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Cyndie Katz, 3_13_22_edited.jpg

“Color has always had a powerful effect on my happiness,” says Cyndie Sohl Katz from her studio in Morelia, Mexico. “One of my first childhood memories is receiving the 64-pack of Crayolas, spreading the crayons on the floor, and sorting them into what I called boy (blues and greens) and girl (reds and yellow) colors, then putting them back in the interior boxes in different orders. I love trying colors next to each other. I never leave a hardware store without color sample cards from the paint area. I can’t help myself. Color is like candy to my brain.” 


Katz was born Cynthia Ann Sohl in 1955 in the Queens borough of New York City. Both her parents were first generation Americans of German descent. As her father climbed the corporate ladder, her family moved from New York to Dallas to a suburb of Chicago. Katz says, “My parents had a happy marriage and they loved us and gave us many opportunities, but they were also strict and critical.  Their expectations for me were to wear nice clothes, have good manners, and get straight As in school.”


When she was twelve, Katz was drawing portraits of her friends and was thrilled to be invited to join a summer art program for talented students. As her father signed the permission slip, he told her that art could be her hobby but he’d never pay to send her to art school for college. She knew better than to argue, and she didn’t develop dreams of being an artist. She was happy to receive a sewing machine for Christmas that year. 


“There was a fabric store on my way home from school and I would stop there just to be in that room full of colors and patterns. Although I made some clothes, I was really motivated to combine lots of different fabrics into patchwork. I was inspired by the patch quilts in the cabin we rented summers in New Hampshire. I loved how the makers  combined solids, prints, plaids and stripes. For me quilts represented the rural lifestyle that brought out the best in my family. There were few rules on those vacations. We never wore shoes, dressed how we wanted, and swam every day. But my own patchwork creations were not the aesthetic my mother wanted in our suburban home. I had to wait to express my own taste.”


In 1980, Katz moved to the rural town of New Boston, New Hampshire. (That is still her official residence.) Among other things, she joined a quilting group. At the time, she was a manager at a Fortune 500 company. But once she had children she didn’t like leaving them in the care of others and became an entrepreneur, first as a partner in a whole grain bread bakery and next as a partner in The Apple Barn, a store that initially sold the town's apple crop, specialty foods, and some flowers. Eventually it morphed into a garden center. 


In conjunction with the business, Katz studied ornamental plants and landscape design and loved creating gardens for her customers. She wrote a newsletter and a garden column for the local paper. But her chief love was working with flowers. She says, “The business was not a financial success, but I could always get out of bed happy knowing I’d be reorganizing the perennial display or potting up planters of annuals. Still, when I heard someone say, ‘I have to get my flowers in,’ my upbringing made me automatically think, ‘You don’t have to, you want to.’ 


Now I realize they did have to. New Hampshire winters are long and monochromatic, the days are short. When spring comes, the need for color is palpable. The trays of flower combinations people carried to the cash register were riots of color. It took me time to realize that the human desire to have color is more than desire, for many — like me —  it is a need.”


When the garden center closed in the winter, the Katzes would often take a Mexican vacation.  It was in San Miguel de Allende in 1998 that Katz first learned to paint. When her husband said he’d signed them up for Spanish classes, she replied, “I’d really rather learn to paint.” She says the words just fell out of her mouth without any forethought. 


There was an atelier in the same converted convent where the language classes were held. When the instructor tried to start her off with a drawing exercise, she said, “I just want to use color.” He immediately took her to an art supply store and had her pick out three favorite colors of paint then showed her how to mix them directly on her paper. She was able to paint there for several hours each day. “It was life changing for me,” Katz said. “I never stopped painting after that. Learning to paint was not just fun, it was a game changer for my mood.”


The next year the Katzes bought a small house in the city of Morelia and for a few weeks each winter Katz was able to attend class at Bellas Artes, the art school of the Michoacan state university. She always had the same instructor who helped her with whatever she wanted to learn. In New Hampshire, she took workshops. Still, she had to go see a therapist before she could admit to herself or say out loud, “I’m an artist.”


Originally Katz concentrated on portraits since she’d enjoyed drawing people. She painted many portraits over the years interspersed with plein air landscapes. One year she painted mandalas of fruits and vegetables. “I was always looking for colorful subjects and secretly  I wanted to paint abstractly so I could use color more freely, but I didn’t know how. It wasn’t something being taught in Morelia or New Hampshire, and there weren’t the many YouTubes and online classes about it that there are today.”


Finally, out of frustration, in 2014, she decided to quit painting and only come back to it when she had a clue as to how to paint abstractly. By that time, the garden center had been sold, her husband was teaching at a university in Morelia, and their youngest daughter was attending high school there. Instead of painting, Katz wrote a novel. “I always enjoyed writing and the novel used the same part of my brain as painting. But to be  published takes a lot of commitment. By the time the novel was finished, I was more than ready to get back to painting and I put the novel in a drawer.”


Her inspiration for her abstract work finally came one night in the apartment of her eldest daughter. “I was lying on a blow-up mattress watching a documentary about abstract artists on my laptop. Toward the end, the narrator explained that he too was an abstract artist and it showed him working with a woman who used quilt patterns. She drew the pattern and he painted the shapes. 


QUILT PATTERNS!!!! That was the solution I’d been searching for. I got so excited, I barely slept. The next morning I walked to Dick Blick Art Supply, bought some paint and wooden panels and started experimenting. I’ve been an abstract painter ever since. And much happier because of it!” 


These days Katz paints half the year in her rooftop studio in Morelia and the other half moving between New Hampshire and Matinicus Island, Maine where her husband maintains their two rental properties. Katz makes due with whatever painting space is available. 


Since she learned to paint at a time when they had children at home, Katz got used to painting in random rooms during whatever spare minutes she could grab. “I had my easel in the kitchen for many years, because it was the center of family activity. My half-finished paintings were everywhere so I could study them as I walked by. Besides New Hampshire and Matinicus, I paint at the kids’ houses when we visit Massachusetts, Colorado, and San Diego.”


Katz produces a lot of work over the course of a year, but having it in two different countries has made showing it and selling it complicated. Social media has helped somewhat. “I always get a lot of good comments particularly on Facebook,” she says. “People in both countries like my colors. Even people who don’t think they like abstract art will comment that my paintings make them happy.” 


While she paints, Katz listens to podcasts about science, history, politics, and psychology. “I worry and get upset about the world, and I think everyone else does too. That’s why I’m painting and showing my work, to bring to others some of the relief I feel with color — to give people some candy for their worried brains.”

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