Artist Katie Runde Embraces the Holy and the Cow | Visual Art | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Artist Katie Runde Embraces the Holy and the Cow

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Katie Runde - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Katie Runde

Katie Runde squints a lot while she works, the better to see the contours of what she's trying to create. On a cold, wet day in early May, that happened to be a three-dimensional, 10-by-26-foot chalk mural of a Holstein. Rendered on pavement at Middlebury College, the cow was decked out in bougainvillea and other flora that are as nettlesome to spell as they are to depict in a blunt, dry medium.

From the right vantage point — approximately six giant steps back from the hooves — the cow appeared to leap off the sidewalk, its front legs hovering in mid-jig. The squinting helped Runde keep it all in perspective as she crouched over the pavement, sketching the design over a twine grid.

"Realism is actually about abstraction," said the 33-year-old artist, darkening a shadow on the udder with a swipe of ocher. "You have to force your brain to deconceptualize an object in order to see the important parts of the whole and not get hung up on stupid details."

"Realism" might be the technical term for Runde's style, but it's somewhat misleading, because her work tends to upstage reality rather than imitate it. A Katie Runde Holstein isn't your workaday dairy beast; it's the Technicolor platonic bovine ideal, the shrink-wrapped essence of cowness.

Even in a half-materialized state, her cow seemed supernatural, illuminated by a light source that doesn't exist in nature. As she worked on the nose, she brought out orange and pink highlights, laid down shadows in dark blue and purple. The effect was dizzying.

It was just before 9 a.m. on a Wednesday morning at Middlebury, and students were beginning to trickle out of the first-year dorm in front of which Runde had stationed herself for the day. This was her second time doing a sidewalk mural for the college; last year, Middlebury student and South Royalton native Emily Ballou brought Runde to campus to create a 3D flying pig. This year, the task was a dancing cow — actually, two dancing cows, but Runde pared down her original design as a concession to the miserable forecast.

Runde has done enough large-scale illusionist chalk muraling to know that she can power through most kinds of physical and mental discomfort. But that day, she said, the weather was the least conducive to outdoor drawing she'd ever experienced: a sadistic on-and-off drizzle that never got quite bad enough to let her call it quits. The college provided a tent to shield her mural from the rain, but, by early afternoon, water had encroached on the cow, melting away the edges of its face and creeping up its hind legs.

In Vermont, particularly during the first fickle weeks of spring, attempting an outdoor chalk mural can be an endurance sport, a race against daylight and the elements. But that's Runde in a nutshell: She thrives on challenge.

It would be irritating enough if 3D chalk drawing were her only skill, but she's also an insanely good painter, a self-taught sculptor, a saxophonist and — because why not — an Episcopal priest in training. In other words, just an average millennial, hiding out in Bethel.

Katie Runde working on a cow chalk mural at Middlebury College - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Katie Runde working on a cow chalk mural at Middlebury College

Runde wears a special outfit for chalk muraling, which she modifies slightly for inclement conditions: running sneakers, knee pads, leggings under gym shorts, five layers of shirts and a backward maroon Sarasota Chalk Festival baseball cap. Viewed from a distance, she could easily have been mistaken for an off-duty member of a roller-derby team. The central principle of her ensemble is stretchiness, necessitated by the amount of bending and contorting required to fill in an entire cow without stepping on the rest of the work. Warmth, she said, is a secondary consideration.

Runde used her hands to smudge the chalk, layering color over color to create luminous gradients of Willy Wonka-like vibrancy: electric greens on the underbelly that gave way to oranges, blue and purple highlights on the hindquarters.

As she worked, she occasionally winced at an unpleasant texture; chalk-covered hands apparently make everything feel weird. She doesn't bother with gloves, Runde said, because they become disgusting immediately. Within 15 minutes of starting, her palms and nail beds were sooty black.

Pavement murals are part fine art, part performance art — or, as Runde put it, "where sport and art meet." Since entering the world of chalk art in 2013, she has participated in more than half a dozen national and international festivals — yes, chalk festivals are a thing — including the Sarasota Chalk Festival in Florida and the Cambridge International Street Art Festival in Ontario. She wasn't much of a competitive athlete growing up, but the kinetic intensity makes her feel alive. "This is my version of skydiving," she joked.

