The accidental painter

Itai Katz didn’t mean to be a painter. And if it weren’t for a weekend bender in Hay River, NWT, it might never have happened.

Itai Katz didn’t mean to be a painter.

And if it weren’t for a weekend bender in Hay River, NWT, it might never have happened.

Twenty years ago, Katz was living in Nahanni Butte volunteering for Toronto-based Frontiers Association.

“We were building and renovating homes in northern First Nations communities,” said Katz.

He and two other volunteers had been in the tiny community for about four months, and were getting a little stir-crazy.

“So we hitched a ride with a floatplane to Hay River for the weekend,” said Katz.

The guys headed for the bar, but Katz, who doesn’t drink much, left after a couple of hours.

A few days later, when the floatplane headed back to Nahanni Butte, Katz was the only passenger onboard.

 The other guys were nowhere to be found.

Suddenly alone in the rustic house he’d been sharing with the other volunteers, Katz searched for something to fill his nights.

He started painting.

“I filled three notebooks with very small paintings,” he said.

“And I would write a short story to go with each drawing.”

Months later, when Katz left Nahanni Butte, he took his newfound passion with him.

“It felt like a natural process,” he said.

“I just kept trying and experimenting with new things.”

Over the years, Katz began to develop his own style, full of colour, abstract lines and dots.

It’s simplistic — a trait Katz attributes to his lack of formal education.

 “I’m not very good when it comes to drawing,” he said with a smile.

“That’s why my forms tend to be simple.”

“It’s the same with perspective.”

Katz has always been creative, but painting was not his first choice.

As a young teen growing up in Israel, he studied photography.

But two years into a four-year program geared toward commercial shooting, he realized “it wasn’t for” him.

“Photography stopped satisfying me,” he said.

And Katz admits the same thing may happen with painting.

But not his creativity, he said.

“That’s an urge that is coming from within.”

When Katz paints, he leaves his intellect behind.

“I don’t think about what I’m going to create.

“I just take paint with the palette knife and start putting it on the paper, adding layer after layer of different colours.”

That’s when things start happening.

“I start seeing things that attract me and emphasize them, or work around them,” said Katz.

“It’s almost instinctive — you see a central image that comes out.”

 Katz paintings are full of layers.

The closer you get, the more there is to see, he said.

“There are many paintings inside my paintings. And you don’t see them all.”

Katz started showing his work after his mother set up a show for him in Israel.

And now, he’s started teaching workshops.

“I just show people how I work,” he said.

“I want to give people enough confidence to work this way.”

Everyone can paint, said Katz.

“Many say they can’t, but that’s their intellect getting in the way.

“If they start the process, they start enjoying it — creative activities just feel good.

“If we accept we’re maybe not a great artist, but that it just feels good, that’s the real reason to do it.”

Katz has spent his life doing things that “just feel good.”

The son of a freighter captain, the Israeli artist grew up on the high seas.

“I was already going on trips when I was still in my mother’s belly,” he said with a laugh.

And the travelling hasn’t stopped.

After becoming disillusioned with photography, Katz fell in love.

He followed his first wife to California, and ended up working in a winery.

But he didn’t like it.

“I didn’t find it creative,” said Katz.

“And it’s a bad industry for the environment.”

Trees are clear-cut to make the vineyards, plenty of pesticides are spread over the grapes and animals can’t cross the trellises, he said.

After falling out of love, Katz went north again, this time to see his brother who was still volunteering for Frontiers Association.

Katz was taken by the tiny community of Tsiigehtchic where his brother was working.

He fell in love, got married and still lives there.

That was almost eight years ago.

Katz enjoys the landscape and the quiet.

“But the logistics of living there can be difficult,” he said.

The closest professional gallery is outside the territory.

Katz has shown his work in Whitehorse before, and will return in 2010 to exhibit at the Yukon Arts Centre.

A full time artist, Katz doesn’t make a living with his work.

But that’s how he wants it.

“If it became a source of income, you would compromise yourself as a developing artist because you would make pieces that are more likely to sell,” he said.

“But I’m now old enough to have my priorities straight, and my development as an artists is most important.”

Katz’s show runs at Arts Underground until June 27th.

The gallery is open 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.