Arts and Entertainment

From symphony to studio: A Vashon artist charts a new course

Kristen Reitz-Green never set out to be an oil painter.  - Elizabeth Shepherd/Staff Photo
Kristen Reitz-Green never set out to be an oil painter.
— image credit: Elizabeth Shepherd/Staff Photo

It’s easy to start feeling hungry in Kristen Reitz-Green’s art studio.

The walls of the small, five-sided cedar studio are hung floor to ceiling with the artist’s colorful canvasses — masterful, close-up oil paintings of fluorescent foods, including ice cream sundaes, chocolate kisses, gummy bears, Swedish fish and glistening jars of honey.

But faces also shine out from the wall — a softly smiling, cherubic baby, another child whose closed eyes show off feathery, dark eyelashes and a majestic, genie-like cat that stares back at viewers from the safety of a huge, dark canvas. There are also dozens of smaller paintings of single subjects — chickens, rocks, dandelions, flowers and, tellingly, a single shiny trumpet.

The artist, it seems, has a story to tell, and the paintings provide hints that it is a tale of musical instruments, children, animals and, quite unexpectedly, finding a sweet new life on Vashon.

Despite the skill evident in Reitz-Green’s work, she only began painting six years ago, after moving to Vashon at the age of 40.

“You never know what you can do,” Reitz-Green said, as she sat in her studio on a rainy June day. “There was no part of me that ever said, ‘Yes, I can do that, I’ll be an oil painter.’”

Instead, Reitz-Green described a process by which painting came along and took her by surprise.

Before picking up a brush, she had a flourishing career as a classical musician, playing French horn in orchestras  throughout the United States, most recently in the pit of the Pacific Northwest Ballet. A graduate of The Juilliard School in New York and the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Conn., Reitz-Green had spent decades  honing her artistry as musician.

She fell in love with Seattle after she passed through the region while playing in a touring Broadway show. Eventually, she married one of her own kind, professional trumpet player Vince Green. Her course seemed set.

“Classical music was my entire life,” she said.

Then came children — a girl first and then a boy born a little more than a year later, when Reitz-Green was in her mid-30s. But shortly after the birth of her son, in 2003, Reitz-Green’s life turned upside down when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Reitz-Green said that after battling and recovering from the illness, she and her husband were eager to escape the intensity of city life. In 2006, the couple moved from West Seattle to Vashon, settling on a three-acre property on the Dilworth Loop that provided plenty of room not only for their growing children but also a menagerie of animals that now includes five cats, a dog and a flock of chickens.

And after Reitz-Green moved to the Island, something else happened: She quit playing the French horn. In the years since her illness, she said, she had found performing to be stressful and exhausting.

“I felt drained after performances,” she said. “You can’t do it halfway — there is no hiding at the bottom of the section.”

Reitz-Green said that at the time, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do for a living, but she knew that it would have to involve the arts.

“I’m a creative person, there’s just nothing else for me,” she said. “I can’t do anything else.”

Soon, she found herself painting her children’s furniture in a colorful Oaxacan style — a pastime that eventually led her to sell hand-painted furniture at The Heron’s Nest.

Another pivotal moment came when she found a mentor — well-known Island artist Pam Ingalls, who continued to coach Reitz-Green privately for two years after she first taught her in a three-day oil painting workshop.

The workshop, for Reitz-Green, was a game-changer.

“It was the hardest thing in the world for me to do,” she said. “It was such a step. I had never drawn anything.”

Ingalls described Reitz-Green as a student unlike any other.

“It has never happened to me before,” she said. “She just went straight for the gold. Whatever I said in class, she would just do it. That sounds so simple, but it is very, very rare that anyone catches on that fast.”

Ingalls’ theory is that Reitz-Green’s background as professional musician gave her unique tools to launch a new career as a visual artist.

“She has great concentration and dedication,” Ingalls said. “I have a feeling that no matter what Kristen does, she’ll do it well.”

And indeed, Reitz-Green is beginning to find her way as an artist. With the same discipline with which she mastered the French horn, she now paints daily, never missing a chance to practice. She has had exhibits throughout the Northwest, and in September, she’ll have a solo show at The Hardware Store Restaurant. She is also involved with Vashon Artists in the Schools, recently overseeing the creation of six large canvasses of healthy food, painted by Chautauqua students, that will grace the school’s cafeteria.

But Reitz-Green said she’s still learning, still a student.

In 2010, she sold her last and favorite French horn, using the proceeds to take her family to New York City, a place where she once dashed off to concerts and lugged a music case through the halls of Juilliard. But this time, she said, she did something different — she spent her days inside the city’s gleaming, cavernous museums.

“Before, when I lived in New York, I had musician’s eyes,” she said. “But, after having started painting, it affected me all so differently.”

 

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