Newly Discovered Talent

Floyd Knobs’ Hillegas prefers
painting natural things

She quickly went from
art student to art teacher

(September 2013) – When Cathy Hillegas bought her mother a watercolor painting for Christmas 20 years ago, she never dreamed she would one day make a career for herself from painting. What began as an intense interest led her to discover a talent she didn’t know she had.

Cathy Hillegas

Photo by Don Ward

Floyds Knobs, Ind., resident
Cathy Hillegas was the Best
of Show winner at the 2012
Madison Chautauqua.

Cathy Hillegas
Floyd Knobs, Ind.
2012 Best of Show
Medium: Watercolor
Booth No. 325

Hillegas had purchased the painting some time before the Christmas holiday and kept looking at it before wrapping it up as a gift. She told herself, “I bet I could do that.” She tried her hand at watercolor painting by taking classes at the Preston Arts Center in New Albany, Ind., and found that she “fell in love with it.”
She took classes on and off for three years at the Preston Arts Center and read a lot of books. “I learned a lot by trial and error,” said Hillegas, 57.
She became so good that after seven years, “the Preston Arts Center asked me to teach their watercolor class.” Teaching “pushed me to the next level,” said the Floyds Knobs, Ind., resident. In addition to teaching and selling her artwork, Hillegas makes her own prints and prints for other artists.
Her talents last year earned her the “Best of Show” award at the Madison Chautauqua. She returns to Madison on Sept. 28-29 for her 14th year in the show and will set up in Booth No. 325 on Vine Street.
Hillegas is often inspired by nature, her favorite subject matter being flowers and leaves. “Most of my paintings are of natural objects,” she said. “It’s what speaks to me.”
As a young child, Hillegas spent a great deal of time outside, especially in the creek in her back yard. She would wade in the water for hours and take long walks in the woods with her family. Her father taught her the name of every tree and wildflower they encountered. For that reason, “I have both a personal and a spiritual connection to nature that is very evident in my artwork.”
The best quality about working with watercolors is, “the way the color runs together,” she said. “You’re never sure what it will do.”
She also favors the transparent quality of a watercolor. “You can always see the white paper through the colors.”
Since the Preston Arts Center closed three years ago, she has been teaching classes at the Arts Council in Southern Indiana, 820 E. Market St., New Albany. Occasionally, she gives private lessons to students in a studio at the Mary Anderson Center for the Arts, located on the grounds of Mt. St. Francis Friary in Floyds Knobs. This center has special studios, classes and programs for the arts.
Hillegas said she always enjoys doing the show in Madison. “I love the town of Madison and how beautiful it is,” she said. “The people are friendly and the show is well-run. There’s always a big crowd, no matter what the weather.”
She believes one reason she was chosen for the 2012 “Best of Show” award was because “my work has gotten really strong in the last few years.” She has had the chance to “win a lot of big awards in the last few years. I’ve kicked things up a bit,” in terms of her artwork’s end result.
“Madison is a hotbed of wonderful artists, and I feel in love with Cathy’s work,” said Ruth Nickels. Nickels lives in Hanover, Ind., and drives to New Albany to take classes with Hillegas. “I drive that far because I want to study with someone who is that good,” Nickels said.
Nickels had been taking oil painting classes from Hal Davis, but when he and his wife, Yvonne, moved to Paint Lick, Ky., Nickels found out about Hillegas and decided to see how she was as a teacher. Nickels thought she would switch to watercolor painting, even though she hadn’t had an art class in 43 years, since taking art in junior high school.
As an educator, Hillegas is “very patient and positive,” said Nickels. “She’s an amazing artist.”
Having traveled to Paris, France, Nickels said she has seen a lot of high quality artwork. Hillegas “captures light like very few people can. Her work is very realistic.”
Of her own work, Hillegas said, “I especially like things with dramatic light and dark value.” She prefers using bright colors in her artwork that often surprises people who may not think that her medium is watercolor for this reason.
“The detail is amazing in all of her artwork,” Nickels said. “Everything is true to what the picture actually is.”
One of Hillegas’ more recent accolades includes having her artwork chosen for the cover of “Splash 13: The Best of Watercolor, Alternative Approaches.” She also won the Purchase Award during the 88th annual Hoosier Salon Exhibit for her painting, titled “Entangled.’ This work was purchased by the Indiana State Museum for their permanent collection in 2012.
In addition to the Madison Chautauqua, Hillegas plans to participate in the St. James Court Art Show in Louisville on Oct. 4-6 and in the Harvest Homecoming in New Albany, Ind., on Oct. 10-13.


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