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The “About Katie” section of San Antonio artist Catherine Anne “Katie” Pell’s Facebook page reads “life is short.” The stark truth of her statement was realized early Saturday, when Pell died of complications from cancer at age 54.
In 2017, Pell lost husband Peter Zubiate, a beloved San Antonio artist and woodworker, to a degenerative disease. As of early December, Pell was in remission from her cancer, but suffered serious complications and entered hospice two weeks ago.
Pell was a prolific artist and longtime teacher in community arts programs and area universities, and most recently led the Teen Studio Intensive program at the Southwest School of Art. Pell was noted for her outsized personality, incisive humor, and frank nature, all qualities evident in her sculpture, portraiture, photographic work, and public art projects.
As an Artpace International Artist-In-Residence in 2006, Pell produced a suite of home appliance sculptures and accompanying photographs and comics collectively titled Bitchen. These works “depicted a parallel universe in which women use their disposable income to customize domestic appliances with the competitive zeal of their male counterparts: car fanatics,” according to the Artpace archive.
A colorful, parodic work from that exhibition, Bitchen Stove, was recently acquired by Ruby City for the Linda Pace Foundation’s permanent collection. “The addition of her artwork to the Linda Pace Foundation permanent collection deepens the collection’s feminist perspective, which was fostered by Pace in her lifetime,” read an email announcement from Ruby City about the acquisition.
As tributes poured in on social media platforms, respondents noted Pell’s memorable personality as “badass,” a “one-of-a-kind life force,” and as “truth embodied and hilarity incarnate.”
“She was the most magical person in the universe, that’s for sure,” said longtime friend Magaly Chocano, whose husband Tirso Sigg, an artist and close friend of Zubiate, introduced the two.
Chocano said Pell was a forceful personality that “made everyone feel special and unique and important.”
Recent San Antonio poet laureate Jenny Browne, also a longtime friend and fellow teacher, noted that a major part of Pell’s artistic practice was making portraits. Through portraiture, Browne said, Pell was “interrogating how we see and how we’re seen, how we put ourselves out there and how other people see us. … Katie was someone who could see people, and show them themselves. And often, in surprising and profound and sometimes uncomfortable ways. I think that was her work.”
Yet, “in this funny way, she made all of us feel cooler than we were, you know? But I don’t know if she ever saw the way so many people saw her, as this vivid irreverent penetrating presence.”
The loss of Pell “leaves a huge hole in our hearts,” Browne said.
In the emergency room after the reemergence of her cancer, Pell lamented that she might not be able to make more artwork. Artist and close friend Ethel Shipton suggested they focus on Pell’s existing work, and at the behest of Patricia Ruiz-Healy, director of Ruiz-Healy Art, arranged that a collection of yearbook portrait-themed work recently exhibited at the Columbia Museum of Art in Columbia, South Carolina, be put on display. The exhibition, The Big Art of Katie Pell, was her first solo museum exhibition.
The result of Shipton and Ruiz-Healy’s efforts, Katie Pell: Common Threads, opened in December and remains on view at Ruiz-Healy Art in San Antonio through Jan. 18.
“I think I will learn from Katie Pell every day of my life,” Shipton said, “because of the way she moved through it, there were no inhibitions. … She didn’t think twice about her decisions. Also, the way she beautifully went through her illness, she was unapologetic about where she was in her life and who she was in her life. And you saw that as she moved through her phases of cancer and battling, hanging onto her life.”
Chocano admired how constantly inspired Pell seemed to be. “All she said all the time was she had so much more in her; she didn’t want to die. She had so much more to give. She was so brilliant, she had a thousand ideas.”
Yet Shipton and Chocano said Pell felt she already had achieved her greatest accomplishment. “I think ultimately, the first and foremost thing for her was her daughter Bygoe, which was her ultimate masterpiece,” Chocano said.
Pell is survived by parents Anthony and Elizabeth, brother Charlie Pell, and daughter Bygoe Zubiate.
Rebecca L. Dietz, a lifelong friend of Pell, organized a GoFundMe campaign to benefit Pell during her cancer fight. Those funds now will benefit Bygoe.
A memorial party for Pell will be held at 4 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 26, at Ivy Hall. On the Facebook announcement, memorial co-hosts chef Tim McDiarmid, artist Ethel Shipton, and friend Rick Frederick note, “She wanted a big party, so come ready to enjoy life!”