Katharine Montstream, Bold and Free

words // Lin Stone
photo // Craig Thomas

If Vermont’s Queen City subjects were to crown a people’s choice painter, the tiara would likely perch upon the blonde tresses of watercolorist Katharine Montstream. Originally from Connecticut, Katharine fell in love with the Green Mountain state on frequent skiing excursions when she was a child; she never wanted to leave. She attended Green Mountain College, followed by a foray to Colorado for more skiing before permanently returning to Vermont. Burlington has been her home for 27 years. It also is where she and her husband, Al, have raised their children and Katharine has grown a vast and loyal following. Earning a living as a painter was unexpected, claims Montstream. “I didn’t think it was possible to be a painter unless I wanted to be a starving artist. I couldn’t imagine that painting would ever be more than a hobby.”

However, over the last 25 years, Katharine’s “hobby” has become a full-time endeavor culminating with the June opening of Montstream Studio & Art Gallery at 129 St. Paul Street on City Hall Park in Burlington.

Who has inspired you?

“For 17 years I worked with a very encouraging mentor from Fairfax Vermont: Lawrence Goldsmith. He was the author of the book Watercolor Bold and Free. In 1988 I signed up to take a class with him, but when I got there I was scared to get out of the car; fortunately, Al pushed me out to get to the class. I was terrified at first and then I was frustrated as Lawrence introduced me to a completely new way of applying paint to paper and washed all of my old ideas away. Bold and free painting was different and difficult; it took me a while to adjust because I had been attempting to paint realistically and hadn’t ever painted with watercolors wet-on-wet, which is a really challenging technique. But I prodded myself with ‘don’t be a chicken’!

“I was mad at so much of my work at that time that although I didn’t quite want to tear them up, I did want to ruin them. So I took to putting my paintings under the cat’s dish as a placemat where they got soggy and gross. But slowly, I started to get better and bolder with shapes, color, and light. Finally, there was a pivotal day for me when I turned to Larry and asked him what I should do next with a painting, and he just said, ‘Sign it.’”

You transformed a passionate hobby to a sustainable living; to what do you ascribe that surprise and success?

“A few things seemed to work for me. One is that I just happen to love painting and I paint things that locals love and tourists want to remember: Camel’s Hump, Lake Champlain, the Burlington skyline. Another is that I have the ability to reach all kinds of different people – original paintings can run $300 or $5000 and so I make prints of my paintings too. That means that a student can buy a $3.00 card, someone else can manage a $40 or $400 print, and still others might buy large paintings for their homes.”

What’s your next undertaking?

“This year marks my 25th year painting, and because I finally feel more confident, I dare to take bigger risks now. Not too long ago I did a walkthrough of the interior of the old Moran Plant down on the waterfront and it was an adrenaline-filled intense experience: it was dark and cold, raccoons were running around… I was infatuated with the scale and size of the place and the history was haunting when you think about all of the people who must have worked there. So my 25th anniversary exhibit is a new body of work that is not pastoral and not likely expected. I hope it’s refreshing and risky and still bold and free.”

Montstream Studio & Art Gallery
129 St. Paul Street
(802) 363-9253 cell