Artist shares personal sketching journals through publication
by Joseph Weagley
photos by Monika Wertman
Kathleen A. Backus Renninger is an artist, author and graphic designer. She has been painting, writing and illustrating from her home in Blue Ridge Summit, Pa., since she and her husband, Don Renninger, settled in the mountaintop community more than 35 years ago. Their home includes a studio where Kathleen explores and expresses the creativity that has always been a part of her life.
“From the time I could hold a crayon, I was always drawing,” Renninger says, recalling that she used a red crayon to draw her first mural on the living room wall just above the baseboard when she was a little girl.
Although Kathleen’s mother taught her that it was inappropriate to draw stick figures on the wall, she did encouraged Kathleen to express her creativity. An aunt and neighbor, Nell Metzgar, provided support and encouragement with gifts of art supplies and creative kits. As Kathleen grew up, she continued her journey to self-taught artist. “I don’t have any formal training in art and I’ve never taken a class,” she says, explaining that during her teenage years she enjoyed drawing and painting. She also began writing poetry.
After high school, she attended Williamsport Area Community College in Williamsport, Pa., and took a two years course in sign painting. The course taught Kathleen the basics of graphic design, including layout and lettering. Kathleen’s sign painting teacher was also an artistic influence.
“He was an artist and he got me interested in old structures and doing pen and ink,” she says. “He didn’t give me any instruction, but sparked my interest.”
While in college, Kathleen began to draw portraits. As her confidence grew, she taught herself calligraphy. After getting married and moving to Blue Ridge Summit, Kathleen accepting commissions to do paintings of houses and pets. She also worked as a freelance illustrator of greeting cards for almost five years.
The next stage of her creative journey was inspired by several friends and their hobby of model railroading. Kathleen saw their model train layouts that included tracks, model buildings and artificial landscapes. She also noticed the details that make the train layouts look realistic.
“It was like a miniature world,” Renninger says. “That got me interested.”
To learn more, Kathleen began visiting the showroom of Mainline Hobby Supply, a business in Blue Ridge Summit that specializes exclusively in model railroading supplies. Kathleen became acquainted with the customers and learned more about train layouts.
Kathleen began custom painting model trains with an airbrush. She experimented with model buildings to make them appear more realistic. Some of the model structures were pre-made of cast plaster and Kathleen built others from scratch.
Eventually, she successfully replicated the look of stucco on her model buildings. In 2001, she wrote an article about her process. The article included Kathleen’s photos and was accepted for publication in “Model Railroader,” a popular and widely-read model railroading magazine. Kathleen contributed to “Model Railroader” through 2007.
Throughout these productive years, beginning in the mid-1980s, Kathleen kept a nature journal. Her interest in nature was influence by her mother, her Aunt Nell and especially her husband. Kathleen’s first journal was a hardbound sketchbook that she originally used for a variety of entries.
“Then I decided to dedicate the sketchbook to recording the things I saw in nature,” she says, pointing out that her first entry was inspired by a full moon in the evening sky that she saw while taking a walk. “A plane was flying across the moon and creating a silvery trail,” Renninger remembers. “It was a combination of natural and man made beauty.”
Her periodic entries are in the form of sketches and notes that document her observations of animals, insects and plants. The sketches are done in marker, pastel, pencil and watercolor. Once her sketchbook was filled with entries, Kathleen started filling another sketchbook. Her collection currently includes five completed journals. A sixth journal is currently in progress.
In 2012, Kathleen took several of her nature journals along to a meeting of the Monday Painters, a group of artists that meets every Monday to paint and participate in workshops at the Mont Alto, Pa., home of artist and author Becky Dietrich. Kathleen’s original intent was to share her journal entries with the other artists. The group members loved the spontaneity of the work, an opinion shared by Becky Dietrich.
“Everybody in the group agreed that it was top notch work and should be shared,” Becky says. Kathleen instantly knew that this could be the book she always wanted to create.
“I always felt that my art was meant for reproduction rather than hanging in a gallery,” she says.
Her book, “Pages from a Nature- Lover’s Diary: Excerpts from the nature sketch journals of Kathleen A. Renninger,” was self-published in 2013. The book is a compilation of her journal entries in twelve chapters, beginning with the month of June and ending with May. Each chapter has a selection of diary entries from that month over several different years. Each chapter ends with an original poem.
“I had written a number of poems that related to nature,” Renninger says, “so it was natural to include them.”
The book was well received. Readers and art lovers expressed their opinions in positive comments and emails. Some people told Kathleen that they gave the book to nursing home residents or to friends recovering from surgery. For these readers, the book had a restorative effect. For Kathleen, the fact that her book provided comfort to her readers is especially gratifying.
“I wanted to put something out there that adds to the good in the world and helps to balance out the negativity, stress and turmoil that we all go through,” she says.
Since the publication of her book, Kathleen has continued to keep busy. One of her current projects is a gardening journal that she began a year ago. It combines notes, photos and sketches of her experiences with container gardening and square foot gardening.
“I combine my perceptions of the plants in the garden with what was happening on a particular day,” Renninger says.
This year Kathleen gave a presentation entitled “Keeping a Garden Journal” at a luncheon meeting of the Blue Ridge Garden Club at Nick’s Airport Inn near Hagerstown, Md. The positive reaction of the club’s members has Kathleen thinking of another book. For Kathleen, her creativity is an all day adventure.
“I get a lot of my creative inspiration when I first wake up in the morning,” she says.
Afternoons and evenings are spent working in her studio. As she works, she is surrounded by shelves and vintage cupboards filled with books and art supplies. Framed original art, by her friends, is displayed on the walls. She almost never works without listening to music. Her eclectic taste includes light classical, new age and 1970s classic rock.
Kathleen continues to accept commissions. Her future plans include publishing a book of original poetry with her own illustrations. She is also working on a coloring book about Happel’s Meadow Wetlands. The wetlands are a short distance from her home, providing the creative jolt that will make this project a success. “Most of the time I just have a flash of inspiration.” Renninger says, “especially when I see something that I would like to reproduce in a viewable form.”
To learn more, visit www.pictures2paintings.webs.com. “Pages from a Nature-Lover’s Diary: Excerpts from the nature sketch journals of Kathleen A. Renninger” can be purchased at the Renfrew Museum & Park Gift Shop, 1010 East Main Street in Waynesboro, Pa., and at the Washington County Arts Council Gallery, 34 South Potomac Street in Hagerstown, Md., or through Amazon.com.