Kate Ashton has always taught others, so it made sense that she’d pursue a path in her art career as an art teacher and mentor to other artists.
“I wasn’t impressed with the art teachers who taught me,” she says. “They weren’t invested in my success, just pushing me through like all of the other students. I never had any sense of being mentored, or even that I mattered.”
That’s something she wanted to do differently with her Ashton Gallery and her Art on 30th space in North Park. Her hybrid gallery represents local artists, exhibiting their original contemporary art in shows and also providing mentoring to facilitate each artist’s professional growth with support and critique.
One of the gallery’s current exhibitions is “Collective American Memory,” inspired by the celebrated book “The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects” and is on display through Friday. She sees this exhibition as an opportunity to take a trip down memory lane and recall a collective, national history during this politically divided time.
Ashton, 74, is the owner of Ashton Gallery and Art on 30th, and the author of “Abstract Painting: For Today’s Contemporary Artist.” She lives in Mission Hills and took some time to talk about her involvement in the San Diego art scene, her commitment to supporting other artists, and knowing, at a very young age, exactly what she wanted to do with her life.
Q: Can you talk about how you first became involved in the visual arts community in San Diego?
A: I read a book called “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron. After that, I was inspired to take a workshop and meet other artists. I became involved with them, how they did their art, and how they took it to market. I eased into the experience and, before long, I was bringing my own art to market and immersed in the San Diego arts scene.
Q: How would you describe the San Diego art scene, and what is it about this community that has compelled you to remain involved?
A: The San Diego art scene is a quieter scene than Los Angeles. San Diego is more of a surf’s up, T-shirt town, so it has been ripe for an art center that serves the artists and collectors of San Diego. There has been a bit of a hunger for artwork that is not tourist art, like boats, sunsets, etc. My art center, Art on 30th, is a place that serves our community, rather than just the vacationer. San Diego does not stand out as great an arts scene as some of the larger cities, and we are working to change that.
The arts community in San Diego is an intimate one. Everyone seems to know each other, and the community is fully engaged and growing. I work virtually every day with artists who want to grow and who are ready to exhibit their work and take it to market. It is inspiring to see so many amazing people commit to art and to their own expansion as an artist. The community is not as in some cities, but it is fully engaged.
Q: Art on 30th is a space you opened in 2015. Can you tell us what the purpose of this art center is, how it functions, and why it was something you wanted to create?
A: I had a vision to create a place with private studios, classrooms and a gallery to display art. I had never done anything like this before, so everything was new, but I felt called to do it. I didn’t worry about whether it would be successful or not. I believed the wind was at my back, and it has been. Even during COVID-19 when the wind was not so strong, the breeze was still there and we came through fine. We adapted and kept our community together through social media.
What I love about Mission Hills ...
It’s close to downtown and close to Art on 30th, and it is a warm and healthy neighborhood.
Q: How did the kind of mentoring you experienced inform your approach to mentoring others?
A: I wanted to do something different. There are many places around town and in North County that offer good art classes, but an occasional art class doesn’t really help an artist fully grow to their potential. I wanted to invest in watching and supporting artists’ growth, so we offer a pathway for artists, ranging from people who have never picked up a paint brush to introductory, intermediate, advanced, mentorship, and then becoming a professional artist.
We invest in helping each artist go as far as they are able. The mentorship program was an idea that I had to give artists the opportunity to study under some extraordinary teachers, highly regarded artists in our field. At the end of the year, they are required to submit a body of work to be juried and placed in a show called “Deck the Walls,” during Christmas time. This individualized mentoring calls each of the artists to develop their own visual voice and to be ready to share it. Each artist is aware that we are invested in their journey and in doing all that we can to see them become the best artist they can be.
Q: Tell us about “Collective American Memory,” inspired by the book “The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects.”
A: I picked up that book and was smitten. I have never considered myself a history buff, but this story is told with objects, and it’s fascinating. I shared it with the artists I mentor and suggested we paint some of these objects. Everyone was in, so we did. There are 15 objects that the artists chose to spotlight. Our country, as we all know, is politically very divided right now; this book reminded me that, regardless of the political temperature in the country, when we focus on the elements of our collective memory, we are reminded that we are Americans and we have a rich, remembered history that holds us together. Each viewer has the opportunity to reminisce about what draws us together and the tender history that belongs to us all.
Q: What can people expect to see if they visit this display?
A: Anyone who sees the show will take a walk down memory lane. Each item — from Julia Child’s kitchen to Abraham Lincoln’s hat — is accompanied by a short story about why the object is an important one. For example, Abraham Lincoln was 6 feet, 4 inches tall, but given the responsibility of his job, he wore a stovepipe hat that made him look even taller. Inside the hat was a mourning band with his late son’s name on it; the hat was sitting beside him the night he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre. Today, the hat resides at the Smithsonian.
Q: What’s been challenging about your work?
A: Being a mentor for other artists is exciting, fulfilling and always challenging. All artists struggle. People who are on the outside looking in may think we are having fun; we are, but when an artist commits to growth, there will be growing pains. It is my job to support each artist as they navigate a path that is exciting for them while also difficult. Artists often say to me, “I’ve lost it, Kate. I don’t have anything left in me.” This is when the mentor in me steps in, smiles, and says, “Yes, that is a normal part of the journey. You will return stronger than ever. I grew up on a farm, and we had to let the land go fallow every seven years so it could regenerate. You are regenerating. I promise you, it will come back.” And, of course, it does.
Q: What’s been rewarding about this work?
A: One of my favorite moments as a mentor is when someone sells their first work of art. At that moment, they feel validated as an artist. They are no longer wanting to be an artist because they now feel they are an artist. It is a deeply rewarding experience to be the one who witnesses this signpost on their journey and to know I played a part.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: The best advice I have ever received was from the gallery owner who first represented my art. I was feeling a moment of no confidence and said I didn’t have the talent to be an artist. He said, “What does talent have to do with it? If you want to be an artist, you paint every day.” So, I took his advice and began to paint, from my first cup of coffee in the morning to the end of the day. He was right. The learning is in the doing. It’s not talent, it is heart and soul.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: When I was 7 years old, my mom told me that I would one day grow up and have children. I explained to her that that was not happening. I would grow up and teach all my life. I opened Art on 30th when I was 65 years old and I am still teaching. It is never too late to answer a call.
Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: My favorite thing to do Is paint. I enjoy San Diego and all that it has to offer, but really, I’d rather be looking at art or creating it.