Kay Carlson, An Artist for Marin

Marin Magazine Kay Carlson

How do you describe yourself?

California colorist, plein air/studio artist, Marin Open Studios executive director, and lucky enough to have a wonderful partner and husband, graphic designer and artist Don McCartney.

Please describe your journey as an artist and a founder of Open Studios.

I grew up in Wisconsin. When I was 14, I saw a painting by Andrew Wyeth in Life magazine. It was “Christina’s World,” and an inner voice said, “This is what I am supposed to do.” I signed up for oil painting classes after school. I did not have any role models. My dad said, “Kay, you cannot eat paint.” I persisted, earned an English degree from the University of Wisconsin and a minor in art. Winning a trip to Paris in an essay contest my senior year propelled me to seeing the impressionists and haunting the Louvre. Returning to Wisconsin, I found that inner voice kicked in again and I headed to San Francisco, determined to study art. I worked for several galleries, learned how to sell art and, even more, how much the public needed art. I painted outdoors in my 20s and was influenced by landscape photographers including Brett Weston. I moved to Marin in 1983 and joined a gregarious potluck group in Woodacre that nurtured and mentored me like a family. I still exhibit with them today. When I moved into a studio at the ICB in 1991, it was the beginning of a more public life and I was amazed at the vast number of artists who worked in Marin. There was such a thriving group of artists in Sausalito and I latched onto the tradition with Tim Rose, who had started the ICB Building December Open Studios. I joined the Marin Art Council and again my inner voice said, “Start a countywide Marin Open Studios.” In 1993 I invited Tim to join me, and with lots of support, we brought the art community together in a new way. People need art, and I enjoy being the facilitator, placing artwork in their world that will light up an inner life and voice.

How does being a woman inform your work, your life?

I struggled to kick off expectations to get married early and realized that I needed to partner with someone who would not crush my artist self. I worked to balance my male and female sides; Marin offered a creative soil with constant personal growth opportunities and abounding outdoor beauty. I bring a female sensitivity to looking at the world. Please describe your family and how it informs your work and life. My grandmother was a storyteller, very creative, and my mother was strong and is still in my hometown at 95 years old. She had a quality of practical irreverence unusual in the Midwest. I left them both at age 21 to take a trip to California and did not return, which was hard on all of us. I am not a mother, but my paintings are my children. I also teach painting and have mentored many artists in their careers, especially women.

What do you most enjoy about life in Marin?

I came to San Francisco in 1971 but it took me until 1983 to make my way to Woodacre, and then until 1991 to open my studio at the ICB in Sausalito after a divorce. I have lived in Marin for 36 years. What I enjoy most about this county is an intimacy with nature and the incredible variety of landscape and quality of light. I love seeing Mount Tamalpais from new vantage points, the water views of West Marin, and the physicality of the coastal terrain. I return to many favorite hidden places in various seasons and times of the day, and new discoveries are reflected in my oil paintings.

What inspires or informs your work?

My paintings are metaphors for pairing, serenity and relationships. As a colorist, I see and emphasize the color in shadows and life on the water on late afternoon walks. The local art community, my ICB studio, artist friends, the Marin Art School and my students give me great joy. What are your hopes for the future? I want to get back to having more time painting outdoors and in the studio. I am looking for a successor to mentor into someone who can take over the leadership role of Marin Open Studios.

Marin Open Studios, May 4–5 and 11–12. 


Susan B. Noyes is the founder and chief visionary officer of Make It Better Media Group, as well as the founder of Make It Better Foundation’s Philanthropy Awards. A mother of six, former Sidley Austin labor lawyer and U.S. Congressional aide and passionate philanthropist, she has also served on many boards.