Highlighting not one but two of her lifelong passions, Kathryn Claahsen (’12) debuted her first solo art exhibition at Gallery Seven in Lockport, Illinois, near Chicago in early February, featuring original paintings all about … swing dancing.
Ms. Claahsen has been enchanted by art since she was a girl growing up in Chicago. “I always wanted to be an artist,” she recalls. “My grandmother was an artist; she gave me my first lessons. She and my grandfather would take me to all the different museums, and I just loved it.”
What, then, drew the budding artist to study the Great Books at Thomas Aquinas College?
“Art is a form of communication. It shouldn’t just be about what’s going on inside the artist, it should be about something bigger than themselves. I thought that TAC would be the best fit for learning how to have an effective dialogue.”
“Art is a form of communication. It shouldn’t just be about what’s going on inside the artist, it should be about something bigger than themselves. I thought that TAC would be the best fit for learning how to have an effective dialogue,” Ms. Claahsen reflects. “What the education can do is help you listen to other people, and to the world at large, to figure out where they’re coming from.”
After graduating in 2012, Ms. Claahsen followed her first love to Chicago’s esteemed Art Institute. “I studied the old masters’ techniques, copying pieces from museums,” she says. “I was still trying to figure out my own style and what I wanted to focus on.” She had also fallen in love with swing dancing while at the College; between classes at the Art Institute she continued to dance, learning from and befriending some of the best dancers in the country.
For the active painter-dancer, the arrival of the pandemic in 2020 was a heavy blow, but Ms. Claahsen ultimately turned it to her favor. “When everything went into lockdown, and I couldn’t go to dance class, I still had it boiling up inside of me,” she laughs. “I asked myself, ‘How can I express this?’ That’s when I decided to start painting dance.”
She began by drawing from her practical dancing expertise, but that was only the beginning. “Dances are sacramental in the sense that a personal interchange takes place,” Ms. Claahsen says. Attention to this personal dimension rendered each painting more than a snapshot of this or that dance move. Instead, she adds, “I tried to portray different emotions in my work. A lot of it is complex, because I try to tell a story about what the people in the work are going through.”
This complexity resonated with the proprietors of Gallery Seven. “When I explained what kind of show I wanted to do, they said, ‘Would it be OK to have a dance lesson as part of the event?’” Of course, Ms. Claahsen said, “Absolutely!” The lesson gave the exhibition a uniquely festive atmosphere, as visitors found themselves echoing the painted couples. “It made more concrete what I’m saying in the artwork — taking the hand of someone you don’t know and being vulnerable as you figure out the steps.”
Ms. Claahsen was overjoyed at her first exhibition and hopes for more in the future. At the same time, she is eager for more alumni to join her in the professional art world. “I’m really happy to hear about the TAC Art Club,” she says. “Things like that are really important to help students get their work out there in front of an audience. Ultimately what’s going to help any artist is spending time with all kinds of people and being receptive to grace in every circumstance.”