Katherine Ace, a leading Oregon artist for more than 30 years, died on Monday, April 17, 2023, in Portland, at age 70. She was known, among other things, for her painterly evocations of scenes and characters from classic fairy tales and for her quiet yet determined advocacy for women in the art world.
“I’m very sorry to have to share that after complications from rapid and aggressive metastatic breast cancer, Katherine passed away peacefully in her sleep early today,” her daughter, Corinna Ace, announced Monday on her mother’s Facebook page. “She wanted to send love and gratitude to all her friends and the arts community — thank you all for your kindness and support.”
A sense of stillness and of unspoken myth beyond “realism” pervades much of Ace’s work. Left: “Red Bird,” oil on canvas, 24 x 16 inches, 2017. Right: “The Vorpal Blade,” oil on canvas, 24 x 16 inches, 2016.
Condolences and reminiscences, many from fellow artists, quickly poured in on social media. “She was a great painter, a very intelligent woman who possessed a singular (quirky) personality,” artist Margaret Coe said. “Kat cultivated lots of different interests but her main passion was paint. She had an astounding knowledge of pigments.”
“I love pigments — and the aroma of oil paint,” Ace told writer Sara Perry for a 2008 profile in The Oregonian. “I regularly use five to six brands of alkyd and oil paints.” The act of painting, she added, focused her attention and put her in the “zone”: “There’s nothing that can take me out of myself and lunge me into chaos and life more than painting.”
Ace’s paintings are figurative but not realist. As she told writer Bonnie Gangelhoff for a 2006 story in Southwest Art magazine, she “focuses on representational art but approaches the canvas in an abstract style reminiscent of Jackson Pollock. ‘I throw paint at the canvas and sculpt the surface using painting knives, nails, pins, bottle brushes—anything that is lying around—into the surface,’ she explains.”
Her works have a look of familiarity and reveal her background as an illustrator, but the “realism” they depict is of the mind, and its wanderings, and of mythical worlds just beyond ordinary reach. Their sense of color is vivid, and her tableaux often seem still, almost frozen in time, yet with a sense of contained and mysterious energy. Something seems about to happen, or to have just happened, and the world of her characters is catching up to that momentous awareness. Many of her paintings contain shards of information: type snipped from newsprint; unusual animal companions; ordinary things made extraordinary and quizzical because they seem out of place. The universe of her paintings is one of questions, not of answers.
“Katherine’s passing is a huge loss to the Northwest art community and all of us who were fortunate to count Katherine as a friend,” Sandy Rowe, former editor of The Oregonian, said in a Facebook comment. “Katherine’s mind was one of the most alive, creative and complex of anyone I know. Her paintings, quite beautiful, always told a story.”
The telling of the tale was crucial to Ace’s sense of painting, even as the stories purposely lacked tidy summations. In a 2022 essay in The Labyrinth, writer Midori Snyder describes Ace’s fairy-tale works as “painting the narrative with a series of visual metaphors folding in on themselves to express the unstable identities of the tales,” and then quotes Ace from an artist’s statement: “The intersection of contraries fascinates me: ecstasy and agony; humor and tragedy; natural and constructed realities; experience and news. I find that I’m curious about the struggles of diversity vs. unity in human, animal and plant societies. I am captivated by complex issues that we all face, and yet experience personally, intimately. I am interested in the role of dark feelings, thoughts and states of mind in the process of transformation, l am drawn to fire beneath reserve.”
Sometimes the stories she painted were a little more straightforward — rebalancings of the gender scales, equalizing of opportunities, as in her 2019 painting 9 Portraits, a 10-foot-wide diptych portraying her and eight other prominent Oregon woman artists, which is now in the collections of the Portland Art Museum. With it, Ace took an art-historical model and reinvented it for a modern, feminist world. She knew there were group portraits of male artists in the art-history books – a replication of Henri Fantin-Latour’s 1870 painting A Studio at Les Batignolles is painted into the left side of 9 Portraits – but couldn’t find much evidence of the same for women artists. So she decided to do it herself. And among her subjects she found great diversity. “We women don’t paint the same,” she declared at a gallery talk with all nine artists. “We’re individualists. … (but) we’re a small enough market that we’re also a community.”
