Artist Profile: Falmouth Watercolorist Counts On God And The Rainbow


- "Invisible" a watercolor paintings by Kate Aubrey

When youngsters first set a paintbrush to paper, it’s usually loaded with watercolor paint, extracted from little metal cups. The result is an explosion of color, but not exactly the one the budding painter imagined.

Watercolors produce unexplained and hard-to-reverse blots and dribbles that wreak frustration even on experienced artists, many of whom turn to more tractable mediums like oil paint or acrylics.

But where some see frustration, artist Kate Aubrey sees the hand of God.

“Watercolor,” she explained in an interview, “lets God take a role in things.”

Whether you ascribe it to the Divine Spirit, chance, or serendipity, Ms. Aubrey’s expansive array of work is sprinkled with telltale signs of unintended running, dripping and rapid drying which give it a spontaneity and freshness that celebrate the medium along with the subject.

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Such unpredictability enriches a collection of Kate Aubrey floral, scenic and figural paintings on display through June 8 at Woodruff’s Art Center in Mashpee, and it’s a value she imparts to her watercolor students at the Falmouth Artists Guild.  

“What I love about watercolor,” the 60-year-old artist said, “is the transparency that allows you to build up paintings layer by layer. But what I love even more is that it is full of surprises. In a way, it’s like life. When you try to control your life and make things beautiful, it doesn’t always go as you envisioned. Often, if you step back from it and let life do its thing, you get something better than you could have created on your own.”

No stranger to a nascent artist’s frustration, Ms. Aubrey recalled being assigned by her kindergarten teacher in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to draw a picture of her family. She composed it carefully in her mind, delighted by what she concocted. But the results appalled her. 

“There were all these stupid little stick figures and big smiley faces, not at all what I wanted. I could do it in my head, but my hand wouldn’t cooperate. I was so mad I refused to draw for an entire year,” she confided with a residual scowl.

It was a 1st grade teacher who moved her beyond the empty paper by evoking symbols she already knew: a long, tall C and an inverted C could coalesce to make the shape of a tree, with a V leading down into the trunk.

“She helped me combine the symbols my mechanical left brain knew with the more creative and interpretive knowings of my right brain,” Ms. Aubrey said. “That was all it took.”

Mastery was still years away, however. With parents who discouraged her artistic leanings, she majored in education at Fort Lewis College, then, newly wed, followed her husband to Alaska. Before securing a desired job on the pipeline, though, he died in a car crash, leaving his bride to fend for herself in the Last Frontier. There she worked with preschoolers, was an office temp, rated insurance policies, and finally gained a coveted but perilous post as an operator at an ARCO flow station on the North Slope.

As luck—or perhaps Ms. Aubrey would say God—would have it, a Methodist minister in Alaska suggested the young widow distract herself through study. She chose a watercolor class and was soon joyously painting people, places and plant life. A major breakthrough happened when famed watercolor master Charles Reid traveled north to offer a weeklong workshop that gave her the skills to advance rapidly.

After a decade in Alaska, Ms. Aubrey moved to Seattle to work full time as an artist. Two years later, she relocated again, to Reno, Nevada, where she married computer specialist David Mortensen and established herself as a painter, exhibiting and selling her work, winning prizes and teaching at the Nevada Museum of Art and Truckee Meadows Community College.

In Nevada she took another pivotal workshop, this time with renowned painter and color theorist Stephen Quiller, who became, in her words, “the closest thing I have had to a mentor.”

“Steve developed a simple palette that combined the colors of the rainbow to mix any hue needed,” she said. “Instead of the big box of random colors I used to employ by guess and by golly, I now have 12 colors; with them, I can do anything.”

A big fish in a small artistic pond, Ms. Aubrey eventually felt she needed a more robust arts community than Reno’s to foster her creative growth. Simultaneously, her spouse, who had skin cancer, was advised to remove himself from Nevada’s dry climate. When Ms. Aubrey heard Cape Cod housed the nation’s second largest artists’ mecca, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offered Mr. Mortensen a job in Woods Hole, the couple headed east.

Within days, Ms. Aubrey found her way to the Falmouth Artists Guild and was welcomed as a member, teacher and exhibitor. During her three years on the Cape, she has shown her work at the guild’s Falmouth Art Center on Gifford Street, the Cape Cod Art Association in Barnstable, Woodruff’s Art Center, and Highfield Hall. Sales of her watercolors have been brisk, and intermediate and advanced watercolorists have flocked to her classes, even from off-Cape. Her greatest pleasure, she says, is to see a student “get it” and to watch the rapid growth that follows.

Recently, though, her devoted coterie of students got some disappointing news. With Mr. Mortensen retiring from his Woods Hole post, the couple will move in June to Maryville, Tennessee.

For Ms. Aubrey, leaving New England is a source of unhappiness that she has worked through in a series of paintings showing a woman undergoing intense strain, grieving, then eventually coming to peace and resolution.

“Everywhere you go,” she says, “people tell you, ‘This is God’s country.’ Well, I’ve lived a lot of places, but other than Alaska, Cape Cod is the only place where I could look you in the face and say, ‘By golly, it is.’ ”

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