In Vermont, especially in the Upper Valley, Runde is just as well known for her drawings and oil paintings as for her murals. Over the past few years, her work has appeared regularly at shows and galleries across the state, including Burlington's Vintage Inspired Lifestyle Marketplace and South End Art Hop, ArtisTree Community Arts Center Gallery in South Pomfret, and the Chandler Gallery in Randolph.

Her art has received accolades outside Vermont, too: In 2013, Runde won second prize at the Connecticut Women Artists National Open Juried Exhibition at the Slater Memorial Museum in Norwich, Conn. That same year, she entered the Center for the Arts — Lake Sunapee Region winter juried show in New London, N.H., and was featured in the Madelon Powers Gallery at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania.

But, as her chalk murals suggest, Runde is capable of working in more than two dimensions. In 2014, at the urging of ArtisTree Gallery director Adrian Tans, who organizes the Vermont Flurry: Woodstock Snow Sculpture Festival on the Woodstock Green, she entered the competition without ever having set chisel to block. Runde's debut creation, a walrus balancing on its tail, won first place in Woodstock and earned her team a spot at the United States National Snow Sculpting Championship in Wisconsin. She and her team have made it to nationals almost every year since.

Tans, a chalk artist himself, hooked Runde up with her first sidewalk commission in 2013 — a cow mural in front of the University of Vermont's Dudley H. Davis Center.

"They didn't specifically ask for a 3D mural, but she took that idea and ran with it as a challenge to herself, which is totally Katie," said Tans. "Whatever she does, she crushes it. When her work is in a group show at ArtisTree, her piece is always the 'wow' piece, the one that people stop and stare at."

Katie Runde with her wings - COURTESY OF LYLEE RAUCH-KACENSK
  • Courtesy Of Lylee Rauch-kacensk
  • Katie Runde with her wings

Recently, and entirely by trial and error, Runde constructed a 20-foot pair of wings complete with real feathers and hinge joints for birdlike flapping action. At several points during the process, she schlepped the entire apparatus to Mills Hardware in downtown Bethel, where owner Brad Andrews counseled her on the use of springs and bungees.

"I taught her the K.I.S.S. principle — keep it simple, stupid — but really, it was 99 percent her," said Andrews. "She's absolutely incredible. She did that whole project by the seat of her pants, and she managed to create something that looked exactly like a proportional wingspan for a 6-foot-tall man."

When she completed the wings in mid-December, Runde held a public opening at Arnold Block, a community center in Bethel, to allow people to try them on. "It was amazing," she said, "getting to show people what it would feel like to have wings as a human being."

Runde plans to use the wings as an installation in a forthcoming series of paintings on Icarus, the notoriously unsuccessful aviator. One of these, she said, will depict him in boxer shorts.

Sacred Cows

Katie Runde drawings - CHELSEA EDGAR
  • Chelsea Edgar
  • Katie Runde drawings

The door to Runde's art studio, on the second floor of the former Hartford Woolen Mill in White River Junction, is covered in decals of her hand-drawn cows, colored-pencil renderings of ridiculous prismatic depth. Staring at them for too long might result in headache.

Runde has a lot of these cow stickers, the first of which she created while earning her master's degree in religious studies from the University of Chicago Divinity School. In an effort to liven up what she felt was a tyrannically theoretical, humorless atmosphere, Runde would tag student lounges and traffic signs with dreamy-eyed Jerseys. Sometimes she gave the cows thought bubbles containing musings in the tortured syntax of academia, such as, "How dare you suggest that the relationship between the marketing of cows as producers of dairy and the unanalyzed arbitrariness of cow qua cow is merely polemical?" and "I just can't see how you can presuppose that the representational validity of the agricultural interrogates reception of the feral."

Runde's infatuation with cows began the summer before she started graduate school, when she worked at Blythedale Farm in Corinth, owned by family friends from her hometown of Rochester, N.Y. After a few months of milking Jerseys and making artisanal cheese, she became obsessed with living in Vermont.

"The Frog Prince," after Rubens' "Honeysuckle Bower," featuring a cameo by Runde - COURTESY OF KATIE RUNDE
  • Courtesy Of Katie Runde
  • "The Frog Prince," after Rubens' "Honeysuckle Bower," featuring a cameo by Runde

When Runde finished her master's in 2010, she moved to South Royalton and got a job as an art teacher at Wellspring Waldorf School in Tunbridge. After three years, she quit to focus on making her own art.

