Some things are just meant to be. Katherine Larson attributes the discovery of her talents as an artist and operatic singer, and the road that eventually led her to Vero Beach, to providence.
A commission for a mural project in Fort Myers brought Larson to the Sunshine State in February 2021, but as soon as she reached Georgia, the client called to cancel the project due to a funding issue.
“It was the middle of winter. I was almost to Florida. There was no way I was going back,” she recalls. However, after spending a short time on Florida’s West Coast, Larson was ready to leave. The congestion was just too much for someone used to rural life in Michigan.
Rather than stay in Fort Myers, she packed up and made the drive across the state to visit with relatives from the Sturgis side of her family, who had established themselves in Vero Beach in the 1950s. Although she had lost touch after her mother passed away, she worked up the courage to call them and says, “they welcomed me with open arms.”
It didn’t take long to realize that she had found her new home in a house that was perfect for her and Maestro, a Weimaraner by Larson’s side wherever she goes. In a way he made the decision, by refusing to get back in the car after looking at the house, and the quick sale of her Michigan home sealed the deal.
Now that she has settled here, she says, “I can’t wait to start painting the scenery with watercolors. Watercolors kind of paint themselves. You just have to know when to let it run and bleed and when to firm up. Oil is the last medium I felt comfortable working with and is what I primarily work in today.”
Larson describes herself as an “optimistic artist.”
“I don’t like to bring anything ugly into the world. I paint landscapes the way that they should be. It’s mostly about communicating something beautiful; that touches you.”
Larson attributes her love of art to the unwavering support of her mother and an art teacher in grade school. She first realized she could make a living doing what she loved after a successful day selling caricatures during a county fair for the exorbitant fee of $2.50 each. She used the money to buy her first stereo.
Not long afterward, she landed her first job, at 16 becoming the country’s youngest courtroom artist for WSBT-TV in South Bend, Indiana.
Although accepted to the Pratt Institute, her father said she needed to get a degree in something that she could “make a living doing. You’re going to have to get a real job.”
He sent her instead to Ball State University, where Larson took every art class they offered, mostly taught by the same instructor. Moved by her dedication and innate talent, he said she didn’t need to come to class. He would give her an ‘A’ based on her sketchbooks.
The summer of her freshman year, Larson overheard a man discussing an opening for a fashion illustrator at the L.S. Ayres and Company department store and quickly applied for the job.
Admiring her chutzpah, the department manager gave her a layout to try and when she went back the next day with the finished design, Larson was hired on the spot. When one of Larson’s girdle ads won a national advertising award, it garnered the attention of the higher-ups. She was offered a job at the store overseeing special promotions, complete with her own office and double her salary.
She chose it over returning to school, figuring she could always go back to school if the job didn’t work out.
“That’s how the commercial part of my art career got launched,” says Larson.
She would go on to own two successful advertising agencies, but at age 27 decided it was time to get married and start a family.
She took a friend’s suggestion to join a church choir as a way to meet men. Despite not being able to read music, she doubled down on her efforts to learn “How Lovely is thy Dwelling Place” from the Brahms Requiem.
When the choir director asked her to stay after practice, she thought she was going to be told ‘Sorry, we can’t use you. You’re too loud,’ but instead said she wanted Larson to be a soloist.
After Larson performed Bach’s “Magnificat,” the choir director played a recording, seemingly of another woman singing the same piece. In fact, the lovely voice she heard was her own.
“I said, ‘If I sound like that, maybe I should do something with the voice,’” she recalls.
Against her father’s wishes, Larson moved to Ann Arbor to study with Lorna Haywood at the University of Michigan and announced to the family, “I’m going to become an opera singer.”
Chuckling, Larson says, “my sister accuses me of getting in line twice when God handed out talent.”
Larson is categorized as a spinto soprano, whose robust, high range and warm, full-bodied lower range makes her perfect for dramatic, passionate operatic roles.
She has performed as Tosca, Madama Butterfly, Turandot and Aida, as well as with symphony orchestras in Michigan, Indiana and Illinois.
“Opera and art dovetail because one is quiet and very introverted (visual arts) and then the other is very out there,” says Larson, sharing that when she paints, music runs through her head and feeds her visual art.
“You don’t want to have disturbing things going through your mind when you’re trying to paint something. It actually activates the right side of your brain.”
To support herself while training to try out for the Metropolitan Opera and for European travel to study Italian and German, Larson picked up freelance graphic design work and eventually began painting murals.
Larson’s work also includes children’s book illustrations and fine art, and now, with a new environment to explore, she spends a great deal of her time painting en plein air.
“I’ve just started painting down here, and I’m so excited. There’s just so much to paint. Where I come from in Michigan, we couldn’t paint outside for very long. Every day I see something that I want to paint. I can’t stop painting,” says Larson.
“Your skies are different. I had to break out turquoise for the first time. It’s in the landscape, it’s in the water, it’s in the sky. You can’t really capture it with the normal paint colors. You have to approach the canvas completely different.”
She’s also having fun experimenting with purples, whites and greens, noting “we don’t have colors like that in Michigan.”
Larson said she is excited about the challenge of capturing Florida’s sunrise and sunset colors on canvas.
“It seems like it’s an exaggeration, but it’s not. It’s actually what the eyes see.”
Larson says she sees her gifts as a means to bring more beauty into this world.
“I know there’s a lot of pain and bad stuff going on. But if you look, nature is still beautiful, our pets are beautiful, and there’s still beauty in people. Those are the things that I try to bring forth, and those are the things that I focus on. The things that are beautiful. The same thing with music. I’m careful about how I use my voice.”
Larson is the featured artist in for September at the Main Street Vero Beach Studios and Gallery. For more information, visit katherinelarson.com.
Photos by Kaila Jones