During the social unrest of the late 1960s, Katherine Porter was a force in an emerging generation of Boston artists. She had recently moved from the Berkshires to Santa Fe where she died at 82 on April 22.

Katherine Louanne Pavlis was born on Sept. 11, 1941, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to John Pavlis, who was vice president of his father’s office furniture factory, and Evelyn (Fawcett) Pavlis, who by 1944 was raising three small children. Her father was killed while serving in the Navy in World War II. Her mother later married Jack Greedy. Katherine married twice, first to Stephen Porter, a sculptor and a nephew of the painter Fairfield Porter, and then to Mark Dietrich, a carpenter. They separated, and he died a few years later.

She broke out in Boston as the most successful and talented artist of her generation. After initial success she moved on and kept moving. Her passionate social positions evoked hair trigger responses to friends and other artists. She moved to Southern Vermont for a couple of years during which time I recorded this conversation in a restaurant. 

We kept in touch by e mail and she sent comments on my articles. She was quite happy when last I heard from her. .

Charles Giuliano: When did you arrive in Boston? 

Katherine Porter In 1967 on the eve of separation from my husband. I was born in Iowa and studied at Boston University where I had a scholarship. I left Boston to get married. It was hard to leave. I loved Boston. I met Tony Thompson and Liz Dworkin. I rented an apartment in their building on the first floor.

CG You worked with Jonathan Kozol. ( Kozol born September 5, 1936 is an American writer, progressive activist, and educator, best known for his books on public education in the United States.)

KP I was volunteering at Harriet Tubman House (Boston’s South End) and Jonathan lived on that block. He came by for some reason, to my studio in an old furniture building. It was part of the city getting things going in the South End and Roxbury. We talked about the learning center and Jonathan decided to open it in my building (Storefront Learning Center). This was my second studio actually. We found a building and I rented the top floor. I worked there after teaching school. It was volunteer work and I loved it teaching elementary art. The kids came up to my studio for the art part. I worked a lot downstairs but had workshops in my studio. I provided the material; paper, paint, wood blocks for prints.

CG What were the projects?

KP Self portraits, pictures of their families. I loved it. I absolutely loved it. They were funny and irreverent. That was my life at the time. I worked for Avatar (the Lyman family paper).

CG What did you do?

KP I helped with layout but it wasn’t very regular. That’s where I met John Chandler. He was also involved with the school. As everyone knows what Jonathan did was involve the parents. It was the parents and Jonathan that started the Learning Center.

CG What was your work like? 

KP I was painting and happy about it. I was doing grid based things. I don’t think any of them got saved. The subject was Boston light. I remember that from when I was at BU (Boston University School of the Fine Arts). How amazing that the light was in Boston. Did you think of that when you were there? It’s different from the Midwest and Colorado where I also lived. 

I had a great teacher at BU, Conger Metcalf.

(Conger Metcalf , 1914-1998, was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and died in Boston, Massachusetts. He began art studies in 1932 at the Iowa Stone City Art Colony, headed by American Regionalist painter Grant Wood.)

And Walter Murch (born and grew up in Toronto, Ontario. He attended the Ontario College of Art in the mid-1920s, studying under Arthur Lismer, a member of the Group of Seven, a group of Impressionist to Post-Impressionist painters.)

I was only there for one semester then left for Colorado to get married. I loved the school and learned a lot there about perspective and anatomy.

CG Lets talk about the Studio Coalition which you were part of. Was it 1968 or 1969?

KP Michael Phillips instigated that. He’s making 30’ long paintings in South Carolina that nobody sees. 

CG His brother Frank was a photographer. What do you recall? 

KP We were all young and pretty. We had all tried to get into Boston galleries but nobody was interested. There was Michael, Tony (Thompson), Andy (Tavarelli), Liz (Dworkin) and who else? (Bill Jacobsen, Curtis Crystal, Dana Chandler, Jr., Douglas Parker, and others.) I still have that poster of us all up on the roof. 

We decided to open our studios. We had meetings and everyone was very serious.

CG As far as I know that was America’s first open studios event.

KP It was pretty much in one neighborhood.  Bill and Michael had studios on Bromfield Street. Most of us were in the South End. It was just fun. So many people came. We never expected that. We were all doing big paintings. In my view the best work comes with youth; the innovation, courage, daring. That was a part of it though we were in our mid twenties. We did it for two years. Then it got bigger and less fun. Artists wanted to judge who could show. I was against that. I thought anyone who we generally thought was good should be included. It got hard when it got to decision making. 

CG I had just started writing a column Art Bag for Boston After Dark/ Phoenix. I reviewed that weekend and reported that one of the great discoveries was Katherine Porter. 

