Painter Theresa Cates on her God-given talent, public art projects and finding grace on a blank canvas.
Theresa Cates is a self-taught artist who began painting at age 5. Her work has been prominently featured on public art displays in North Little Rock and Little Rock. Characterized by vibrant color and familiar Southern scenes, particularly of church and spiritual life, her work features themes of faith and joy.
Q: I would like to start with something heavy. Your work has a positivity to it, an enthusiasm for life. Yet you’ve spoken about your background, growing up in a home with domestic abuse and being a victim yourself as an adult. Where do you find the optimism and the faith characteristic of your style amidst such trauma?
A: Growing up in an abusive home as a child and coming into my adulthood made me always try to focus on something “happy.” I am a strong person, and my personality is filled with grace. I do believe with all of my heart that I was born a fighter, and with all of the odds against me, I am still overcoming them. A single parent of five children, growing up in an abusive atmosphere, I kept the faith. Painting was a gift given to me from God, and it paves the way to my “happy” place, and just knowing how it makes everyone else happy is like adding the fuel to the fire.
Q: Speaking of style, from a technical perspective, how did that develop? Without formal training, were you just going with trial and error? Were you trying to emulate an artist whose work you admired?
A: In the beginning of my art career, I had no mentor, no one was willing to take the chance on me except for one gallery in which I am still exclusive to this very day (Red Door Gallery). Trial and error played a large factor only to deliver a performance of perfection as the end result. The paintings began to take on their own personality and humor. The paintings are much more than just a conversation piece, they also set the atmosphere wherever they’re placed to hang. Some people have to go to school to be taught, and some people are born with a God-given talent, which was my case.
I could never emulate what I never saw. As a child I wasn’t exposed to art. (Unless you count my coloring books.) We didn’t have art hanging in our home. I have been told my work reflects the ever famous artist Annie Lee. ... So many people started saying that’s what it reminded them of, and so I did my own investigation and thought to myself, “Kinda???” But I still have my own style and twist.
Q: I’m curious about the public art projects. The upshot is, people know your works like the utility boxes in North Little Rock even if they don’t know who painted them. The downside is, they may not know who painted them. How do you reach people?
A: The public art projects were just a way for the public to be introduced to who I am. I am known for those boxes and through it all, I am very grateful and thankful to have the opportunity to have participated in such a wonderful community project. I am open to creating more community projects in the upcoming year. Painting outside and getting support from the community was very inspiring. Some people didn’t get a chance to know exactly who painted them, but through conversation, I was able to introduce myself through that particular community project.
The traffic boxes brightened the community and gave out a positive message and since they have been removed, I have received many emails and Facebook inquiries as to when and where the next project will be. People came from all around the community to get an up close feel and sense of happiness from those boxes. I had a senior citizen write to me and tell me how much she enjoyed looking at that outside art and it was so beautiful. She just so happened to be coming from a doctor’s appointment with not so great of news and when she saw the traffic box and the message, it immediately refreshed her faith and made her smile. ... That’s what I am here for. To enhance people like her. My art was able to make her smile, and that is what keeps me going.
Q: And on the topics of evening engagements, I understand you’ve been a single mother to five children. Where do you find the energy for anything, much less an activity like painting? I’d think your free time would be pretty limited.
A: I have a lot of family support and that’s the biggest blessing, them helping me maintain myself as a artist, career woman and most importantly a mother!
Q: One of the oft-discussed challenges of the art world, especially as a hobbyist who works full-time by day, is getting your name out there. How did you get discovered? How’d you get picked up a gallery? Was it a matter of going to shows after hours and making connections or did they find you?
A: The public and the gallery found me through a local art show being hosted in the Argenta community. Getting discovered came into effect during an Argenta Art Walk, which I participated in for the very first time, and it paid off tremendously. I have also been featured in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette because of the traffic boxes.
Q: You said some of your art on those utility boxes has been disappearing in North Little Rock, covered or painted over. Were you at all aware of the decision to redecorate them or do you know how that came about?
A: I was not notified when the art would be taken down. I just happen to be driving and saw that it was removed and, when interviewed, the spokesperson stated they wanted something with a more positive message. Before we could even paint on the traffic boxes we had to submit our idea on what we would paint, so they were aware beforehand what message I would be relaying to the community.