Kate Vita, the widely beloved painter, actress and animator who died of cancer last April, is receiving a lifetime achievement award from Spokane Arts during its annual awards party Saturday.
Vita was 59 when she died six months ago. The pretty California girl who loved to draw was married to artist Richard Vander Wende, whom she met as a young student in art school in Pasadena. Together they raised two daughters, Helen and Evie.
Vita’s legacy will be celebrated at the Spokane Arts Awards virtual party with the presentation of the Karen Mobley Arts Impact Award. The award is named in honor of Mobley, a longtime Spokane arts advocate and artist who for years led the city of Spokane arts department. Tickets to the online event are $5 and can be purchased at spokanearts.org.
Vita was chosen to receive the award posthumously as a tribute to her outsized impact on the Spokane arts community. The 2020 Arts Awards committee, comprised of community members with expertise in the arts along with city art commissioners, unanimously recommended that Vita be honored this year.
They cited her work across disciplines, including visual art, film and television, theater and interactive art. Vita’s impact was even wider than her work. Friends talk just as much about her humanity. It appears anyone who had a chance to speak at length with Vita came away feeling moved, always for the better.
“I think awarding Kate Vita the lifetime achievement award is of the highest importance, just being able to have her honored in that way,” Spokane Arts Award party host Emma Noyes said. “It’s such an important part of the grieving process, to have family and friends gather to remember. Because of COVID, people weren’t able to do that.”
A video about Vita’s contributions to her community will be livestreamed during the show. It will include remembrances by two local artists with whom she worked over the years: author Sharma Shields and play director Troy Nickerson.
Shields, who wrote “The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac” and “The Cassandra,” first met Vita when she and Vander Wende designed and painted the large bird and letterings imagined from “To Kill a Mockingbird” on the wall of Atticus downtown.
The couple worked with Shields again when they created a whimsical and eerie storytelling installation for the author as part of a Window Dressing project for Get Lit! five years ago. Vita and Shields grew close even as Vita battled the Stage 4 breast cancer she was diagnosed with 10 years ago.
“I feel really, really lucky to have known her,” Shields told The Spokesman-Review in April. “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 was among the many artists and female friends Vita painted for her last art show at Kolva-Sullivan Gallery in May 2019. The exhibition, “Naked,” was a series of oil portraits Vita produced of just the faces of women “of a certain age.”
Not young, not old. No makeup. No smiles. The raw and vulnerable expressions Vita managed to capture packed an emotional and powerful wallop. It was the most-attended show that gallery audiences could remember.
“It was mind-blowing to be visible and to be treated with such love,” said Vita’s friend and artist Eva Silverstone, who was included in “Naked.” “The collaboration between subjects and artist was rendered into a show that said, ‘Look at us, we exist, and we are beautiful and complex, do not discount us.’ It was incredibly powerful.”
“What also was amazing about this series was how Kate did not take full credit for the paintings,” Silverstone said. “She would say, ‘I’m just painting what is already there and what you shared with me.’ In this way, it truly was a collaboration.”
Vita’s talents were not limited to the paintbrush. Before moving to Spokane from California 25 years ago, Vita worked as a color designer for offbeat TV shows such as “The Ren and Stimpy Show,” “Squirrel Boy” and “Duck Man.” But she experienced some culture shock in Spokane until she found her bearings in the theater community.
“That was my salvation, to find all the oddballs and misfits in theater,” Vita said in an interview last year. She acted in several local plays, including “The Laramie Project,” “The Women of Lockerbie” and “Gypsy.”
In addition to acting, Vita did design work over the years for several local theaters. The actors, directors and stagehands she met remember her as a giving and powerful presence.
“Kate had worked in so many disciplines, and her impact was so wide,” Spokane Arts Executive Director Melissa Huggins said. “Her impact was not just as an artist but as a human, a woman, as a collaborator, as a mentor.”
Spokane Arts will air a video about Vita to be shown at the end of the one-hour awards Saturday. The organization plans to make the clip sharable after the show so it can be more widely circulated.
“Her role in the arts community was really unique,” Huggins said. “Since she passed during the pandemic, there hasn’t really been an opportunity for people to get together and truly mourn her. This might give some people that ability.”
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