KP You have to say something to make it interesting to people. I was making prints during Open Studios and didn’t have to talk to people when they came around. They got to see an artist at work. 

CG Did you show at Gallery 11 at Tufts? 

KP No.

CG A lot of people showed there.

KP Did Todd (Mckee)? 

CG No, he wasn’t a part of that. The Smart Duckys came later and showed together in a loft on Newbury Street near Mass Ave. (Todd, Martin Mull, Scott Brink) They showed art and toys. Brink dropped out then Marty and Todd with Jo Sandman and other artists organized the sabotage show Flush with the Walls in the MFA’s men’s room.

CG At that time the best gallery for contemporary art on Newbury Street was Obelisk with Phyllis Rosen and Joan Stoneman (Sonnabend). John Chandler and I went to Phyllis and proposed that she show the new Boston artists. That resulted in Three If  By Air with you, Tony Thompson and Andy Tavarelli. 

KP Phyllis was my best friend. Three If By Air was such a nice thing to be part of. For me that was the start of a big and important adventure. It was a big deal showing in that gallery with two of my friends.  John wrote about it and you did. It was a big deal. Phyllis was wonderful. She was unconventional, enthusiastic.

CG She was unique for that era. 

KP The older artists were conservative except Hyman Bloom. Hyman Swetsoff had a really great gallery. I lived with his wife Sarah (Swetsoff).

(He was murdered in 1968. At the time he showed Hyman Bloom, and the young conceptual artist Bruce Conner who was doing acid with Tim Leary and Richard Alpert in Newton. His wife had a gallery in Harvard Square.)

I took care of their children and lived with them as part of a deal brokered by Conger Metcalf when I was at BU.

CG It’s interesting to talk about Bloom. During an  opening at the MFA I interviewed Ellsworth Kelly who told us that he had studied with (Boston Expressionist ) Karl Zerbe at the Museum School. He taught the use of materials including encaustic painting. I asked Kelly if he had made those paintings under Zerbe? He replied “I tried.” It’s interesting that Kelly studied with a Boston Expressionist. I think those artists got a raw deal.

KP So do I. They were important to me and my generation. 

CG It’s significant to hear you say that. It shows generosity in being able to look at work that is not like your own.

KP I like any good art. A friend just wrote me a beautiful letter about Constable. 

(John Constable– born 1776, East Bergholt, Suffolk, England—died 1837, London- was a major figure in English landscape painting in the early 19th century. He is best known for his paintings of the English countryside.) 

It’s romanticism and you have to look at the paintings. I think we’re in a dismal period right now. 

CG As a contemporary artist you’re a part of that equation.

KP I’m not.

Kathy Porter several years ago. Giuliano photos

Kathy Porter in our North Adams loft

Back in the day

Phyllis Rosen, left and Joan Sonnabend of Obelisk Gallery

Phyllis Rosen launched her career

Kathy with Rose Art Museum director Carl Belz

Three if by Air with Kathy, Andy Tavarelli and Tony Thompson

An early Chevron painting

El Salvador

Mid-career work

Social justice was embedded in her abstractions

CG Were you part of Parker 470?

(An industrial space on Parker Street across Huntington Avenue from the Museum of Fine Arts. There were four partners: Phyllis Rosen and Joan Soneham/ Sonnabend of Obelisk, Portia Harcus, and Barbara Krakow. The gallery was launched to show large works that could not be displayed on Newbury Street. The gallery was in an unsafe area and eventually disbanded. Sonnabend later was an independent dealer on Beacon Hill while Harcus and Krakow returned to Newbury Street. Harcus eventually moved to South Street in the Leather District.)

KP I would not have a career without Joan Sonnabend. I owe her everything. Through her and Phyllis I was connected to Wayne Andersen who showed me at MIT (Hayden Gallery). It was a big show and quite beautiful Charles.

CG You left Boston. 

KP I got a grant, an NEA, which was partly through the connections of Phyllis. They needed to find a woman from New England to give an NEA to. I left in 1972 and moved to New Mexico. (Which is where she returned to fairly recently after several years in Pownal, Vermont.)

CG We are phasing out of Boston what can you say about that? 

KP I loved those years. The people that I met in the South End, (black artists) Dana Chandler,Jr., Gary Rickson, Roy Cato, Jr, and the kid, Winston C. Robinson.

CG  Didn’t Winston show with you during Open Studios?

(Winston was much loved and played occasionally with the punk band The Rentals fronted by Jeff and Jane Hudson. She recently told me that Winston passed several years ago.) 

Were you ever in the Whitney Annual (later Biennial)?

KP Yes, twice. One was the result of the Studio Coalition  because (curator) Marcia Tucker came. That was 1972 and there was another one. Then, according to them, I dropped dead.

