Katharine Montstream’s Journey: From 10-cent Cards to Commissioned Paintings
By Phyl Newbeck
Photos courtesy of the artist
For Katharine Montstream, the decision to try to make a living from her artwork was an easy one. “It was never scary,” she says. “I was selling real estate and waitressing and I started making little cards, and they were selling really well.”
The cards cost ten cents each and Katharine was selling them for $1.15. By the end of the first year she had sold 16,000 handmade cards. “That worked great,” she says, “but at some point, I kind of burned out. You can’t grow a business if you’re doing it all by hand, so we took a leap of faith to print the cards in 1991.” Mass production required Katharine to visit stationery stores and find representatives who were willing to sell the cards across the country. That year, she also made the decision to open Monstream Studio in a $100 a month space at Main Street Landing. “Even 30 years ago I could afford that,” she says. Soon, adjoining spaces became vacant and Katharine was able to expand. “We just kept paying month to month and it just kept growing.”
Another transition was Katharine’s move from greeting cards to larger paintings. “Someone asked me to make one of my images bigger,” she remembers. “I thought I’d try it and then figure out what to do about pricing.” The larger paintings led to her first show at the Daily Planet with multiple 30x40-inch watercolors of gardens and cityscapes. “People responded to my work,” she says. “I didn’t try to analyze it, but it happened. Thirty years later, here we are.”
Creativity on Commission
A lot of Katharine’s sales are via commission. People come to her with an idea for a painting, and she decides if it’s something she can do. She gave the example of someone who wanted her to paint Little Fenway Park in Jericho. “I knew I probably couldn’t do it justice,” she says “but I went there and saw the pastoral view looking away from the ballfield with barns and layers of mountains and offered to paint that instead. I guide people into letting me do what I do best and if they aren’t happy with that, I can give them suggestions for other artists.” Katharine gets requests from people who want her to add a dog or a flag to a landscape but she has resisted. “I’m good at steering people to get the best work for their money,” she says. “If they are willing to commission me for a painting, they’ll listen to my suggestions.”
Other patrons visit Montstream Studio in search of existing artwork. “Usually they have a room in mind or a special event,” Katharine says. “A daughter might be getting married or the family might have built a second home and wants something to hang over the fireplace.” Recently, she has been receiving requests from people who want to replace a work they lost during a divorce. Katharine is also often asked for pieces to hang in doctors’ or lawyers’ offices. “People want something local and they know we are community-minded,” she says. “We’re public about giving support to organizations like Feeding Chittenden and Black Lives Matter.”
Katharine enjoys a wide variety of landscape painting, but she does have some favorite locations. “There are certain iconic images I never get sick of,” she says. “Camel’s Hump is one because of the beautiful lines. It has this sensual profile that is just gorgeous. When my daughter was young, she used to say it was like the top of a heart.” Although she gravitates toward beauty, Katharine also enjoys painting things that aren’t inherently beautiful like the Burlington train yard and the Moran Plant. “When I find something super gritty that people can respond to, that’s enormously satisfying,” she says. “I didn’t think the Moran Plant paintings would sell, so it was amazing to see that happen. My good patrons liked them, but so did my newer clients.”
Roughly half of Katharine’s work is plein air—painted outdoors. She also uses photographs of her subject matter, not to make her work realistic but to remind her of what she liked about the vista. “The photo is a great reference for me,” she says. “It’s not for me to get bogged down in the details but to remember where the lines are.”
Making the Best of Difficult Times
2020 has been a difficult year for Katharine in terms of keeping her gallery open but she is pleased to be able to retreat to her studio on Pine Street in the old Recycle North building. “It’s contact-less and I can ride my bike there,” she says.
Thanks to the pandemic, Katharine is doing more commission work than usual but with a twist. In the past, she would visit the places she is commissioned to paint, but that hasn’t been possible.
“I’ve been asking people to send me landscape photos which I’ll paint for $150,” she says. “A lot of times it’s challenging because the subject matter might not be what I would usually paint, but people allow me to do my own photo editing. I give them my best work of their vision.”