Growing up in Trenton, NJ, Kathy Cantwell was a quintessential tomboy who at times was thwarted by the imperatives of her Catholic parents. In a world of gender-signaled clothing, stripes were the privilege of boys, and her mother always found a reason for why her daughter couldn’t wear their shirts, socks, sneakers, or skivvies. So it was surprising when he father helped her fashion a makeshift art studio in her bedroom, when she was thirteen, which turned out to be his encouraging her to be someone’s cultured wife. Yet this led to her escaping to nearby Philadelphia on weekends to take classes at the Moore School of Art, learning studio skills advanced for someone her age.
While at C.W. Post College on Long Island earning her BFA, Cantwell got to study painting with taboo-breaking artist Carolee Schneemann in an NYU graduate program, an experience that placed no restraints before this sheltered teen. After graduation, Cantwell moved to New York City found long-term work in the music industry, a place where she functioned as fixer for others flaunting convention. During the day it was an Alice-in-Wonderland world of rock stars and rappers in which she might be paying the bills for wrecked hotel rooms and keeping gun-bearing artists and producers within budget. At night Cantwell came home to compulsively paint dark, uninhabited cityscapes and quirky portraits — work colored by her bouts of depression.
After twenty-two years of this balancing act, post-9/11 she left the music biz and Manhattan, relocating to a northern New Jersey commuter town with her adopted children and then partner. As a “recovering eccentric,” she lived a life of domestication. In this setting, she became attuned to a newly experienced sense of openness and light, and her engagement with the vibrant art community in this area plus anti-depressants encouraged her leap to abstraction. At last in her art, she could claim stripes as a means of expression. Straight vertical lines became a way to deal with the external and internal roadblocks in becoming a wholly realized person: the tension of being a fierce lesbian still hiding her emotions. Recognizing that her formal choices have personal resonance, Cantwell is making way for more intimate narratives with hints of interactivity and relational issues.
Regarded as “the Queen of Opacity,” Cantwell’s work in encaustic and oil has become well-known through a number of solo and group exhibitions, primarily in the New York-New Jersey area as well as Provincetown, Massachusetts. She is a member of The Painting Center in Chelsea for which she has curated a number of shows, and she offers private art instruction. Breaking out of the Northeast Corridor, most recently she has traveled to locations like Taos, New Mexico, and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico where she paints in the company of fellow artists.