Words of ART

July 26, 2019

Collage artist paints with paper

By Lisa Savage

Artist Kathy Fitzgerald in her studio.
Artist Kathy Fitzgerald in her studio.

An image of a guitar appears in every art collage Kathy Fitzgerald creates. Sometimes the guitars are small, and it takes good eyes to find them. In others, the instrument is easy to spot.

But one thing is for certain — it’s always there. It’s a tribute to Fitzgerald’s son, Phillip, who played guitar and loved music. He died in 2003 from a heart attack brought on by his use of crack cocaine. Fitzgerald has vowed to always be open about his addiction.

The year after her son’s death, Fitzgerald’s mother became ill and was living with the Fitzgeralds when their house burned. Her mother died in the fire. Fitzgerald also lost everything in the fire, including their vehicles and all her son’s possessions she had saved.

Losing her mother and son so close together was almost more than Fitzgerald could bear. “You never recover,” she says. “It’s not that you get over it. It becomes bearable.”

But she found she must focus on something. “Art saved me,” she says.

Now, years later, she hopes her art inspires others who have lost a loved one or those who need to get back to doing something they enjoy. “Just whatever would make them feel alive again,” she says.

The love of art

Fitzgerald grew up in Giles County and always loved art. “I’ve been drawing and painting since I was a child,” she says. She never took professional art lessons, but she painted life-size figures for her lawn art business for 22 years. She also worked at the Giles County Ambulance Service and later transferred to the Giles County Sheriff’s Office. She retired from the county with 30 years of service.

“It was time for me to finally do what I loved, and that was to paint,” she says.

Her first pieces were a series of guitars in memory of her son. Then, she wondered if she could make a collage that looked like a painting from a distance and if she could place a guitar in memory of her son in that collage.

She photographed two of the guitars and reduced the pictures to about an inch in length. She hid one in her first creation, titled “Tennessee Hills.” It’s a collection of things important to Fitzgerald, including the rolling hills of Tennessee, a little log cabin, a map of the Blue Ridge Parkway and, of course, a guitar. It took two weeks to complete.

At the age of 60, she entered her first art contest. In 2013, a national art supply company used “Tennessee Hills” on the cover of its catalog.

Telling a story

Collage art, a great way to tell life’s stories, became her obsession. “Ideas would flash into my head at night, and I would get up and write them down because, by morning, they would be gone,” she says.

She gathers old handwritten letters, along with maps, sheet music, paper doilies and any type of paper that will work. She often uses cheesecloth to represent hair and other elements in the art, glues the papers and other materials, and then paints some portions of the canvas to create the images.

“You can incorporate maps of your birthplace, recipes handed down through generations, tickets from a special concert or bits and pieces of letters that have sentimental value,” she says.

Her sense of humor comes out in much of her work. She loves colorful and whimsical themes, and she sometimes adds a funny or inspirational quote to her pieces.

In one creation, a young girl walks toward a barn, with two pigs following her. Fitzgerald calls the work “Pigtails.” She used cheesecloth to create the girl’s pigtails and the tails on the pigs. She used a recipe for pork chops on the pig’s shoulder.

Worth the work

Fitzgerald displays and sells her work at art shows in Nashville and Brentwood. She loves the shows, but she could not do them without the help of her sister, Pam Stafford, who usually accompanies her. She also depends on her husband, Clay, a talented carpenter who custom builds her art panels and helps with the 3D designs.

Fitzgerald says she loves meeting people at the shows. She recalls one woman who stood out. The woman and her 8-year-old daughter were drawn to a work titled “The Quilters Cup.” The little girl asked Fitzgerald why she had a guitar in her creations, and Fitzgerald explained that her son loved to play guitar before he passed away.

“I looked at her mom and knew instantly by the look on her face that she had lost a child,” Fitzgerald says. The woman told Fitzgerald her 12-year-old son had died that year.

She explained to Fitzgerald that she was drawn to the piece because she had always loved to quilt.

“She told me she missed quilting, but she just couldn’t focus on anything,” says Fitzgerald, who told the woman to look closely at a quote incorporated into the work. It read, “Life’s a patchwork quilt made from bits and pieces of joy and sadness, sewn together with love.”

The woman bought the collage. As she was leaving, she told Fitzgerald she planned to start quilting again. “I knew then that I was doing something worthwhile,” Fitzgerald says. “I felt like I had helped someone who needed a little help that day. Maybe I could inspire others who have lost a child to come out of their shell and get back to doing something they enjoyed. If my art brings a smile to your face, then I have accomplished my goal as an artist.”

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