Artist Kathryn Tubbs finds beauty and inspiration in medical images.
By Maureen Kingsley
To look closely at the work of El Segundo–based artist Kathryn Tubbs is to see in a fresh way the beauty, geometry, fallibility, and potential of our mortal human bodies. Bright, cheery washes of color highlight identifiably anatomical images: a hip joint here, a breast there, a swath of tissue on bone.
“I am drawn to the visuals and imagery of medicine and science,” Kathryn explains of her subject matter. “Patterns in the body fascinate me.” As such, she draws endless inspiration from medical images, including those of her own hip injury and subsequent surgeries. Working with richly pigmented acrylics, as well as pastel pencils and additional textural media, Kathryn lends bright “mood-enhancing” color and dimension to her abstract portrayals of anatomy and physiology, expressing the concepts of pain, injury, and healing on canvas and paper. The result is an arresting body of work evoking both reverence for and curiosity about the inner workings of the human body and its structures.
Kathryn’s initial interest in the artistry of medical images stemmed from family illness and tragedy: a niece of hers named Kelly suffered with stomach cancer during childhood and ultimately died from the illness. Kelly lived with Kathyrn for a time, during which Kathryn saw a number of diagnostic images and bodily fluids from Kelly’s condition and was struck by the colors and patterns within them. “These visuals stuck with me as an imprint of my time with Kelly,” Kathryn says of her niece’s medical journey.
From that starting point, Kathryn sought out additional medical imagery in surgery trade publications and, later, from the boundless resources of the internet. Surgical images and diagnostic images of tissue, tumors, and cells fascinate and inspire her, as do the mechanics of healing. Cancer, for instance, interests her by way of its nature: “It starts as normal cells, but its very existence is to grow and change and bulge and impede on space,” she says. That behavior of growth and intrusion makes its way into her paintings—but always in beautiful colors.
In fact, Kathryn recently participated in the “Brushes with Cancer” program, in which artists are matched with cancer patients, survivors, and family members to create art pieces that are then auctioned off to benefit partner organization Twist Out Cancer. For this program, Kathryn was partnered with survivor Bobbie Donohew and created a painting inspired by CT images and photos of Bobbie’s neck and scars. “The idea is for survivors, clients, and patients to get a sense of healing from this type of art,” Kathryn explains. “It serves as a memorial to and souvenir of their medical journey.”
Kathryn’s own journey includes a childhood spent in Cypress, California, and formal education at Northwestern University, Cal State Long Beach (where she earned an MFA in printmaking), and Claremont Graduate School. After teaching art for a while at Whittier College, she switched to the finance industry to support herself, and she has remained in that occupation for more than 20 years. She spends her free time making her art at her home studio in El Segundo, particularly in late-afternoon light, which is her favorite. The coronavirus pandemic has afforded Kathryn more time at home to devote to her art, she says, which has been a silver lining in an otherwise frightening time.
Perhaps not surprisingly considering her interest in the human body and its function (and dysfunction), Kathryn is an endurance athlete who participates in ultra-distance prone paddleboarding, a solitary and demanding sport that requires her to lie prone or on her knees while paddling in open swell several miles offshore. She owns a number of custom-painted paddle boards that she’s done mainly in pinks and oranges, which she says are “safe colors on the water” because of their high visibility.
While watersports are a passion of Kathryn’s and the reason for her move to El Segundo ten years ago, it was an outrigger incident and subsequent rescue in 2009 that injured her hip and began the difficult, decade-long medical odyssey that inspired her “hip series” of five paintings. These works document and interpret her injury, pain, surgery, and recovery, all in her signature style. “I normally paint for other people,” she says, “but my hip series was for me.” Creating these pieces was a therapeutic way of processing the experience, she adds.
Kathryn continues to grow as an artist and set goals for herself. She is interested in expanding her artistic reach to areas outside of greater Los Angeles, as she did this past October, when she showed work in Philadelphia. Kathryn has also enjoyed exhibiting her work locally during El Segundo Art Walk and looks forward to doing that again.
Clockwise from top left: “The Violent Path to Air,” “Dance Me to the Edge of Life,” “Tally of Days," “Holding Steady” (from the hip series). All works by Kathryn Tubbs.
In the meantime, she will continue exploring the inner landscape of the uniquely miraculous human body through her art. “It’s like a mathematical problem,” she says of her artistic process. “I come up with a formula, and I work it and work it till I get it right.”
Learn more about Kathryn and her work online at ktubbsart.com and on Instagram at @ktubbsart.
This story appears in the January 2022 issue of The El Segundo Scene.