"I loved teaching, but I reached a point where I was completely burned out from trying to be fully present for my students and had no energy left for any of the things that make me feel like a whole person. I just had to get out of it," she said. "And then I decided that I came out of the womb with art, so I might as well do right by it."

Runde comes from a family of academic overachievers. Her father and older sister both hold PhDs in medieval literature; her mother, a fellow artist, came within spitting distance of her medieval English literature PhD but decided not to write a dissertation. As Runde is fond of pointing out, she's the only person in her nuclear family who doesn't speak Old English.

Runde has been making art since she can remember, but growing up, music was her primary mode of expression. For two years after high school, Runde studied at the Eastman School of Music, but she felt stifled by the single-mindedness of the conservatory approach. To get a break, she enrolled at University College Cork in Ireland, where she discovered intellectual and artistic freedom she'd never fully experienced before. Runde took up folklore and ethnography studies, played in rock and funk bands, and developed her first sticker graffiti signature: two entwined magpies, a lucky omen in Ireland.

Runde, who was raised Catholic, has always been compelled by religion. She remembers feeling pulled toward the priesthood at age 17 and arguing about it with her then-boyfriend, who had the same aspiration. Most nights before she went to bed, she and her mother would read a prayer from the Benedictine book of hours, which she still keeps in her studio. When she's feeling anxious or depleted while working on a piece, she'll pause and do a chant.

The Insecurity of Freedom

Katie Runde in her studio in White River Junction - CHELSEA EDGAR
  • Chelsea Edgar
  • Katie Runde in her studio in White River Junction

These days, Runde spends a fair amount of time on commissioned work and paintings to sell. Her most profitable subject matter is dessert — a curious but apparently lucrative niche in the commercial art market. When Seven Days met her at her studio on a Saturday morning in late April, Runde was getting ready to paint a miniature mango-raspberry cheesecake from the Woodstock Farmers Market. The giant Icarus wings leaned against the wall behind her like a prehistoric bird in repose.

"Desserts are paying my rent this month," she said. "I enjoy doing the work, so I don't feel hackish about it. I have other projects that I can say all my stuff with. But those will probably never sell."

She showed off a 60-by-45-inch canvas that had just returned from a show in New London, N.H. — a portrait of an ex-boyfriend who worked at Facebook and retired at 34. She had painted him in profile, gazing into the distance, his head encircled by a Roman-numeraled wheel of fortune. His skin looked pearlescent and butter-soft, as if captured through an Instagram filter that sandblasts your pores and makes you look preternaturally well rested.

"It's about youth and also about complacency — are you going to just rest on your laurels, or are you going to make something of yourself?" Runde said.

"Chris Piro" - COURTESY OF KATIE RUNDE
  • Courtesy Of Katie Runde
  • "Chris Piro"

Runde works mostly in oils, often depicting people she knows: the former boyfriend, a local musician playing the cello. She also paints herself — sometimes in the form of a straightforward self-portrait, sometimes giving herself a cheeky cameo as a fair-haired maiden in a perfect reproduction of a Peter Paul Rubens painting.

For a year after quitting teaching, Runde studied with Evan Wilson, an artist based in Hoosick, N.Y., whose John Singer Sargent-esque portraits have been shown in galleries from New York City to Florence, Italy.

"She drove two hours every Monday to spend the day in the studio with me," said Wilson. "She was already an advanced painter; my job as her instructor was to take what she already possessed technically and artistically and harness it. As her paintings are exhibited and collected, she will be considered one of the top realist painters in the country."

Runde is acutely aware that the realist label has acquired a stodgy reputation in recent decades, evoking moribund tableaux of waxy-looking fruit and other objects that would never actually appear together in anyone's home. But she rejects the notion that realist work can't be conceptual or provocative, a criticism she said often comes from other contemporary artists.

"They'll be like, 'Where's the content? What's the meaning here?' And I'm like, 'Uhhhh, does everything have to be some convoluted abstraction in order to have meaning?'

"There's this weird notion in the contemporary art world that you have to paint ugly things in order to be a serious artist," Runde continued. "But who says beauty can't be honest? I think we do ourselves a disservice when we only represent things that are horrible and bleak."

