Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Renaissance Woman with a Feline Twist: Bernadette Kazmarski

I know that depth was invested in the portrait itself, showing in a physical manner -- I always say that I paint until my subjects look back at me -- and perhaps in a spiritual manner as well, recognizable by both humans and animals.
                                                                                  --Bernadette Kazmarski

She didn’t really draw in college, Bernadette Kazmarski says. Oh, she took the required beginner’s art courses, but she was seldom satisfied with the results. “Every once in awhile, I’d hit it,” the Pennsylvania-based artist and writer recalls, “but I wasn’t consistent. I know now it was there in me, but I needed to let go. I was being too logical – ‘I have to draw this line this way. Look how she drew that line.’” So, when she graduated Edinboro State College, it was with an English literature degree, not an art degree. “I specifically changed my major from art to writing because I was afraid I wouldn’t get a good enough grade.”

After briefly doing public-relations work for a mall, Kazmarski got a job as a typesetter, which “got me into graphic design.” She was still doing her artwork, but she wasn’t really feeling like artist.

Then came Sally, a deaf white Turkish Angora in need of a home. Kazmarski had always had cats, many of them fosters, and it was only natural that they found their way into her art. But this was different. She was working from photos of Sally, and the process of tracing them on a light table (a box with a glass top and lights in it, “something like a slide viewer, only bigger”) helped her “keep everything in perspective, literally and figuratively.” She was using rag watercolor paper, and she “just felt the surface and said, ‘I can draw on this. I like this.’ It was an intuitive decision.”

Drawing Sally “totally awakened my visual skill,” Kazmarski insists. She had always been a highly visual person – “I think in pictures all the time” – but she had needed to get out of her own way. “It was during that process and when I finished that I realized why I couldn’t draw before….It’s not what you produce – it’s what you see and what you do with what you see.” She had transcended the technical aspects of her craft: she had “visualized the finished work, and actually created what I had visualized. This is what has to happen for anything I render, whether it’s a commissioned portrait from photographs or a drawing ‘en plein air’ [French for “in plain air” – a technical term for drawing from life].”

She had a similar epiphany while working on “After Dinner Nap,” her pastel rendering of another beloved cat, Stanley. “I looked at the way I handled light, color, and composition, and I was astonished by what I had done….It’s actually going beyond the logical mind and just letting it happen.”

All the elements in her work – paintings, sketches, block prints, photographs – fall together of their own accord, as though Kazmarski has simply channeled them. She is there, yet she is not there, and it is that wonderful contradiction that makes for the magic in each piece. That and the quality of light. You expect a sensitivity to light in artists and photographers, yes; but Kazmarski takes it up a few notches. She uses light the way poets use the rhythm of words. She leans toward Impressionism in that respect. “With the Impressionists, it was all about how the light fell on things, which is certainly how I paint,” she muses. “All sorts of light bounces around in a scene, and their goal was to bring out the color they saw.” It’s a good description of what Kazmarski does.

Her writing has that same textured feeling that her art has. She has a knack for painting word-pictures that draw you in, and nowhere is this more evident than in her blog “The Creative Cat.” It is actually only one of five blogs that Kazmarski does. But it’s the one in which her writing and artistic talents come together right elegantly.

Which is interesting because blogging was one of those happenstance things for Kazmarski: it found her at a Cat Writers’ Association (CWA) conference back in 2007. She had just won the group’s Muse Medallion and the Hartz Everyday Chewable Vitamin Award for her article “Loving Care for Your Older Cat.” She “ was really surprised,” admits Kazmarski, who had been focusing mostly on her art and graphic design at that point. “Sometimes things will happen that will guide you.” She went to the conference, and “everybody was talking about blogging. That’s when I decided rather than work with my clunky old website, I would use my website to display finished work and the blogging for works-in-progress.”

And so “The Creative Cat” was born. Kazmarski plays with the blog, much as she plays with light in her artwork. Sometimes the post will be a discussion of what she’s currently working on “The Portrait”). Sometimes it’s a photo followed by some reflections (“Muted Colors”). And sometimes it’s a personal essay about the cats in her life, past and present (“Cookie & Me, Our 18th Anniversary,” told from Cookie’s point of view).

As Kazmarski sees it, the blog has “become -- and I don’t know if this was intentional – a reflection of who I am.” It allows her to write about whatever happens to be on her mind -- or in her heart – at the moment: her garden, wildlife (her backyard has been a registered wildlife habitat since 2003, and she has been maintaining it as such for 20 years), animal rights, the local library, and, of course, her cats.

She wrote about her beloved Namir at the end of July 2009; then, about a month later, she was moved to write about him and the loss of other feline companions in “Perhaps the Storm Is Finally Over.” Namir had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 2005, the same year that Hurricane Katrina hit; by the time he died in 2009, “a lot of things with Hurricane Katrina had been resolved.” So, in Kazmarski’s mind, there was a parallel between what the hurricane had done and what she had gone through with Namir and the five other cats – Moses, Cream, Sophie, Stanley, and Lucy -- who had died in that nearly four-year period. The result was the poignant and powerful “Perhaps the storm is finally over.”

“When a situation presents itself, we never know how it will play itself out,” Kazmarski says, “and that’s true of the animals we take into our lives.” Response to both posts was strong, and she became aware of how important an outlet the blog was for her.

What’s more, “The Creative Cat” has allowed her to weave together her twin passions, writing and art. “I always wanted to be a writer,” Kazmarski muses, “and I figured I would eventually find my way to being an artist. But I always thought you had to be one or the other.” Then she discovered comparative arts – “combining two or more fields into one project or using all “ and she realized that it didn’t have to be an art-or-writing thing. That she could do both, weaving them together, as she does in her recently released Great Rescues (Beauty of a Moment Publishing), a 16-month calendar that is truly a wonderful hybrid -- part almanac, part illuminated Book of Hours, combining exquisite watercolor and pastel "portraits of rescued cats and their stories" with feline facts, quotes, and resources.

At one point, Kazmazrski says, she thought about getting a PhD. in comparative arts and teaching at the college level.  That never happened. But she more than absorbed the idea of living as “a creative person rather than as an artist.” And that is what comes through in Kazmarski’s conversation. She is acutely alive not only to the nuances in her art and writing but also to the need to use both to live whole-heartedly. Spiritually, even. “So I didn’t get there academically,” Kazmarski reflects. “I got there through life experience.”

                                        Self-portrait by Bernadette Kazmarski.

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