Taking a U-turn with artist, designer and opera singer Katherine Larson
Accomplished artist, soprano opera singer, illustrator and graphic designer Katherine Larson's life and creative pursuits have taken her around many “unexpected U-turns,” she says.
Angela J. Cesere | AnnArbor.com
Now enjoying middle age, Larson began her career in advertising in her 20s, the era when she founded her former design agency Momentum — in memory of her mother, who had passed away. Although the company was quite successful, she took a chance on an opera career after singing with a church choir. Just before turning 30 — a bit of a late age to bloom in the opera world — she gave up her business to pursue singing professionally, ended up studying music at the University of Michigan, and started a new independent design firm, Diva Designs.
She continues to work as an independent graphic designer — creating logos and advertising, and working with clients on their websites — however, over the years Larson has had a diverse range of creative pursuits. In general, she says, “music opened me up to art,” and then “one type of art would open me up to another,” she explains.
You might be familiar with Larson’s murals, which appear on walls, hallways and stairwells at locations as diverse as restaurants, office buildings and private homes. Many people know her as the artist who created two murals that once greeted diners at Zanzibar, which were removed after the restaurant closed down last year. She also creates illustrations, which have appeared in a number of children’s books and on Ann Arbor Observer covers, and she leads school assemblies.
Larson’s life started taking a big U-turn in 2008 during an artist residency in the wilderness of the Upper Peninsula’s Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Her experience there not only inspired new pictorial paintings of nature, it also set the ball rolling on major changes happening in her overall lifestyle. “They give you a cabin in the woods about a half-mile walk from the parking area. You pretty much have to pack in everything that you want to take with you on your back. There’s no electricity, no water, no refrigeration — no nothing,” she remembers.
Her living situation in the cabin was vastly different from her everyday lifestyle living a large, 3,800 square foot house. Although she had gone through times in her life when money was tight, Larson had also built a financially successful career over the years. She admits feeling hindered by having to maintain such a large property, surrounded by many material possessions — “the toys” — that she had bought herself with the money she made. Alone in the woods, she realized; “I was happy and I had nothing. I had just enough to subsist on. I had water and shelter. I had a stove that I could burn wood in. I had my little light at night. I had my paintings and my thoughts. That’s all I needed. I did a lot of journaling and painting” in the open air — en plein air — a practice she had not done before the artist residency.
Larson looked deep within and asked herself; “Could I do this for the rest of my life and be happy with just this? In this cabin in the woods, could I be happy doing only this, if this was my life?” Larson decided that the answer was “yes.” This realization impacted her so greatly that she has decided to move out of her large house and downsize her life. Even though it will require taking a large financial loss on the property, “it’s no tragedy” in her estimation. Rather, it is “a choice to follow my heart,” she says.
“I didn’t come to this realization until I had everything that there was to have. How much more can I have than what I already have? Then, suddenly I realized that I’m happy in the woods with nothing!” Larson laughs.
Reminiscing about her experience in the Porcupine Mountains reminds Larson of the time she met famous primatologist Jane Goodall, about 10 years ago. “She was surrounded by a flurry of activity and yet this wonderful peace was in her. She just sat in the middle of all of this, smiled and answered whatever question was directed at her. She looked at you very much how a primate would look at you — open-eyed. I asked her, ‘How can you stay calm when your working and traveling 300 days out of the year?’ She answered, “I keep the peace of the forest within me,” Larson recalls.
As an opera singer, “I do a lot of singing in the woods and in nature because the acoustics are perfect — especially over water and against mountains,” Larson says. It is not uncommon for her outdoor singing to draw curious listeners of many different species. “I get a lot of people that will come and gather — especially in public parks. I’ll be singing to a lake and turn around to find people listening,” she explains. It is not only humankind that is drawn to the sound of her voice. She reports finding geese, other birds and deer in her audiences.
“I’ve often said, I could sing out in nature and not have a single person present, rather than be in an auditorium and sing to a couple of thousand people. I’d rather be out there,” she admits. When she sings to an audience of people in an auditorium; “In my mind, I’m singing to nature. I’m singing to the places that I’ve been.” Before a show, she rehearses out in nature, “so that the images are fresh in my mind,” she explains.
Aside from her new love of en plein air painting, Larson continues to work on commission — painting murals, illustrating and working with clients on their marketing designs. Even though commissions require an artist to “work within the parameters” of the client, publisher or writer, “I think I bring my own sensibilities to each project,” she says. For example, one thing that all of her murals have in common is “a sense of optimism. I will change reality a little bit — take the parking meters and the power line out” of a landscape, she explains.
As a muralist, illustrator and painter, Larson is also interested in how her depictions of sunlight in her artworks capture this sense of optimism. “I choose the best light. I choose to show something glowing or something at those moments when it’s most beautiful,” she says. For example, the cityscape she painted on the wall of Village Kitchen depicts dusk, as the sun’s setting rays glimmer off of rain puddles on the streets.
Looking towards the future, Larson wants to make her singing performances “more multimedia,” she says. On October 9, she is planning a multimedia performance, “Classics Inspired by Nature,” at the Calumet Art Center in Calumet, Michigan, in which she will sing classics by Schubert, Rossini, Strauss, Puccini and others in front of a slideshow of photographs she has taken out in nature, as well as images of her landscapes and nature paintings that “reflect the music,” she says. Some of her paintings will be on display in the gallery.
Jennifer Eberbach is a free-lance writer who covers art for AnnArbor.com.