

Art school turned out to be full of art nerds, but Vita wasn’t one of them, Vander Wende said – she looked like she came right off the beach in San Diego.

“She was a force. She was an entity,” Vander Wende said, and everyone at art school knew it.

He was shy and somehow “lucked into” dating Vita, he said.

“I moved in with her after we had been dating, maybe two months and we’ve never been apart since,” Vander Wende said.

The couple were married in June 1986 and have two daughters together, Helen, 29, and Evie, 24.

They couple moved to Mill Valley, California, and began working for animation studios.

Vita focused on commercial work and TV shows, and she worked as a color designer on “The Ren and Stimpy Show,” “Squirrel Boy,” and “Duck Man.”

“She loved color and you can see it in her work today,” Vander Wende said.

At the same time, Vander Wende’s career took off after he was hired by George Lucas and worked on films such as “Willow” and “Inner Space.” He served as the production designer for the 1992 Disney animated film “Aladdin.”

The couple moved to Spokane in the mid-90s.

Vita adapted quickly, plugging into the Spokane art community.

“She was one of the most social beings on the planet in a beloved way really,” Vander Wende said. “Being an artist and coming from L.A. where there’s just more arts culture going on in general. So, she immediately sought out the artists here.”

In art school, there was “a lot of pressure on you to go out into the world after you graduate and do great things,” Vander Wende said. “She felt like she hadn’t really accomplished anything great like she was expected to in the visual arts.”

So, Vita turned to the theater.

“She is one of the most powerful actors I’ve ever worked with. She’s just so compelling on stage,” said fellow actor Rebecca Cook. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a woman on stage who is as commanding as Kate.”

“The first time I saw her, it was in an audition for a Shakespeare play,” said Angie Dierdorff, actor and longtime friend. “She absolutely mesmerized me.”

Kate Vita, left, and Sarah Denison play Beth and Cindy in a scene from the Spokane Civic Theatre production of “String of Pearls” from 2009. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Kate Vita, left, and Sarah Denison play Beth and Cindy in a scene from the Spokane Civic Theatre production of “String of Pearls” from 2009. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

The pair were cast in “Gypsy,” one of Vita’s most memorable performances.

“We had the time of our lives,” Dierdorff said.

Toward the end of 2009 Vita was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer.

“That kind of shifted a lot of things for us,” Vander Wende said.

She didn’t want to die regretting that she had never put “herself fully into the creation of art,” Vander Wende said. “A few years ago, we sat down and tried to identify why she hadn’t done that before and what would it take to get her to actually do it.”

And it worked. Vita began painting almost daily.

That first year she painted 6-by-6 inch paintings, mostly of objects around the house.

Artist Bradd Skubinna gave Vita his space in the Saranac Art Projects for her first show.

“It was an amazing show,” said Eva Silverstone, Vita’s longtime friend and Skubinna’s wife.

The show was a “huge, huge success,” Vander Wende said. The entire show almost sold out but “more importantly for her it was a means by which she could connect with people.”

During this time of growing as a painter, Vita was also fighting cancer.

She had a mastectomy, and reconstruction and “everything else that goes along with that,” Vander Wende said.

Every three months, Vita would go in for a scan to see if the cancer had returned.

Poet Ellen Welcker is captured in a portrait by Kate Vita.
Poet Ellen Welcker is captured in a portrait by Kate Vita.

“That entire time we were living our life, three months at a time,” Vander Wende said.

About 18 months ago, the scan showed that the cancer had metastasized to her lungs. Vita again started chemotherapy but the couple knew it didn’t look good.

Vita started on her most well-known project – a series of portraits of women “of a certain age” with no make-up on, not smiling, painted from selfies.

“She and I had been having these conversations about how as we grow older as women we become invisible,” Silverstone said. “She kind of wanted to do this series of paintings where she was saying, I see you. She was also saying I see the beauty in you – I see who you are and I love that.”

That empowering quality that Vita had was not lost on anyone, especially her daughters.

“Everyone was kind of drawn to her because she just had such a warmth,” Evie said. “She was definitely a mother to so many more people than us.”

Vita laughed at her own jokes “with a consistency that was unrivaled,” Helen said, and she also loved to dance with her own set of “very specific mom dance moves.”

