SAN ANSELMO, Calif. – Artist Kathleen Edwards had an “evangelical Christian childhood with a troubled mother” and a father who “went along with the program,” she says.
She and her sister “were not allowed to watch hardly any television,” the 62-year-old Edwards says during a phone interview from her home in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Way back then there were no video games. We made up worlds.”
Those worlds included a “crowd of characters” they created and portrayed in improvised plays, including Lyn with her “protruding neck tendons,” her children Spotty the rabbit and the girl Hoa with the frozen face, and two male witches, Ronnie and Culeeps.
“We each had a male witch,” Edwards says with a hearty laugh. “I don’t know where we got that idea.”
Edwards’ youthful conjuration of witches was a harbinger of sorts. After decades of work in mostly production jobs at various graphic arts firms, she turned to illustration in the mid-1990s. Her first illustrating job was for the book The Storyteller’s Goddess: Tales of the Goddess and Her Wisdom from Around the World by her sister, Carolyn McVickar Edwards. Soon after, Kathleen – a self-professed “luddite” — sent out her artist promotional flyer to publishers in a mass snail-mail campaign.
“Llewellyn (the metaphysical publisher) called me,” Edwards says. “It was rare to get a call from somebody that you just sent a random thing to in the mail. I showed them my portfolio and they started to hire me to do work for them.”
Edwards’ most prominent work for Llewellyn has been the publisher’s annual Witches’ Calendar, which she illustrated with her scratchboard art from 2000 to 2005 and from 2014 to 2019. Her artwork also has been featured in such annual titles as the Witches’ Datebook and Magical Almanac.
Because Edwards is wanting to explore other mediums beside scratchboard, and because Llewellyn wants to maintain scratchboard art as the “signature look” of its calendars, the 2019 calendar (which currently is available) will be Edwards’ last for the publisher. However, Edwards will continue to illustrate other Llewellyn titles with her ink work, she says.
Never mind that – in spite of her childhood flirtations with Ronnie and Culeeps — Edwards does not identify as Witch or Pagan.Her sister Carolyn and a friend “were really my early entry” into Paganism and earth-based spiritualities in the late 1980s, Edwards says. “So I was kind of familiar with it.
“I don’t label myself with a particular, shall we say, religion or belief system. If I were to do so, I’d probably call myself a kind of Pagan-slash-Buddhist. Because I don’t regularly practice anything in particular, other than making art I guess, I don’t really call myself that. But I’m very earth-centered in terms of my spirituality, so that’s probably where it resonates. My church is the forest or the ocean, so that totally resonates with Paganism in my mind.”
Edwards grew up in the Los Angeles area and, as she notes on her website, kathleenedwardsartist.com, “My first art sales were to my sixth-grade classmates – drawings of flower-wreathed peace signs for ten cents each.”
Her death-obsessed childhood with her religiously zealous, dysfunctional mother is recounted in her poignant, tender, funny, and alarming unpublished graphic memoir, My Book of the Dead. (Numerous pages of the memoir are viewable on her website, and include her adult renderings of the male witches Ronnie and Culeeps.)
Edwards studied art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and earned a master’s degree in interdisciplinary arts from San Francisco State University.
“I really wanted to be an illustrator, but at the time I didn’t have the confidence and I didn’t think I was good enough,” she says laughing. “I didn’t get very much positive re-enforcement from some of my college professors. Also, I wanted to study something practical so that I could earn a living. I didn’t want to just be an ‘artist.’ So I just said I’ll do graphic design instead.”
Edwards worked production-type jobs at various graphic arts firms “in the olden days before computers.”
In the early 1990s, “computers started to come into the place I was working and I did not what to learn to do my job on the computer because I’m a hands-on person,” she says. “So, I took a plunge and that was definitely a turning point in how I made a living. I just told them I wasn’t going to learn it and I knew I was going to obsolete myself.”
Around that time, her sister landed a book deal for The Storyteller’s Goddess.
“I was inspired by her writing,” Edwards. “I did a couple of little illustrations for a couple of the stories in the book, and the editor liked them and they hired me to do them for the whole book. That was my first illustration job and it took off from there.”
Soon she was doing work for such publishers as Harper Collins, Chronicle Books, Stewart Tabori & Chang, Warner Books, Jeremy Tarcher, and Llewellyn, as well as Horticulture Magazine.
In 2006, Edwards attended an artists’ residency in Taos, N. M., presented by the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation. There her Christian upbringing, ironically, would later lead her to create her own illustrated book of deities and holy sages from around the world, including Gaia, Yemaya, Fatima, Krishna and others, as well as Christian ones, too.
“My work started to really radically change and I started doing all these ink drawings at the residency,” Edwards says. “I was sort of harking back to my Christian roots and tweaking them a little bit and making fun of it just for myself. But also there are parts of it that I really feel respectful and sentimental about.
“I had done this drawing of St. Francis, so I came home with all this stuff and I was showing it to my god-daughter who was 10 at the time. She has not grown up with any kind of religion, which is common these days with a lot of kids. She looked at the picture of St. Francis and said, ‘What’s that circle around his head?’ I explained to her what it was and I thought, ‘Oh my god, she doesn’t know what a halo is.’ So I was inspired to do this very simple primer on the most popular and respected religious figures around the world.”
The result was Holy Stars!: Favorite Deities, Prophets, Saints & Sages from Around the World, a 59-page book with Edwards’ black-and-white ink drawings and brief but insightful facts and insights on various deities and sacred figures.
Edwards says the book is intended to foster “religious literacy for people. There are a lot of religions around the world, and a lot of people are absolutely clueless about any of them. It was really fun to research.”
Meanwhile, throughout both the graphic art and illustration stages of her career, Edwards has continued to pursue fine art: paintings and sculptures that she has exhibited in solo and group shows since 1986 in such venues as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Artists Gallery, the Oakland Museum, the Vancouver Museum, the San Francisco Craft and Folk Art Museum, and others.
“My fine art just evolved over the years,” she says. “I’ve always been doing that on my own, whether or not it makes money. Sometimes it makes money – I’ve sold a lot of work. Sometimes it’s just a labor of love.
“Of course, when you have to make money, I’ve done illustrations I don’t feel much connection to. But the best work is when you feel connected. That’s the whole idea, and that’s why I consider that I have been so lucky to work with Llewellyn and the Pagan stuff, because I do feel a connection with all that subject matter.”