Ace saw her art as existing on a broader plane than the canvas it was painted on. “I always do political work. Life is politics,” she commented in 2022. “Which plant gets to get root space? Which other lifeforms get the power of ‘now’? And life is a fairy tale. I’m rewatching the movie Pretty Woman which I hoped would make me feel ‘normal’ again. All fiction are fairy tales. Actually all living life is a fairy tale. There are truths in fairy tales.”
Ace was born Jan. 31, 1953, on the South Side of Chicago, and moved with her family to a Chicago suburb as a child. She graduated cum laude from Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, in 1975, and between 1979 and 1992 pursued a career as a commercial illustrator: Among her projects was the book series Women of the American West. She settled in Portland, she told writer Cathy Lamb for a 2004 story in The Oregonian, after tiring of a nomadic life: “After college in Illinois, she lived in New Orleans, Vermont, Boston, California and Reno, Nevada. ‘I only lived in Reno because my car broke down there,’ she says.” And it was in Portland that she transformed from a skilled illustrator into a fine artist.
Along the way she developed, as all good artists must, a visual voice of her own. “An alternative reality hums just beneath the surface of Katherine Ace’s oil paintings,” Sheila Regan wrote in a 2020 essay for Variable West. “This fantastical energy manifests through blushes of surrealist narratives and the ominous animals that inhabit her work. Through her refined rendering and limitless imagination, Ace provides a window into a world saturated with the contemplative aura of day dreams. … Her subjects are romantic and dreamlike, often with penetrating stares, while her technique demonstrates classical training through her layered approach to texture and color, as well as her keen sense of light.”
Ace enjoyed several close friendships during her three-plus decades in Portland, and a wider circle of friendly acquaintances, but she was in many ways a loner, happiest working in her studio. “Ever since I was a tot, I’ve enjoyed time by myself,” she told writer Sara Perry. “It’s a lucky thing, since I spend long hours alone in my studio.” Even then, she tended to look outward, toward the larger world, keen on finding connections. “I’m pretty shy,” she told the gallery crowd at the 2019 unveiling of her painting 9 Portraits, in which she included a version of herself: “This is the first self-portrait I’ve done. And I’m sort of hiding behind my phone.”
An illustrative sense of the mythical lurking amid the ordinary: left, “And He Met a Little Man,” oil and alkyd on canvas, 2016; right, “The Vat.”
Her hiding could border on the obsessive, and yet it also carried a germ of the wry, sideways humor that seemed a fundamental part of her being. Bonnie Gangelhoff, in her 2006 essay for Southwest Art, revealed a bit of deep Ace history. “When she was 8 months old, Katherine Ace’s life was marked by a seminal moment that would linger in her imagination for years to come,” Gangelhoff wrote. “In the 1950s, a traveling photographer came to her family’s home in Chicago, and Ace’s mother hired him to take baby pictures. For reasons that remain unknown, the photographer decided to pose infant Katherine in a roasting pan usually reserved for the family’s pot roast. Placing a pencil behind her ear, the photographer snapped away. So it is that decades later, when asked to provide a photograph of herself for this story, Ace replies without missing a beat, ‘Can I use a baby photo?’”
Gangelhoff added: “Spend some time with Ace and it becomes clear that her sly, subtle sense of humor permeates her persona as well as her art.”
In the end, it seems, life seemed more full for Ace in the studio, on her own, grappling with the mysteries, working her way through the thicket. “My favorite part of being an artist is about three-fourths of the way through a painting,” she told the gallery crowd at that 2019 9 Portraits talk. “You think it’s going to work. It’s talking to you. It’s the hunt. I like the hunt.” Happily, the hunt liked back.