Katie Trinkle Legge -July 2009

Portrait of an artist

by: Joshua H. Balling

Growing up, Katie Trinkle Legge was an Army brat, moving from town to town as her father pursued a military career. But there was always one place she could call home: her grandfather’s house in upstate New York.

It was here she first began to develop into an artist, taking instruction from her grandfather, an architect and draftsman, in the technical aspects of drawing. It was a skill that has served her well, providing a solid foundation to the colorful and vibrant still-lifes and landscapes that have become her signature.

“My grandfather was an architect, and whenever we went to his house, that’s what you did. You drew. There was a full studio with pencils and paper. The supplies were always available. At a really young age, he was teaching me to draw,” Legge said earlier this summer, standing in the second-floor studio of the Quidnet home she shares with her husband Darren, an auto mechanic; and son Jake, 12.

“I started to take painting lessons when I was 9 or 10, at a little school in the Hudson Valley, the Bethlehem School of Art. My father was also a painter, so it was in the blood. I just always wanted to do it.”

She also felt at home on Nantucket, where her grandfather had a summer house, and perhaps it was here she began to develop her fascination with light and color. The island’s hold was a powerful – and familiar – one. Like so many who visited here throughout their childhoods and young-adult years, she came to work for a summer or two after college and ended up part of the community fabric.

After years as a “struggling artist,” waiting tables at The Brotherhood and Fog Island, selling women’s clothing on South Wharf at Miss Wear and working for the Nantucket Clambake Company, Legge, 43, has reached the point where she is able to call art her career. She exhibits at the Old Spouter Gallery – she has a show opening July 17 in the Orange Street space – and at the Left Bank Gallery in Wellfleet, and she occasionally teaches painting classes at the Artists Association.

Her studio, which doubles as the bedroom, is a testament to the life of a working artist. Bright sun filters through the windows, and dances off paintings of all shapes, sizes and stages of completion. They are balanced on easels, lean against walls and hang at eye level around the spacious room.

Perhaps best known for her still-lifes of fruit – a study of plums so luminescent they seem to spring off the canvas leans against the base of an easel in one corner of the studio – she’s also been painting sheep lately following several visits to her husband’s native New Zealand, as well as the occasional landscape. On this summer day, a larger-than-life canvas of colorful marbles – their reflective glass surfaces shimmering in the early-afternoon sun – dominates the center of the studio.

It’s hard to pigeonhole Legge’s work, influenced as it is by artists as diverse as Cézanne, Matisse, Warhol and Wayne Thiebaud, but there is a single thread that ties it all together: color.

Legge paints what she does because she loves color.

“It’s fun, nostalgic in a way,” she said. “I feel like I’m still a kid. I love paint, creating color, working with color, layering it on to give paintings a luminescence.”

She’s also fascinated by reflective surfaces. Most of her fruit work appears buffed to a high sheen. The marble study practically emits light.

“Nature has its own way of reflecting. I paint a lot in the winter, and the produce department in the Stop & Shop is the brightest place on Nantucket in the wintertime,” she said.

“I also like glass. It has a three-dimensional feel. I like it when things pop off the canvas.”

For all their color and vibrance, Legge’s paintings are far from one-dimensional. Subtleties abound, each color made all the more luminous by the negative space and shadows she deftly works into her oil paintings.

“There’s a lot of contrast in my work, dark and light, negative and positive space,” she said. “You don’t always notice it right away, because of the bright colors, but it’s there, and it is working to make the colors even brighter.”

There’s no question Legge’s work is representational, but even the most realistic paintings can have an abstract component. Legge is quick to point out that what she paints is not simply a reproduction of what she sees. Her oils are carefully composed, and she’s slowly learning, she said, to “let them be paintings.”

Her sheep paintings burst with color, but the tones are softer, with little refection and more shadow, a kaleidoscope of reds, yellows and oranges, the two animals at the center of the work made all the more prominent by the hind quarter of another at the far left of the frame.

“I think I’ve loosened up a bit in the last four or five years. There’s more expression in my work. I’m allowing myself to go beyond the subject, and remember it’s a painting, not a photograph,” she said.

“I’ve been accused of being in a constant good mood, which is absolutely not true,” she continued. “It’s funny. The brights come in the painting because it’s all about exploring color. It has to do with developing color. I’m still learning about color, and sometimes my palette will switch or change. Looking back 10 years, the color has changed a little bit with the luminescence I’m trying to get in. It’s less graphic.”

Depending on the painting in front of her, Legge will work in one of several ways. She often sets up still-life compositions in her studio and paints directly from what’s in front of her, working in sessions that usually last about five hours.

Or she’ll take landscape photographs, and then compose a sketch with watercolors or pastels, cropping them, sometimes imaginatively, from which she creates her larger oils.

She’ll also occasionally paint a small work to resolve a larger one.

“Some of them happen really quickly, while others are a struggle,” she said. “I have to put them away, and come back to them later. Some of them happily happen within a couple of sessions, but even those I have to let dry between layers, which is why I usually have a lot going on.”

Through it all, the drawing has stayed with her. It’s the foundation of her work, lending even more realism to a very realistic style.

“The first two years of college (at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts) we focused on anatomy and perspective drawing. It’s stayed with me,” Legge said. “It’s always been a pleasure, rather than a struggle. It kind of comes naturally. I gravitate toward it. It’s always been there. I’ve had a very strong drawing foundation all my life.

“The anatomy that I took in college really helps with the animals,” she continued. “We did a lot of bone-structure study, and muscle-structure study, and if you know what’s on the inside, you can draw what’s on the outside.”

It’s still difficult at times for Legge to believe that she’s been able to create a career for herself as an artist.

“I came to Nantucket in 1988, the summer after graduation, with a little portfolio of watercolors, and the very first place I showed was the Sherburne Gallery on Main Street. They’ve since moved to Boston. Then I was over on South Wharf at the Sun Gallery, which isn’t there anymore either, and I spent a lot of time showing on South Wharf. I’ve been with Kathleen Walsh at Old Spouter since 2001. I slowly but surely developed my work, and it became my career,” she said.

“I think I still pinch myself every day. I get to work at home, and do what I love to do. I really feel blessed. I don’t think everybody gets to have a job like that, if you want to call it a job. But I still do the occasional dog commission to help get through the winter.”

Katie Trinkle Legge will show her latest work at Old Spouter Gallery later this month, with an opening reception scheduled for July 17.

Joshua Balling is the copy editor of Nantucket Today and the assistant editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

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