Color & Pattern The Art of CSKatz
“Colors and patterns have always had a powerful effect on my well-being,” says Cyndie Sohl Katz from her studio in Morelia, Mexico. “Whether it’s the face of a flower, a tile floor, beautiful tapestry, or a formation of pigeons moving across the sky, my eyes are instantly attracted and my mind is distracted from its troubles. The power of color and pattern is the reason I became an abstract artist.”
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. Because of her father's career, her family eventually moved 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 A’s in school."
At twelve-years-old, Katz enjoyed drawing portraits of her friends and was thrilled to be invited into 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 grow up and move away in order to express my own taste.”
In 1980, Katz moved to the small 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 had a corporate job. But once she had children she didn’t like leaving them in the care of others and became an entrepreneur eventually owning a garden center with her husband next to their home in the center of town.
In conjunction with the business, Katz went back to school to study ornamental plants and landscape design. She loved drawing garden plans for her customers and writing 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. It was pure joy for me to work with the colors and forms of the plants, but I only felt entitled because it was my ‘job’. That way of thinking was a holdover from my youth — the idea that anything artistic was not a necessity. But every spring I’d hear my customers say, ‘I have to get my flowers in,’ and there was a fever that took them over as they combined all the most vibrant flowers in their carts.
New Hampshire winters are long and monochromatic, the days are short. I began to realize that the human desire for color is more than desire, for many — like me — it is a requirement for a healthy mind.”
When the garden center closed in the winter, the Katzes would take a Mexican vacation. It was in San Miguel de Allende in 1998 when her husband said he signed them up for Spanish classes, that Katz heard herself say, “I’d really rather learn to paint.” She says the words burst out of her mouth before she thought them.
There was an atelier in the same converted convent where the language classes were held and Katz was able to paint there for several hours each day. The instructor tried to start her off with a drawing exercise, but she said, “I just want to paint.” He immediately took her to an art supply store and had her pick out three favorite colors in acrylic, then showed her how to mix them directly on her paper. “It was life changing for me,” says Katz. “I never stopped painting after that. Learning to paint was not just fun, it changed my life’s direction.”
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. She always had the same instructor who helped her with whatever she wanted to learn. In New Hampshire, she took workshops. She also went to a therapist so she could overcome her upbringing and say, “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 freely use color and pattern, 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 quit painting and decided to only return to it when she had an idea 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 a Morelia high school. Instead of painting, Katz wrote a novel based on her youth. “I always enjoyed writing and surprisingly 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 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 Boston 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 an art supply store, bought some paint and wood 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 she divides between New Hampshire and Matinicus Island, Maine where she makes due with whatever painting space is available.
Because she learned to paint when they had a number of children at home, Katz is used to painting anywhere there is a little space. “I had my easel in the kitchen for many years, because it was the center of family activity. I hung half-finished paintings all over the house so I could study them as I walked by. I still like working like that.”
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 work. 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 create and why I share my work — for the relief colors and patterns give our overloaded and suffering minds.