Mayer artist’s rebirth as a painter paying dividends

For Kathy Strahota, painting is what she’s always wanted to do. Until recently, though, the Mayer resident never really considered it much of a reality.

Sure, the Michigan native attended college at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit for several years, but marriage, children and family altered her life’s ambitions after graduation. For 30 years, she put her painting on hold, working a professional career while doing lots of drawing, pencil portraits and freelance design work on the side.

But several years ago, when the division of the biomedical company she worked for was sold to a company in Boston, she sensed an opportunity to do what she always wanted.

“I ended up with large severance package, and instead of looking for work, because the economy was so bad at the time, I decided I was going to paint,” she said. “Three years ago, I decided to start figuring out what I was doing.”

At art school more than 30 years ago, Strahota actually spent most of her time focusing on advertising design, because that, she said, is the only way her parents would pay for art school. She did advertising design for a year and a half, hated it, and said her parents finally allowed her to switch to liberal arts after that.

She finished several paintings during that time, but ended up putting that on hold after college. She admits she’s essentially been starting from scratch again the last couple years, trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Based on her work at an ongoing exhibit at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, however, she has apparently regained her old skill quite quickly.

Despite displaying her work in a public gallery setting for the first time, Strahota’s “Lake Superior Rocks” was the first-place blue-ribbon winner at the show, which runs through October. Her other work is also on display through the rest of August at the Chanhassen Library.

Strahota, who works a couple of part time jobs in addition to her oil painting, said she wasn’t even aware there were going to be awards at the show. She only entered her work in the exhibit by chance after a new acquaintance — who saw one of Strahota’s prints in her daughter’s occasional shop — encouraged her to enter. Now, she says winning first place is a definite encouragement to keep working on her painting.

“I had this once in a lifetime opportunity to take some time off and do this,” she said. “Oil painting is expensive and there are times when I’ve thought, ‘what am I doing, I should be looking for a full-time job.’ But now I feel like I should keep puttering around with this.”
Strahota said she draws most of her inspiration from nature, particularly northern Minnesota.

“Painting for me is a way of going on vacation, which I don’t get to do very often.,” she said. “I get to paint where I’d like to be. I really love the North Shore area, and nature in general. I go up there whenever I can. That’s why, when I decided to paint again, that’s what I decided to paint.”

Strahota said she particularly enjoys painting tiny segments of nature as opposed to broader landscapes. She likes to pour every fine detail into one small aspect that really stuck in her memory. Her winning painting at the Arboretum show, for instance, is of the view one wouldhave looking down through the surface of the water at the rocks on the bottom of a lake. The painting takes on an almost three-dimensional element, as if you could reach through the frame and grab the rock.

“It’s just another one of those moments I love, a thing that imprints itself in your head,” Strahota said. “When you go to sleep later that night, you hear that water and see those rocks. What I want when I’m painting is to go back to those moments when you saw some small thing that just impressed you.”