Tunas originally brought Kate Spencer to the Monterey Bay, and the whales made her linger. The bike-friendly community by the sea sealed the move from her home town of Arlington, Virginia in 2001. She has woven a lifestyle around nature, art, and science, based in Pacific Grove but ranging from Humpback Whale research with the Alaska Whale Foundation to naturalist work in South America. She returned in March, 2007, from a four-month voyage around Cape Horn and is excited to be painting the wildlife of the fierce Southern Ocean.
Kate has been studying nature and art in parallel since early childhood with the benefit of a mother who is both an artist and a gardener. At Smith College she majored in biology, minored in studio art, and concentrated in comparative religion — all aspects of curiosity about life. She learned scientific illustration techniques on the job during eight years as an illustrator at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Recently she has shifted away from commission work to focus on developing her own ideas fueled by travels as far as Turkey and Indonesia.
Most of her vision centers on the natural world: primarily the incredible beauty of it and the accomplishment of presenting it accurately, but also the darker struggle to be good stewards amidst the tsunami of mindless consumption. When her work depicts animals she strives to make it somehow in their service, such as calling attention to threatened ecosystems or making a careful study of a hawk needlessly killed on the road. She avoids caricaturing animals for the benefit of people, which can obscure the truth about the animals, as in team mascots and the happy fish on seafood packaging.
Kate puts her values to work outside the studio, currently as a naturalist for Monterey Bay Whale Watch and as a wildlife rehabilitator at the SPCA. Since 2001 she has lectured about wildlife on cruise ships in Southeast Alaska and southern South America. Back on the East Coast she founded a grassroots conservation organization to protect a suburban swamp and worked with inner city schoolchildren on nature art and poetry. Her strong ideas of social commentary have mainly come out in her work as a writer, most recently as Poet in Residence of Pacific Grove from 2004-2006.
Watercolors are the visual medium Kate knows best, from tight techniques for describing new species of frogs to joyful, loose landscapes painted on high country hikes. A thirst for opacity has taken her back to oil paints for landscapes en plein air and led her to acrylics for studio work. For environmental and personal health she chooses the non-toxic “hue” alternatives to the traditional cadmium and cobalt paints. Much scientific illustration is black and white so Kate also works well in pen and ink, especially on scratchboard. However, the vast landscapes she encountered in South America inspire her to paint big, and she has been studying with muralists Dick Crispo and Ann Thiermann. She hopes the long wall in her studio will soon carry a penguin mural in progress.
Computers have insinuated themselves into most artists’ work-flows, and Kate uses Macintosh systems to create her popular Epson Ink-jet fine art prints (“giclées”). Most of her originals are created by hand, but a few printed images are either digitally colored, such as her dolphin series, or painted completely in Adobe Photoshop, like the Monterey Bay Humpback Whale featured on the Studio Tour map cover. Macs are great but she’d be happy to never have to see a computer again —she’d rather be outside, interacting with the real, magnificent, non-human-made world.