Katherine Porter was always on the move. Her restlessness defined her as a person and as an artist. Long associated with Maine, she moved around the country constantly and her brilliant abstract paintings crackled with the nervous energy that drove her.

Porter died on 22 April in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at the age of eighty-two. She had suffered from lupus for many years, but in the end it was a heart attack that killed her.

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Katherine Porter, Circle, oil on canvas, 66 x 48 in., 2020 (photo: LewAllen Galleries).

Born Katherine Pavlis in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1941, Porter graduated from Colorado College in 1963 and attended Boston University during her junior year. She also spent time in Ithaca, New York, while her first husband, sculptor Stephen Porter, was at Cornell.

Porter’s odyssey took her from Iowa to Colorado to Boston, where she first emerged as a significant artist. Subsequently, she lived and worked in Santa Fe, Montreal, Nova Scotia, New York and several places in Maine—Lincolnville, Brooksville, Belfast, Portland, and South Thomaston. Having lived in New Mexico from 1972 to 1976, she returned to Santa Fe last year for health reasons.

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Katherine Porter, Collide, oil on canvas, 72 x 52 in., 2019 (photo: LewAllen Galleries).

Paul Heroux, one of Maine’s most noted ceramic artists, knew Porter very well, having collaborated with and traveled with her in the 1980s. Heroux, now retired from Bates College and living in New Gloucester, says Porter’s constant moving from place to place was in part a function of her troubled existence.

“She was searching for a geographic cure for her unhappiness,” says Heroux.

Fellow artists who knew Porter in Maine often remark at how supportive she could be.

Painter Janice Kasper of Swanville knew Porter when Porter was living in Belfast.

“She lived in Belfast, converting the old Hall Hardware building on lower Main Street into a studio and living space,” recalls Kasper. “She was very generous and would let me use the studio when she went somewhere to teach during the winters. I think that I had use of the space for two winters. She also recommended my work to a gallery in Cambridge. I had one show but then the gallery closed.”

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Katherine Porter, Color Coded, oil on canvas, 70 x 50 in., 2000 (photo: LewAllen Galleries).

“Kathy was very generous in her support and encouragement of other artists,” agrees Natasha Mayers of Whitefield. “She would buy their art and give them presents of art books and other things. And she had such a love for painting and of many artists that went before her. Of all the artists I know she had the greatest library of art books.”

“As young artists we all looked to her verve and masterful brushwork as an entry into abstraction,” adds painter Katherine Bradford, who splits her time between New York City and Brunswick. “She made paintings that were totally alive; they were brave and full of the touch and color we all aspired to.”

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Katherine Porter, Cyclamen, mixed media on paper, 63 x 42 in., 1997 (photo: LewAllen Galleries).

Porter’s career began on the Boston art scene in the 1960s. She then became a major figure in New York in the 1970s and 1980s, one of the second generation of women Abstract Expressionist painters, artists such as Louise Fishman (1939–2021), Mary Heilmann (b.1940), Elizabeth Murray (1940–2007) and Pat Steir (b. 1940). She was featured in the Whitney Biennial in 1973 and 1981, and exhibited at David McKee, Betty Parsons, Sidney Janis, Andre Emmerich, and Salander-O’Reilly Galleries.

In the 21st century, however, Porter’s star faded.

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Katherine Porter, Hearts of a Wind Blown Flame, oil on canvas, 38 x 44 in., 2017 (photo: LewAllen Galleries).

Here in Maine, Porter was awarded honorary doctorates by Colby College in 1982 and Bowdoin College in 1992.

Porter’s 1991 exhibition at Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Katherine Porter: Paintings and Drawings, was the only time I saw a significant body of her work (nine major oil paintings and eight large tempera drawings).

“In a typical Katherine Porter painting,” I wrote at the time, “bright colors clash, crash, and burn as broken forms collide and collapse, and crude patterns develop and disappear, but somehow Porter always seems to manage to keep the chaos on the canvas under a semblance of control.”

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Katherine Porter, New Year, oil on paper, 22.25 x 30 in., 1991 (photo: LewAllen Galleries).

Katharine Watson, director emerita of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, first met Porter when together they judged a competition to select art for the Fort Kent border crossing station in 1984. (They selected a large photograph of clouds by Bob Brooks.) Of Porter’s bravura body of paintings, Watson says, “It’s a work unto itself. I can’t think of anyone else who came close to the impact of her work.” That said, Watson acknowledges that “some people did not like the spontaneous explosion, gesture, and color in her work.”

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Katherine Porter, Sailing, oil on canvas, 74 x 50 in., 1997 (photo: LewAllen Galleries).

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Katherine Porter, What It Is, oil on canvas, 64 x 70 in., 2005 (photo: LewAllen Galleries).

Indeed, in a 1983 review quoted in Porter’s New York Times obituary, critic John Russell described a Porter show as “a one-woman fireworks display,” adding that “like most fireworks displays, she has a limited formal repertory.”

Artist Carl Palazzolo, of Houston, Texas, and Robinhood, Maine, first met Porter in 1967 when they were both part of an emerging group of young artists in Boston sometimes referred to as the Studio Coalition.

“The overriding quality throughout Kathy’s work was the unbridled passion and turbulent energy with which she availed herself,” says Palazzolo. “It was as though each painting needed to be made immediately at that moment, or the truth would be lost. As other artists can attest, this is a difficult and emotionally challenging approach to creating work. This virtuosic turbulence was a part of her DNA. It was at once a source of brilliant art and, occasionally, fraught personal relationships. Ours included.”

“However,” notes Palazzolo, “I never felt less than enormous admiration for the art. Consequently, I was disheartened by the diminished attention and respect accorded to her paintings during the last decades of her life. I welcome any opportunity to honor the brave and powerful work that is Katherine Porter’s legacy.”

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Katherine Porter, Wheeler’s Bay, oil on canvas, 48 x 42 in., 2023 (photo: LewAllen Galleries).

Porter’s old friend Heroux understands very well how Porter sometimes made things hard for herself and others. He was a self-described “ceramist-for-hire” on the large ceramic mural Porter was commissioned to make for the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco in 1981. The mural was ultimately rejected because Porter added a border of names of her political heroes to the otherwise abstract piece. Porter’s mural is now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

“Kathy was wonderful,” says Heroux, “but she was difficult.”

Wonderful, but difficult. A fitting tribute to any serious artist. And to her art.


Note from editor: Our thanks to Douglas Saltzman at LewAllen Galleries, Santa Fe, for sending all these photos from Porter’s recent exhibit, Brilliance of Spontaneity Untamed.


Image at top: Katherine Porter, Sunset in Maine with Yellow Frame, oil on canvas, 48 x 42.25 in., 2023 (photo: LewAllen Galleries).