For Runde, there's inherent meaning in capturing the way light strikes an object, which she describes as a transcendental experience. On her best days, she enters a meditative, trancelike state, and she can work for eight hours without noticing time pass.

Other days aren't so magical. Last month, she wrapped up a commission that she said nearly trashed her psychic reserves: a two-month-long project for an upcoming show of Lebanese artist Walid Raad's work in Amsterdam.

Raad, a professor at the Cooper Union who has had solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, commissioned Runde to paint 15 reproductions of framed impressionist paintings on a series of panels, the largest of which was roughly 8.5 by 6.66 feet. To meet her deadline, she pulled 16-hour days in the studio, subsisting on pots of coffee and boxes of organic chocolate sandwich cookies. While she worked, she nursed a case of bronchitis, a souvenir from a snow sculpture competition in Nebraska earlier in the winter.

"At various points, I felt like my head was broken," Runde said, powering up her Mac to show photos of the completed pieces. (Her desktop background: "The Trinity" by Andrei Rublev, a 15th-century piece of Russian iconography.)

"Copying the actual impressionist paintings wasn't so bad," she mused, cycling through pictures on Facebook. "Van Gogh was really fun to do. That guy used an insane amount of paint. And there's Monet. I stank at Monet. God, this one," she said, pausing at a photo of her rendition of a Renoir portrait of a young man, enclosed in an intricately carved wooden frame. "That frame nearly destroyed me."

Runde is open about her anxiety, which Wilson deems "a millennial construct," she said.

"He thinks that if I'm serious about painting, I should lock myself in the studio for eight hours a day, five days a week, and do nothing else," she said. "His logic is that if the work is making me stressed, then maybe it's not what I should be doing. And our culture is very much built on this notion that you need to find your one thing and just do that forever."

But Runde refuses to be contained in a single box. "I feel like a theologian disguised as an artist and a musician," she said. On weekends, she performs around the Upper Valley with her band, the Party Crashers. She also chips away at the crapload of ecclesiastical reading she has to do to become a priest at Christ Episcopal Church in Bethel — not that Runde, who carries a copy of the Jewish philosopher Rev. Abraham Joshua Heschel's The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence in her handbag, finds any of that metaphysical stuff onerous.

Runde, the youngest member of her postulant group by a decade, is used to being the sole millennial in the room, and it suits her just fine. Most of her friends are 55 or older, she said.

"I've always been an old person inside," Runde declared. "That's always been sort of a lonely-making thing for me. You give me one drink, and I'm like, 'Guys! Let's talk about the fall of man! It's really about self-consciousness!'

"Sometimes my band will play millennial weddings, and I'll have no idea what anyone is talking about," she said, only a little ruefully. "My older sister had to explain the word 'basic' to me." ("Basic," for the uninitiated, is a derogatory term for a gasping, unironic enthusiasm for mainstream things — pumpkin spice lattes, lululemon leggings, the Kardashians' every move.)

Sometimes Runde brings a stack of books to Babes Bar, down the street from her apartment, and ensconces herself in the upstairs lounge with a martini for hours on end.

"She'll come in, and then I'll totally forget she's here until I go upstairs for something else four hours later," said co-owner Jesse Plotsky. Once, he said, Runde came in with her parents when they were in town for a visit. He found them upstairs hours later, reading side by side.

As Runde has discovered, Vermont might be the best state in the Union for a studious introvert. A few years ago, she was engaged to someone in Lebanon, N.H. At the time, she was renting a room on a sheep farm in South Royalton. The day she packed up her belongings to move in with her fiancé, she said, she sat on her front steps and cried, overwhelmed by the rolling green beauty she was leaving behind.

The cohabitation didn't work out, and Runde eventually broke off the engagement. For a month, she slept on the couch of a friend from church while she regrouped.

"I remember my first morning back in Vermont; I was driving to my studio from their house, and it was a beautiful Vermont spring day, and I just wept for joy," she recalled. "I was like, 'I've been released back into the wild!' That summer, I realized that I would rather be in Vermont with no one than leave to try to find someone.

"The community here is so incredibly loving and nurturing, like a family unto itself," Runde said. "So I can't leave. I'm in."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Walking the Chalk | Be thel artist Katie Runde embraces the holy and the cow"