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Northern Michigan painter (& my aunt!), Kathryn Cubalo, celebrating 40+ years creating art

Updated: Mar 6, 2021

Talk about inspiring! Staying with my Aunt Kathryn this spring break left me in awe of her talent and will-power. At 85, she still goes to Zumba every week and doesn’t take a single pill aside from vitamin supplements. She enjoys investing, gardening, hiking in her woods, playing games, traveling, visiting relatives and being active in her church. Aunt Kathryn is also an artist who loves participating in an art guild, learning new painting techniques and teaching art classes.

“I love going to workshops,” Aunt Kathryn said, standing out in her studio, surrounded by an array of paintings she’s produced over the past 25-plus years. “It’s also wonderful being a part of the guild for the friendships, ideas and critiques. It’s inspirational to see what other artists are creating and to watch each other grow.”

Kathryn (Olson) Cubalo was born in northeast Michigan in 1932. She and my dad were only a year apart and shared many of the same qualities, but most especially a positive outlook on the world and a determination to make family and faith the core of their lives.

Aunt Kathryn started drawing in grade school. She and my dad attended a one-room schoolhouse through the eighth grade. Her teachers during that time were very encouraging about her artwork, as were her teachers in high school who all said she should study art in college. Aunt Kathryn took their advice but early on, she had an art teacher in college who “didn’t like my art,” she said. “So, I decided I wasn’t an artist and I went on to become a teacher.”

Like me, Aunt Kathryn was a stay-at-home mom for a number of years, raising four children. Though she set her art aside during that time, she never lost her desire to create. Not long after my cousins were grown, Aunt Kathryn started taking art classes once again at Schoolcraft Community College.

The instructors loved having her in class “because I was mature.” She was particularly good at printmaking, though Aunt Kathryn didn’t go on to pursue that medium due to the high cost of the equipment. Since 1985, my aunt has become known in northeast Michigan for her beautiful watercolors and pastels.

Elena, Aunt Kathryn and Leah

“Nature inspires me and I also like to commemorate places I’ve been, as well as historical places,” she explained. For many of her paintings, my aunt works from photographs adding in her own twist and elements to the scenes. “A lot of artists work on their dining room tables,” she added. That was the case for my aunt until my Uncle Lloyd surprised her one weekend by turning his work area into an art studio.

In terms of showing her work, she admits, “it’s kind of scary to put yourself out there. I hate juried shows. The jurists have their own ideas about what’s good and it’s not always the piece you’ve poured your heart into.

“I’m seldom satisfied with the finished product, but I do like the process and working in different mediums. If I don’t keep at it, after a while, I start having dreams about new pieces. Something in my psyche feels like something’s wrong.”

It was by chance that my sister Laura, daughter Leah, niece Elena and I happened to be up north for one of my aunt’s artists’ receptions. “Portals,” featuring work by the Northeast Michigan Artists Guild, was produced by my cousin Lynn VanderLinde at the Alcona County Library in Harrisville, MI. Art featured “will provoke thought about moving from one place to another,” according to the exhibit brochure. It was a wonderful display of work - varied and interesting.

Every year, the guild chooses a theme and the artists render pieces that reflect that one word or phrase. Some of my aunt’s favorites themes were “Food”, “A is for Art…”, and the following Wordsworth poem, which, she explained, was my grandmother’s favorite. I think it’s lovely, too.

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o'er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the milky way,

They stretched in never-ending line

Along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

A poet could not but be gay,

In such a jocund company:

I gazed—and gazed—but little thought

What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

“Portals” will travel next to Brush Creek Mill in Hillman. The 2018 art guild theme is “Whatever the Weather” and will open at the Besser Museum this summer. I love the oil painting my aunt is currently working on for this exhibit!

Hanging on the window ledge above my aunt’s sink is a sticky note that simply reads “Sing”. I asked Aunt Kathryn if that was her reminder to sing every day and she nodded, a bit shyly. “It’s good for your vocal cords to sing a little bit every day,” Aunt Kathryn explained. I don’t know why, but I found that note delightful. One night, taking the note’s cue, we sang songs from The Sound of Music while cleaning up after supper.

On the last evening we were there, my aunt announced that she was giving my sister and me each one of her paintings. She led us out into her studio and said we could choose whichever ones we wanted. It was a difficult decision but, ultimately, I picked a painting I knew would always remind me of my Aunt Kathryn and Uncle Lloyd and their mutual love of nature.

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