by Len Lear
Kathleen Shaver, 61, who has lived in Philadelphia since 1971 and in Chestnut Hill since 1981, is one of many local artists who will be opening their studios to the public on Oct. 11 and 12. A spectacularly talented abstract artist (who did representational work early in her career, like Picasso), Kathleen has a most unusual background for an artist. In 1976 she graduated from the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing (HUP) and worked as a nurse for 15 years before devoting all of her work hours to painting. She works in oil on canvas, mixed media and collage on paper, charcoal and pastel, etc. Following is a series of questions we posed to Shaver and her replies:
Q: How is it that you became both a nurse and an artist?
A: I attended middle school and high school in Cherry Hill, NJ. This is when I first became aware of Moore College of Art & Design. I began studying at Moore right after my high school graduation in 1971. Although I had intended to study commercial art, I changed my mind because I really loved painting and sculpture. Because I had no real confidence that I could make a secure living as a fine artist (I had no role models that I could relate to) and because I feared falling into debt under mounting student loans, I decided to do something useful for society and become a nurse. The program at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing was very affordable, and I knew I would be able to find a good paying position quite easily when I graduated in 1976.
Many young women from working class families like me benefited from hospital-based nursing programs as we earned good salaries and could take advantage of programs that paid for a BSN degree while we worked. Once I began working as a nurse, I enrolled again at Moore as a part-time student, often working 10-hour shifts at the hospital so that I could have days off for my art classes. I worked in my studio late at night and on the weekends. I finally graduated from Moore in 1983, earning a BFA with Honors in Painting.
Q: Where did you work as a nurse and in what capacity?
A: I first worked at Children’s Hospital on a medical ward and later as a surgical nurse at Hahnemann and Graduate Hospitals. Working on hospital wards was very difficult; there was never enough staff to give quality patient care, and I was often distressed about this. I found that I preferred working with a team in the OR, concentrating all our attention on one patient.
Q: Why did you leave nursing?
A: I began showing my art work in 1983, and in 1990 I was included in an exhibition of contemporary Philadelphia artists at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I stopped nursing at the age of 39 when I got married. My daughter was born one year later.
Q: Have you been drawing and painting since you were a child?
A: Yes, I would draw in the margins of the newspaper if there wasn’t anything else available! My maternal grandmother, Kathleen, for whom I am named, was also a professional nurse and painted as a hobby. My father was an excellent draftsman but only drew as a hobby.
Q: Did you get much encouragement to pursue a career as an artist?
A: The most encouragement I received was from the first gallery dealer I worked with, Rodger La Pelle in Old City. He invited me to show in his gallery and was tremendously supportive. I had very little confidence until I worked with Rodger, and I am forever grateful to him. I painted over 100 pieces during the time I was with La Pelle Galleries, and Rodger sold over 80 of those works for me.
Q: Have you ever worked on commission, or do you paint what inspires you and then hope that someone will buy it?
A: In addition to a commission for the School of Nursing at Penn, I agreed to create a piece based on ballet when I was still working figuratively, but I do not enjoy the anxiety and worry that comes with producing a commissioned piece. I like the feeling that I can let the work become an ugly mess because it just might lead to something fabulous and unexpected.
Q: Is it difficult to make a living as a full-time artist? And have things changed since the recession started in 2008 with respect to selling works of art?
A: It’s impossible. Unless you are creating more commercial and craft-oriented work, you must have another source of income. Based on my experience as part of a cooperative gallery in Old City, I would say gallery sales for “second tier” artists have dropped pretty dramatically since the 2008 financial crises. Paintings are a luxury item, and many people are holding back on a splurge like that. Even if an artist is selling most of his/her work, by the time framing bills, art supplies and other expenses such as shipping or transportation are subtracted and taxes paid, there’s nothing left!
Q: Can you tell us about the 27 paintings you have in a permanent installation at Penn Nursing School?
A: All the paintings are my own work, but many are based on fragments of well known paintings that depict an aspect of nursing, such as Rubens’ painting of the goddess Hygeia (1615) and Thomas Eakins’ painting of the Agnew Clinic (1889), which depicts a HUP nurse, Mary Clymer, assisting in Dr. Agnew’s surgical theater. I received a lot of support in my research from The Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing at Penn as well as from the HUP Alumni and their incredible archive.
Q: How do you establish a price for a work of art?
A: It is necessary to gauge the market and decide what a realistic price range is. If a work is very successful, strong and original and if it is framed, I price it higher. I have actually loaned my work to graduate students who really liked it but could not afford to buy it. I think living with original art is terrific. It’s not the money that is important; it’s the affirmation that what you are doing means something, has significance.
Q: How long does it usually take you to create a work from start to finish?
A: Hard to say because I work on 5-8 large paintings and 16-20 small paintings at the same time. I work in layers, letting the paint dry before I work again, and I keep rotating everything around. It could be a few weeks or several months. I work in a space my husband created for me over our garage here in Chestnut Hill.
Q: What is your ultimate ambition as an artist?
A: My ambition is always to create a painting that is unexpected but that I believe in. It is nice to receive reviews, and I would be wildly gratified if a critic liked my work enough to write something substantive about it. I think I have to paint quite a bit more before I get to that place, though.
Q: Do you ever miss nursing?
A: Yes I do. I was privileged to care for a friend dying of a brain tumor, and more recently I cared for my father who died of metastatic lung cancer. I was grateful for my nursing skills and feel very passionate about raising awareness concerning end-of-life care and the need to provide dignity and spiritual support to the dying. The process of dying should have a specialness equal to the celebration of birth.
For more information, visit www.kathleenshaver.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Shaver’s studio at 8319 Seminole St. will be open to the public on Oct. 11 and 12, noon to 6 p.m. Shaver’s work will also be included in “Creative Tension,” a group exhibition at the Perkins Center for the Arts, Moorestown, NJ, Oct. 5 to Dec. 7. And she was invited to exhibit her work at the Burrison Gallery at the University of Pennsylvania from Oct. 31 to Nov. 21, which includes Homecoming Weekend.