I t’s not hard to find a young artist with untapped talent, but much rarer to discover one who has the focus to turn that potential into a reality. Composed, driven, and gifted, Kate Bradley is one of those exceptions. A Memphis native, she captures the fleeting beauty of childhood through her portraits, creating a natural place for her work in the hearts and homes of parents. With a compilation of her work and approach to her art, Lessons of Love, recently published and a growing list of clients, chances are good that Bradley is just getting started. Here, the 29-year-old White Station grad shares the mission behind her work, her passion for Memphis, and how she’s already begun building a successful career as an artist.
Tell me about the path you took to becoming a full-time artist.
I had done art all my life, and always wanted to make that part of my future, but didn’t really know how to make it happen. I studied art at Auburn, but there’s no one who said, “Okay, here’s your path to becoming an artist.” I worked at several different jobs, I had an internship at a gallery; I had a couple of jobs as an office manager; that was my last job. But I was always doing art on the side, always loved to paint and draw people, so I was doing portraits. I knew there were people who made their living painting portraits but there was no one showing anyone how to do it. But three years ago, when I was laid off from my office job, I decided that was the time that I was going to pursue what I wanted to do. Nothing started happening immediately, but eventually I was able to find a niche painting children, and that’s kind of been the story for the last three years.
How did you decide that painting children was what you wanted to do exclusively?
I started working with a business coach a couple years ago, and she helped me find a mission for my business. When you’re an artist — it’s like any other type of artist, like a musician or anyone else — your art is an expression of yourself. When I think about some of the most painful moments of my life, the times when I’ve felt like my life was worthless, or I had no value, because of a relationship that went wrong, I had placed a lot of my value in how that person saw me. So the purpose behind what I do, the purpose behind my art, is finding the inherent value in every person. That’s what a portrait does, right? It says you’re valuable, and you’re unique and beautiful because of who you are and not what you do or how others see you.
That’s why I do portraits. It’s to honor that inherent value in every person. To me, that’s sort of a picture of the way God sees us. So I want to reflect that in my portraits, that you are unconditionally loved and valued. And the closest picture we have of that is the relationship between a parent and a child. So that’s why I help parents specifically express the love that they feel for their children. I help them say to their child through my art that you are unconditionally loved and valued, no matter what you do and who you are.
How is painting an adult different than painting a child?
It takes a little longer to figure out adult personalities; kids wear their hearts on their sleeves. Adults are a little more formal; you’re working to get to know somebody a little bit. Kids are naturally beautiful, they don’t wear makeup; I don’t have to worry about making them look younger. I’m definitely more inspired painting kids, just because that connects more to my mission.
Do you ever do family portraits that include the parents?
No. My work is about honoring and celebrating a child, and that child as an individual. When you’re in a group you’re not celebrated as a person; I can’t capture the personality of a child if they’re in a group of other people, so it just doesn’t appeal to me. I’ve done group work before, but eventually found that I could do my best work when I was focused on just one child.
What is your process for a regular commission?
I have an initial consultation, and if we decide to go forward with the commission, then I set up a time to take pictures of the child. We usually do that in the client’s home. I interview the family to get an idea of the personality of the child. Then I’ll spend some time with the child and we’ll talk, I’ll spend time getting to know them, then from talking to their parents I have an idea of their personality. So when I take the pictures I have that in mind, so I’m looking to bring that out.
Then I’ll come back to the studio, and go through all the pictures, and usually select two or three that will become the basis of the portrait; using those, I’ll create a little study. I’ll meet with the client again, and if they like the study, then that becomes the basis for the big portrait. From there it’s just finishing it. I help [the family] get it framed, and what a lot of people do is have an unveiling for it. They’ll have some close friends and family over, and I’ll be there, and we’ll reveal the portrait for the first time. It’s just a fun little celebration.
How long do the commissions usually take, from the consultation to the unveiling?
It depends on the size of the portrait and when I take the pictures. I’d say several months on average, but it varies. The actual painting doesn’t take long at all. For a big one [30” x 40”] I probably work on and off for two weeks. That’s a standard full-length.
You have your own studio space set up in South Main. What contributes to a creative environment for yourself?
I knew the lighting was important, so I like that there’s a lot of windows. I don’t need a huge space, but it’s nice that space is designated for my studio that’s separate from my living quarters. You definitely have to have boundaries when you live and work in the same place. The TV’s right there, the kitchen, there’s laundry to be done, so I have a schedule that I stick to pretty firmly.
As far as the workspace, I try to make it an inviting environment that I want to come into, but somewhere that’s clean and where there’s not a lot of distractions. I don’t like a lot of clutter; I just like a clean, simple working environment. I decorated it kind of like everything else, just making sure I have things in their proper place.
You’ve been working on a series of charcoal portraits of children who are part of Streets Ministries, a youth outreach program in Memphis. Tell me about your work with Streets and how you got involved with that.
I had been volunteering there for a couple years, and a girl who I’ve mentored, Jasmine, was over here one day. I was just doing a little sketch of her and it just sort of dawned on me — Jasmine is a kid too, like the kids that I paint, but she’ll probably never be the subject of a portrait. But it goes back to that inherent worth that’s in every person. She wasn’t born into the best situation; she doesn’t have all the same advantages as the kids I paint, but her life isn’t any less valuable, and her dreams and her aspirations matter just as much. Streets Ministries, to me, does the same thing that I do, just in a different way. I saw a unique way to partner with them, because we’re really both about the same thing, helping these kids. Helping kids know that their lives matter and they’re worth something.
What has been one of the most rewarding experiences since choosing what many people might consider an unconventional career?
It’s absolutely the best decision I’ve ever made, because it’s work that I’m passionate about. I feel like I’m really making a difference in the lives of these kids and my clients. I get to use the gifts I’ve been given. I feel like it’s a full expression of who I am; there’s really just nothing more satisfying to me than meeting these families, getting to know their kids, capturing them in a portrait, honoring them.
You grew up here and went to school at Auburn. What are some of the things about Memphis that brought you back here and made you stay?
Oh, I love Memphis. There’s just a relaxed vibe about the city. Downtown and Midtown have come such a long way since I was in high school, and that’s because there have been smart and enthusiastic people coming into the city and doing things, lots of movers and shakers, and I just love it. I love seeing who’s doing what around here. There’s so much creativity here, so much talent.
You just published a coffee table book, Lessons of Love , a combination of your portraits and advice from some of the mothers you’ve worked with. What are some of your other goals in moving forward for your business and dreams for the future?
I definitely want to see my work continue to go up in value. I’d love to get commissions outside of Memphis. Being booked farther and farther in advance is definitely something I’m working toward. But I have lots of goals, I would love to keep publishing books: I would love to start selling the books.
I’ve given talks [to students] at some of the schools around Memphis, just about finding work that has meaning to them, following your dreams, but a little more … not just any dream, something that matters to you. I wish when I was that age someone had come and told me, “Kate, whatever you want to do is possible.” So I’ve been sharing that message with kids who are where I was 10 or so years ago. I would love to do more of that.
Do you have any other advice that you would give to someone trying to make their art into a full-time career?
You need to find out what problem your art solves, and who your art serves. I guess a simpler way to say that would be (and this is something my business coach always says), “It’s not about you, it’s about them.” Yes, my work is my work, but it’s not about me, it’s about my client, my collectors, and the value that I’m providing for them. That’s all people care about. People don’t really care about you or who you studied under or what art school you went to; they care about what value your art is going to provide for them. And if you can figure that out and communicate that, then you’re on a great start to selling [your art] and making a great living off of it.
You can find more information about Bradley and her work on her website, katebradleyfineart.com.