A Cause For Color

Alumni5 MIN READ

Katie Southworth '16 uses art to heal and promote mental well-being

Katie Southworth '16 in her studio.
By Claire SykesPhotography by Gregory Rec
July 15, 2021

At first, it’s all stripes and rectangles. Spend time with Katie Southworth’s paintings, though, and you’ll likely feel ocean breezes and see fields of sunflowers, or muse on some memory.

“I want my work to be a visual aid for mindfulness, joy, and mental well-being, to assist the viewer in taking a small moment of rest, just to breathe or explore with introspection,” she said. “That’s what my process of making it provides for me.”

This Boston-based, internationally recognized artist, and art educator, relies on her creativity to help heal herself, emotionally. “It’s not a secret: I lost my mother in 2015 to suicide,” said Southworth ’16, who donates a percentage of sales from her oil paintings to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. She died right before her senior year at Colby.

“It was a family decision about whether I’d go back in time for the start of the academic year. I felt I’d be OK, surrounded by healthy friendships and professors I knew would be there for me,” she said. “Part of me then didn’t know I needed art, but it was the one thing that both sustained my attention and distracted me from my trauma; and helped me in a way that no family member, friend, or therapist could have.”

Boca Botanicals Diptych Commission. Oil on two 36x24 panels.
Boca Botanicals Diptych. Oil on two 36×24 panels.

Southworth entered Colby as a psychology major minoring in art, the latter she’d loved since childhood, growing up in Darien, Conn. She figured she’d just paint for herself. At Colby, before her mother’s death, her paintings “chased abstraction,” she said. “There were a lot more shapes and gestural elements, where you could tell I was looking at a still life or nature photography. My work wasn’t very consistent, it looked confused, and I wasn’t happy with it at all.”

Bevin Engman, professor of art, said, “There was a quality in Katie’s work of searching for her own genuine, visual response to life, and all art students have to figure out what that means to them. Her desire to have an intense, artistic practice was authentic from the beginning.”

By her senior year, Southworth, also a Colby swim-team champion, had taken so many art classes she added a second major, in studio art, and switched her minor to human development. The 2016 Senior Exhibition, in the Colby College Museum of Art, featured her body of work, “The Originals,” that cried out about her mother’s suicide, and for which she won the Department of Art’s Charles Hovey Pepper Prize.

Southworth credits much of her success with her art to Engman. She said, “Color is my language, and Bevin taught me how to speak it. She taught me how to see color and render it in a way that made sense.”

Katie Southworth '16
Katie Southworth ’16 in her studio.

“There was a quality in Katie’s work of searching for her own genuine, visual response to life, and all art students have to figure out what that means to them. Her desire to have an intense, artistic practice was authentic from the beginning.”

Bevin Engman, professor of art

Nature, memories, feelings, photographs, and fabrics inspire Southworth’s colors, which guide the shape, texture, harmony, and rhythm of the painting. “So, if lavender is the most important color in the piece, I may need only a small bit of white or yellow to make that lavender sing,” she said.

“One thing Katie grasps quite well is the painting’s surface and the way she lays down her paint,” said Engman. “It’s a commitment; you have to go for it. And she has a physical intuition for it. As a result, her paintings have that lightness of being, as structures.”

Masking off and using fan paintbrushes, Southworth spreads the color out in smooth sweeps, one thin layer after another, then peels off the tape. “My hand has to be very still and my body even-keeled as I move back and forth with each stroke, which means keeping my heart rate down. My process depends upon me finding a sense of calm, and the paintings visually represent that,” she said.

Since 2018, with a master’s in teaching in art education from Tufts University, Southworth has been passing on her love and knowledge of art to children, as a K-6 teacher, “which I’ll always be. It’s a wonderful way to influence the next generation,” she said.

It wasn’t until the coronavirus hit, in 2020, that Southworth had time to think about how she could make a living from her art, also. Her self-promotion caught the attention of House & Garden UK, first, then Vanity Fair London and British Vogue, with images and blurbs of her work. Since then, she has received more than 25 commissions, nationally.

“Part of my success is in being as true to myself as possible,” said Southworth. Engman remains a mentor in her life. “She helps me stay focused on what’s most important. It’s wonderful to turn art into a business, but who are you at your core?”

For Southworth, “I would like to change the world with my art, by increasing awareness of mental health. If people understood how powerful art is in healing us, there might be less darkness in the world and more light.” And, thanks to Southworth, more color.

For more about Katie Southworth, visit her website.