One of the things both daughters said they loved about their mother was how unapologetic she was about being her true, unguarded self to everyone and anyone.

“She could engage any person in the world in conversation,” Helen said.

Vita was an amazing conversationalist, said author Sharma Shields.

The women met years ago at Atticus, where Vita and Vander Wende did the large paintings and lettering on the downtown coffee shop’s brick walls.

The couple then did a display piece in a vacant downtown storefront based on chapters from Shields’ first novel, “The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac,” as part of Terrain’s Window Dressing project.

“They made this room that was just so sinister and beautiful and other worldly,” Shields said.

Shields said her friendship with Vita deepened with the return of her cancer.

“We had these really profound conversations about the beauty of life, about love, about death,” Shields said.

Shields has multiple sclerosis and the pair found it cathartic to explore “really grave subject matter but in a very loving way.”

In the days before Vita died, the conversations with Shields continued. In their last conversation just days ago, Vita talked about what a wonderful life she had lived.

“She talked again about this really profound relationship she has had with her husband and the love she has for her daughters and for him and her art,” Shields said.

As Vita looked back on her life in those conversations with Shields, her family was the highlight, something Shields admired.

“I feel really, really lucky to have known her,” Shields said. “I feel very much that I’m going to be unwrapping these really amazing conversations that I had with this friend and artist for the rest of my life.”

Shields, like many of Vita’s close friends, was featured in her portrait series.

“In a lot of ways, it’s like a passport photo that you send her, that’s not necessarily flattering,” Shields said. “I love that frankness that she had.”

Vita’s last art show was “Naked,” a showcase of those raw portraits of Vita’s friends, at the Kolva-Sullivan Gallery in May 2019.

The show was the largest ever at the gallery.

“The show opening was just packed, people came from all over,” said fellow artist Lisa Nappa. “It was just an amazing evening of old friends and new friends, people seeing her paintings.”

Kate Vita welcoming friends to her show titled “Naked” at the Kolva-Sullivan Gallery in downtown Spokane in May 2019. (Rajah Bose)
Kate Vita welcoming friends to her show titled “Naked” at the Kolva-Sullivan Gallery in downtown Spokane in May 2019. (Rajah Bose) Buy this photo

As a longtime friend of Vita’s, Silverstone had been painted many times but this show created community.

“I trusted her and so when I took the photo I looked at it and I was like, ‘Oh god, I look horrible’ but I knew that Kate would not think that I look horrible,” Silverstone said. “And she made these beautiful paintings.”

Vita was someone who always showed up for others, Silverstone said. She believed in people, saw their potential, and then nurtured them with honest and caring feedback, Silverstone said.

“She just lived with so much abundance of love and she believed in people,” Silverstone said. “She was her true self all of the time and she accepted people for being their true selves.”

Vita painted many of her friends, including a group of them fondly called “Kate’s 8,” Dierdorff said. Over the last year or so, Vita and the group of eight women would have brunch almost every Sunday.

“She didn’t want to be ‘Cancer Kate,’ as she put it,” said Dierdorff. “She wanted to hear about our lives.”

While painting portraits for “Naked,” Vita started posting time lapses of her painting on social media. In doing so, Vita offered a look at her process as an artist, said Melissa Huggins from Spokane Arts.

“That sort of in-depth insight into an artist’s mind wasn’t something people had really seen before,” Huggins said. Losing “that sort of positive encouraging force in the arts community leaves a big gap.”


Time lapse: 2 hours in 1 minute. Jess, 10”x 10” oil on panel. #oilpainting #portraitpainting #contemporarypainting

A post shared by Kate Vita (@katewrayvita) on

At “Naked,” people responded to Vita’s work the way she had always hoped they would, Vander Wende said.

“I think when you get to the end of your life, you know it’s fast approaching … you don’t want sympathy, you don’t want platitudes,” Vander Wende said. “What you really want is to be understood, to have some sense that you were understood, that the connections that you formed with people were real.”

Vita had accomplished that in her personal relationships but the portraits made her feel like she had accomplished it in her art as well, Vander Wende said.

“She felt like it couldn’t get any better after that,” he said.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic the Vander Wende family has yet to plan a celebration of life for Vita but will do so in the future.