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The Painter's Life in Hillsdale

Posted April 23, 2020

Profiles in Hillsdale: Thomas Jefferson Kitts

This is the first installment of an occasional series exploring the creative side of Hillsdale. The Hillsdale News seeks subjects for future profiles: writers, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, people with interesting stories to tell. Do you have a neighbor to nominate? Tell us more. Thomas Kitts has painted scenes from Italy, Spain, Croatia, France, Mexico, and all over the US. But here at home, he has everything he needs: “Hillsdale is such a natural setting, I no longer feel the old urge to live the secluded artist life in the countryside.” Living in Hillsdale, Kitts is close enough to an international airport to get wherever he needs to go (when pandemics allow), but also close to many local inspirational spots: The Columbia Gorge, the coast, the Cascades, farmland, Sauvie’s Island -- all are within easy reach.

As an artist, Kitts has always had alternative revenue streams to help pay the bills. In the ‘90s he chaired the illustration department at Pacific Northwest College of Art as well as running his own marketing and graphic design firm until 2007. A few years ago he entered the world of online teaching with the launch of, never suspecting a not-too-distant future when a virus would force us all to remain homebound for months. It’s turned out to be an example of unintentionally excellent planning. The coronavirus crisis has cancelled all of Kitts’ far-flung teaching and travel plans for the foreseeable future. Now, instead of a trip to Sicily, he spends his days deciding where to set up additional cameras in his home studio. Convention in Denver? That trip has been replaced with deliberations over better ways to mentor artists remotely.

Kitts in his Hillsdale studio, painting a small still life from life.

His advice to people exploring their creativity during this weird time? Don’t wait for inspiration -- just start and the inspiration will come. “Even if you play the guitar badly, play the guitar. Even if you paint badly, paint. Because it’s the doing that makes you better.”

What will the new normal look like? “When COVID hit, I realized teaching through would be a way to hold things together financially until we return to something like normal, but now I think distance learning is here to stay. The interactive two-way back and forth has been missing from online instruction until now, with improved platforms like Zoom. People appreciate that the expenses are lower, that they don’t have to travel. It’s not a substitute for real face-to-face interaction, but it’s getting there.” Kitts found his way back to teaching as a way to pay the bills, but it has been rewarding in other ways as well: “The ‘ah-ha moment’ is just a great thing to experience with another person.” Through his online teaching, he helps artists reach their own specific goals, which can be artistic, professional or personal. Sometimes the coaching involves helping mentees through some pretty deep self-examination, an interesting convergence with his psychotherapist wife, Loralee, who herself has become an enthusiastic painter. He left his position at PNCA to pursue what he calls “the holy grail of the working artist”: Representation by an agent, who was indeed very successful at getting his work into multiple galleries. Then the dotcom bust intervened, vaporizing the budgets of many newly wealthy and enthusiastic collectors. And while his work has sold for as much as $18,000, he and other artists usually end up with about 50% of the retail price. No complaints from Kitts, though, who understands that business is a necessary part of sustaining the art. The trick, he says, is to succeed at the business side without letting it take away your love for your art. About a dozen years ago, already a few decades out of art school, Kitts was looking for a way to establish his painting career. On the advice of a mentor he began painting competitively (yes, that’s a thing) at plein air events around the country. “Plein air” refers to painting outdoors from life, rather than from a photo in a studio. Practiced for hundreds of years, today it is also a major art and lifestyle activity, with “paint-outs” and competitions all over the world offering big money prizes. Often fundraisers as well as opportunities for artists to win cash awards and sell their work, these competitions are, as Kitts describes them, “Like The Iron Chef for painting: You are given the ingredients (a particular cityscape or landscape) and a timeline of just a few days to complete a painting.” Collectors buy the paintings, before the paint has even dried, right off the wall once the judging is over. It turned out that in addition to the travel and the prizes, plein air offered incredible opportunities to learn from other artists. “Close contact with 50-60 really good painters made me grow as an artist more than I had for the previous 25 years and helped me get to the next level as a teacher,” he says. Success at plein air competitions led to the interest from galleries and collectors that he had been seeking, as well as opportunities to teach and travel around the world, with time built into his travel schedule to work on his own projects as well. With travel off the table for now, he’s trying to take his own advice: “Plan for the future, deal with the present,” while fitting in as much painting as he can.

--Valeurie Friedman


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