CG You seem very much alive. It’s funny but what do you mean by that? 

KP They were no longer interested in looking at my work. 

I met John Chandler and their seven children. I baby sat for them when they stayed in Maine. In Georgetown, Maine. Winston came up.

CG Of that generation you were the singular success story in terms of galleries and museums.

KP It was gratifying for the attention I was getting. It was also very hard. Like a lot of women you think I don’t deserve it in some way. I was glad to get out of Boston and move to New Mexico. What was important about Boston was my involvement with the community, and being with other artists. Susan Shatter was one of my best friends. 

CG Speaking of camaraderie what did the Studio Coalition mean to you? 

KP We were a bunch of friends who hung out. I talked a lot with Michael Phillips. He ad Curtis Crystal were a serious team. 

CG Where does Drew Hyde come into all this?

(Hyde was the ICA director from 1968 to 1974 with a hiatus 1971-1972. He worked with the Mayor Kevin White and assistant Mayor, Kathy Kane. She and her husband Louis, founder of An Bon Pain, were trustees. They helped secure the former Police Station on Boylston Street with a buildout by trustee, Graham Gund. Drew was committed to education but left before that programming was initiated.)

KP We all loved Drew. The ICA had disappeared and he resuscitated it by getting involved with the community. The South End came alive with murals on buildings. 

CG The former Con Ed building became the Act Now Workshop. There was a rumor that Drew had a rocket stored there.

KP It was a great place for kids to work in with exhibitions and parties.

CG That was when they were promoting Pernod which flowed freely during parties. At one of those gatherings Drew performed a pratfall tumbling down stairs then laughing when we were shocked. There was a mad side to him. The architect Edwin Child was involved. 

KP They were creating small parks in the South End and Roxbury.

CG Did you ever paint a mural? 

KP Yes, in the South End. Gary Rickson and I shared a wall.

CG It seems that when the ICA is in trouble they fall back on artists. When on a roll, they don’t know that you’re alive.

KP I loved Drew and he did so much because he was unprofessional. He showed good art but his main focus was on community activism.

CG You might say the same of the Rose Art Museum which started with Sam Hunter. In the beginning he had resources. Then when Israel was engaged in wars the philanthropy left. When Carl Belz became director there was no money. That’s how and when he and the Rose became involved with the Boston art community which is not the case today.

KP Even before that Karl was a friend who came to openings and parties. He wrote a book on rock ‘n’ roll. Even when he was teaching at Brandeis he was a friend of Boston artists. 

CG When you left Boston what happened next? 

KP I was painting and teaching. 

CG How were you surviving? Did you get any assistance? 

KP No, my family didn’t believe in that which was so helpful because I learned to be independent. I was very lucky in Boston as far as my career goes. I taught because I liked it. I had a show in New York at David McKee Gallery. It was all a matter of timing and luck. I loved David and his wife.

(She had solo exhibitions at the Knoedler Gallery in London, the Nina Nielsen Gallery in Boston, and the Andre Emmerich and Salander-O’Reilly Galleries in New York. Her work was added to the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Tel Aviv Museum.) 

CG That ended.

KP Things change. (The  McKee gallery closed in 2015.) I loved being in New York and had great friends many of whom I met in Maine, Neil Welliver, Rackstraw Downes, we were all good friends. 

CG Were you involved with Skowhegan School of Art? 

KP I taught there and did lectures. I loved the directors. I was connected a little bit but not professionally. I have had a teaching career until 2002. I taught everywhere, at every level, from preschool to graduate school, Stanford, Columbia. I was a visiting artists and taught one or two days a week and didn’t have to be involved with academics. 

CG Is there any particular period or body of work that you feel is especially important?

KP I would say the New Mexico paintings in the 1970s. I like the El Salvador work.

(With Stephen Porter they traveled to South America, spending time in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, and Peru. Her concern for the political and social conflict in South America is shown in many of her works, including Swann’s Song, 1975.)

CG On the one hand you are an abstract artist and yet you are an activist with social and political issues. How do you resolve that?

KP The New Mexico paintings were about our role in the overthrow of the government, the killings and torture including artists, doctors, teachers to end socialism. It broke my heart that we would do that. It was the first time that I was aware of the rotten political realities of my own government.

CG How do you get that into a painting?

KP Conceptually. I tried to do it abstractly. There was barbed wire. A circle became the sun. It was natural and more or less basic.

CG How were the works received?

KP Well.

CG Did collectors comprehend what they entailed?

KP I don’t know. KcKee did I’m sure.

CG Are any of those paintings in museums?

KP Yes, a lot of them.

CG Are any museums talking to you about shows?

KP No. I had one at South Carolina Museum of Art in 2008. It was a collaboration with women writers.

CG Are you currently involved with any political movements?

KP No, much to my shame. I don’t have the stamina to do any serious volunteer work. Every day I want to call Bernie Sanders and say “put me to work.”

CG Are you content with Vermont?

KP I love it. I don’t want to move again, so far. Although, I keep moving.

CG What brought you here?

KP I was in the Hudson Valley renting a house. I went to Wisconsin for treatment (Lupus). My sister and nephew were there. I though I was not going to live. I bought a condo. I stayed there for two years feeling so lonely and isolated. So I came to Hudson Valley and rented a house on a farm which I loved. I wanted to have gardens so I searched and move here (Pownal, Vermont).

CG Visiting your house was fascinating and definitely conveyed your style. We were impressed that you have hauled around such huge furniture items. It seemed that you spend a lot of time reading and listening to music. What are you reading?

KP I just finished Thoreau and (Jacob) Burckhardt on the Renaissaance. I was reading Machiavelli and the Borgias. It was interesting but so boring that I jumped to Burckhardt.

CG Do you have plans to travel in Europe?

KP I have dreams of France. I used to go a lot to France, Italy and Spain, Barcelona to see Gaudi. I always wanted to live in France but never had the courage.

CG The Museum of Fine Arts and the general arts scene in Boston were conservative. As an artist what did you feel about being in that environment?

KP It wasn’t just the MFA. That was a small part of it. There was an academic attitude which is still there.

CG Were you involved in any of Drew’s projects with the ICA?

KP I was there all the time. At the (South End) Electric Plant I ran workshops there, There was a big space for children. He got an art supply store to donate materials. Polaroid gave us cameras. Everybody gave us materials.

CG I co-curated an exhibition of contemporary realism Images for the City Hall Gallery. Drew showed me a closet packed with Polaroid cameras.

KP The building had the Act Now Workshop.

CG Did the kids learn anything?

KP They had fun when they were there.

CG
 I recall a large exhibition in that space. Crossing the crowded gallery during the opening I crashed into a freestanding, plexiglass sculpture by Tony Thompson. It was very embarrassing and of course there were jokes about the blind art critic. His work was ephemeral and at times damaged during exhibitions. Tony told me that he got more money from insurance claims than sales.

KP There were kids I became close to. The father of Michael was an alcoholic and his mother had passed. I spent a lot of time with him and other kids. A couple of years ago I ran into him panhandling. We were reaching out to broken and damaged kids.

CG You are upset.

KP Yes, because kids like Michael didn’t have a chance. He dropped out of school early on.

CG That describes a lot of kids you worked with.

What’s driving your work now?

KP I don’t know I just like working in the studio every day. It’s very intuitive. In the studio I listen to classical music all the time. I used to listen to rock ‘n’ roll but classical music has come to be a joy in my life. I go to every concert I can.

CG Do you know about music?

KP I know a lot about music. By listening for forty years and reading everything I can get my hands on.

CG Getting back to Drew and the ICA he had access to the City Hall Gallery where he organized the first Boston Now. Years later David Ross during his first annual Boston Now opening claimed to have initiated the idea. I spoke up and reminded him of Drew’s exhibition.

KP He was very diligent in creating a list of who to include. I remember black artists like Dana Chandler, Jr. and Gary Rickson. There were the Studio Coalition artists Andy, Michael, Liz, Tony, Bill, me. It was very comprehensive as well as having the recognition and endorsement of the City. People would do anything for Drew.

CG It was significant that he integrated black artists into the ICA agenda. The city played a role in the pride murals by Dana and Gary. They were important public statements at the time. There was the Elma Lewis School for the Arts and from that the National Center for African American Arts. Its director, Barry Gaither, became an MFA adjunct curator. He organized the major exhibition African American Artists New York and Boston. At Northeastern University Dana founded African American Artists in Residence Program. There was a lot of activism and pressure on the MFA which has only now responded to under Matthew Teitelbaum.

Did you interact with Portia Harcus (gallerist)?

KP We were friends and I showed with her. I liked Portia and Barbara but my loyalty was to Phyllis and Joan.

CG Did you view yourself as a feminist?

KP Not really though I was all for it but I wasn’t a member of a feminist group. My friends were mostly women. I didn’t have issues because I’m not in academia. I didn’t encounter resistance, My career was amazing and I am happy about that. I have no feelings of being excluded in any way. I know there’s a boy’s club but that’s not my fight.

CG What is your fight?

KP To get our country to behave.

CG You have a shot fuse.

KP I do about social issues. It’s not supposed to be this way. We are a democracy and compassionate.

CG Is it difficult to find people of like mind?

KP Well, if I lived in Williamstown. It was not an issue in New York, Boston, or even New Mexico. We all have a social responsibility.