Catching up with writer and artist Kathleen Phalen-Tomaselli

Kathleen and I met while working together at a newspaper in upstate New York over a year ago. The minute I started talking to her, it felt like I had known her for a lifetime — as cheesy as that sounds. Kathleen is a wonderful human being: she’s kind to any animal she comes in contact with, she would do just about anything for just about anyone, and once she even gave me and Steve a huge box of food — including food for the dogs and cat — when we had fallen on hard times. I will never be able to thank her enough for being so generous.

In addition to being a journalist and author, she’s also an incredibly talented artist. She paints, she draws, she sculpts, she works with charcoal, she does it all. Her art is beautifully dramatic and her paintings have a classic, old-world feel to them. She graciously let me ask her some questions regarding her writing and art over the last week, and here are her responses.

EG: We used to work together at a newspaper and you were always so inspiring. You always said it was important to follow your passions. We ended up leaving the newspaper around the same time last year and we both decided to chase our dreams. What have you been doing since?

KPT: I was off for about six months and wrote, but mostly painted and tried to improve my art. I thought I had a dream of finishing a book. I’m still trying to finish it. I’ve been working on it for years and had the idea at least maybe 10 years ago. It’s taken me all this time to get the voice right. I could probably finish in about two months if I don’t procrastinate too much.

I used to freelance for national publications, but when I was off for six months, I just couldn’t seem to freelance. It was a really weird space for me, but my husband and I were running out of money. I was panicking because I couldn’t figure out my next steps. I have been a reporter for so long and I guess I wasn’t finished with that type of writing yet. So I returned to the paper, this time instead of a feature writer, I was hired as a daily news reporter. I like that much better.

And I still have dreams and hopes of finishing the book by the end of spring. And I’m painting and working on a second book I’m already researching. I’ve written several essays and now at the paper, I try to make my blogs first-person essays as a way to get better at writing them and because I really like writing them. The problem for me is, I like doing all kinds of things, gardening, cooking, sewing, reading, writing … sometimes it’s hard to choose and sometimes that’s a bit paralyzing.

EG: What kinds of writing and what types of genres do you see yourself gravitating towards most of the time?

KPT:  I love memoir and essay. I am trying fiction, but it is hard for me. I’m not sure if I can master it, but I am using real-life feelings, actions, characters and taking it a step beyond truth to write fiction. That seems to be working, I guess time will tell if it really speaks to an audience. I am working on a novel that creates a dystopian world and has a pagan element to it. It’s about rescuing the pure seeds from a seed company, