Spark of Life: KatArt Captures the Essence of The Musicians We Love

Fifth article installment in a series honoring renowned artists and illustrators

GOFFSTOWN, NEW HAMPSHIRE - I’ve often marveled at the capacity of the human heart to attach itself to a complete stranger based solely on the simplicity of the lyrics he wrote, the riffs he played, or the way he sang those notes. I know it’s not just me, right? Regardless of age, gender or genre, so many of us sincerely and deeply connect with the musical legends who have touched our lives. New Hampshire artist Kathy Sullivan has found a perfect outlet for her devotion that not only expresses her own feelings but resonates with fans around the world.


Article by Donna Neale * Photos courtesy of Kathy Sullivan

“Music for me has always been a saving grace,” Kathy confirmed in my recent interview with her. “It’s gotten me through a lot from childhood on. So, to combine music and drawing was just a natural development. It’s definitely personal.”

I discovered Kathy’s amazing artwork when she posted a drawing she did of my all-time favorite singer and bass player, Benjamin Orr of The Cars. His image was, of course, immediately recognizable to me, but it wasn’t like it was just ‘close enough’ for me to tell it was Ben. It was the way she brought to life the expression in his heavy-lidded eyes and the corner of his mouth, and the details in the texture of his hair and the tone of his skin. She managed to harness the essence of Ben in such a way that he jumped off the page. It was just THAT good, that real.

And that’s why Kathy’s art impacts people. By capturing that vibrant spark of life in a person who affects us so deeply, and then releasing it onto her canvas, she proves herself to be a kindred spirit with the ability to give us a treasured image more personal than a photograph; something softer, more tangible somehow. Something that goes straight to the heart.

A born-and-raised New Englander, Kathy reminisced that her artistic passion may have been touched off back in the sixth grade, when she won a poster contest for a local chicken barbecue. Her design earned her and her family tickets to the event her poster advertised. She didn’t get to attend that little shindig (her family was heading out for vacation), but she walked away with something far more valuable… a little flame was ignited.

Her desire to draw would emerge every few years as she made her way through adulthood, but she didn’t pursue it with formal training. “I did one year of meaningless college until I decided to make my own way,” she said. When her kids were little, she tried her hand at writing and illustrating a children’s book, but realized that that wasn’t her calling, either. She wore many professional hats, from bartending to office work, until just a few years ago.

“My last job was responsible for me taking up drawing again,” Kathy explained. “I was an administrative assistant for an engineering firm in Manchester, New Hampshire. Engineers are very self-sufficient and low maintenance. There wasn’t an overload of work for me to do, so in my down time I started drawing. I had the coolest boss ever who said as long as I had whatever work he had for me done I could do what I wanted. When the office closed in 2016, I knew I’d never be able to find another job or boss like that again, so I decided to try to give the drawing thing a shot and work from home.”

Operating under the name KatArt, her initial intentions were to just take commissions from people and draw whatever they wanted her to draw. But all that changed with the death of Chris Cornell on May 18, 2017. “I’ve always been a huge Soundgarden fan, and I’ve loved Chris’s solo career as well. When he died the first thing I did was put on his music, pour over his photos, find a favorite photo and begin drawing. I cried through that one,” she remembered.

That black and white pencil drawing would turn out to be pivotal for Kathy’s career. “I posted it on Facebook like I always do and it really struck a chord with everyone. It took on a life of its own.”

Through Kathy’s friend Jeannette Karolides, the drawing ended up in the hands of drummer Justin Pacy, who was organizing a Chris Cornell tribute show called All Night Thing. Justin was so impressed with Kathy’s portrait of Chris that he wanted to use it on his promotional materials. “He asked if he could use the image on his drumhead, which looked absolutely incredible under the lights! It was used on the VIP passes and the flyers as well, so it got a lot of mileage.”

Justin also invited Kathy to bring her drawings to sell at the event, including prints of the Cornell piece, and the one she had done of Chester Bennington after his death. It was incredible. More than eighty musicians donated their time and talent in an emotional, hard-rocking sold-out concert that lasted more than five hours. The proceeds from that inaugural show went to the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI). The event was such a huge success that it became a series, with all ticket sales being donated to different charities, from mental health to veteran’s organizations. The show still goes on. They are now working on ANT 4 in September. (Find more information on upcoming events here: https://www.facebook.com/Cctributeshow/)

The night ended up being a professional success for Kathy, as well. “I did very well selling prints that first night. For the future tribute shows there were even more musicians that they paid tribute to, so Justin decided to make a new drumhead including them.” She had the honor of creating drawings of Layne Staley, Andy Wood of Mother Love Bone, Bradley Nowell of Sublime, Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon, Vinnie Paul and his brother Dimebag Darrell, Scott Weiland of STP, and Kurt Cobain, and Justin used them all.

The act of drawing Chris was a healing exercise for Kathy, and the finished portrait opened up a platform for her to expand her audience, but ultimately – and even more telling – it gave Kathy an inspired sense of direction. “I realized how many musicians we’ve lost that I wanted to pay tribute to. I’ve done many but there are still so many left to do! I think people really like to have a drawing of their favorite musicians that have passed, like having a small piece of them to hang onto.”

And so Kathy dove in. She set up shop in her dining room and armed herself with her favorite drawing tools, primarily colored pencils, sometimes with markers and gel pens thrown in for the dramatic effect. “It’s good for lazy artists like me who don’t like a lot of set up or clean up afterwards,” Kathy laughed. She hunted high and low for the perfect photos of the musicians she wanted to honor and immersed herself in her new job.

“For a simple portrait, meaning no instruments, a portrait is usually completed in a couple of days. Add another day for an instrument. I try to put in full days. I sit down at 9 or 10am and work until 4 or 5. I often draw on weekends depending on how much work there is and deadlines. Every once in a while I’ll get in the mood for late night drawing.”

While her tools and surroundings were important to the process, she found that incorporating an appropriate playlist was key. “When Chris died and I drew him it was the moment I discovered that when I listen to the music of an artist that has died, it almost feels like I’m channeling them. It may sound silly, but I can feel it.”

Her portfolio captures icons like Stevie Ray Vaughn, Janis Joplin, BB King and Prince (both which wound up in the readers art section of Guitar World), Lemmy of Motorhead, Gregg Allman, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Freddie Mercury, Dolores O’Riordan of The Cranberries, Randy Rhoades, Amy Winehouse… the list goes on and on. She gets many requests for living artists as well: James Hetfield, Steven Tyler, Brett Michael, Stevie Nicks and Deborah Harry.

Another musician whose portrait resonated with his fans is Kathy’s drawing of Benjamin Orr, the one that hooked me initially. “I had been meaning to draw Ben for a long time and then when I saw a post for Joe [Milliken’s] book, Let’s Go!, that was what really pushed me to get it done. Listening to The Cars’ music was so much fun while channeling Ben! When I posted it on Facebook, the response was overwhelming. I’ve met so many nice people!”

But tuning into an artist’s music doesn’t always pave the way for an easy drawing experience. “I was getting ready for the Two to Lou Music Festival last summer in Sandown, New Hampshire,” Kathy recalled. “The headliner was Dark Desert Eagles, a fabulous Eagles tribute band. My first thought was that I must have a Glenn Frey piece done for this event! Well, I played the Eagles and sat down to draw Glenn and the whole time it felt impossible.

“The end product wound up looking like a combination of Glenn and Matt Dillon (the actor),” she laughed. “Just for fun I posted it on Facebook anyway, exclaiming how I thought Glenn was messing with me. Someone that had actually worked with Glenn Frye said that would be just like him because he was a big practical joker. Maybe someday I’ll meet him in the afterlife and find out!”

That’s not the only time her work has made its way to the eyes of those closest to the artist. “Thanks to my friend Lisa Chiarenza, I was able to donate the original Chris Cornell drawing to the family. His brother Peter posted it on Facebook and said some really nice things about Lisa and me. It got a huge response! So that blew me away!

“And when Vinnie Paul died, I drew him as well. His personal drum tech contacted me on Facebook telling me how much he loved the drawing and asked if he could have a print. I gifted him one; he was very moved. I also did a drawing of Oli Herbert of All That Remains when he died and donated it to the band via my friend Cheryl Maggio-Gonsalves. They loved it and were very moved as well, I understand.” Kathy said with a smile, “Any of my connections to the artist are once removed. Someday maybe the artist themselves will contact me, at least the living ones.”

In addition to following her own interests and emotions in choosing her subjects, she still takes on commissions from people who request drawings of their loved ones, heroes and pets. “Once I post a new portrait there is usually someone that sends me their personal request of a musician or an actor. Facebook has been great for that. But often when people see a portrait, they think of someone in their personal life that has passed on, and they usually gift a drawing to someone in mourning. They love it as a tribute and very personal one-of-a-kind keepsake. Dogs that have passed on are also a very big request.

“It’s fun to mix it up. Even drawing houses is a fun change. I’ll pretty much draw anything, except maybe cars. If you don’t draw every straight line on the car exact you have a completely different model,” she joked. “Even if I don’t have an order pending, I sit down and draw whatever or whomever I feel like drawing to add to the portfolio. If it’s October, you can always find me drawing horror pieces!”

Kathy is infinitely grateful to be doing what she does. When I asked her if she feels like she’s reached the point where she considers herself a success, she answered, “I think success is subjective. I know that I am more widely known than I was a few years ago and I have pieces hanging across the country and a couple in Canada. Oh! And one in Scotland!” she added with a laugh. “Many people tell me I am underselling myself, that I am not charging enough for what I do. But I feel that by keeping my prices affordable I will have more people buying as opposed to just the few that can afford it. Becoming rich as an artist is a lofty goal and one I don’t aspire to. I fear if I made it about money my art would suffer. Hey, if it happens I’ll accept it, I like money as much as the next person, but I’m just not going to chase it.”

She continued thoughtfully, “The point of my art is to share it with people, to make people feel something. Whether they buy it for themselves or to share it, that’s what it’s all about. Success for me is the joy, the challenge, the people, the freedom… and so much more. This is clearly what I was meant to do. Why it came so late in life I don’t know, and I know there is no point in questioning that, so I’ll just be thankful it came at all.”

She also knows she couldn’t do it alone. “I wouldn’t be able to pursue this dream if it wasn’t for the emotional and financial support of my husband Rick, the encouragement of my kids, Devan and Ricky, and my 7- year old granddaughter, Skylar. Skylar and her 9-year old stepsister Eva love to draw with me when they come over. So, if I can encourage a new generation of budding artists, that is just the icing on the cake! And people offering such unsolicited support the way they have is what keeps me going and gives me the confidence to do that next piece.”

If you, too, are moved by the depth and honesty of Kathy’s art, visit her website: www.kathysullivandrawings.com, or on Etsy.com under her shop named Sullika. You can order prints of drawings she’s already done or commission her to do a unique piece just for you!

Editor's Note: KatArt will be appearing at the June 22, Benjamin Orr "Let's Go!" author/book event at 9 Wallis in Beverly, Ma. For tickets, visit www.gimmelive.com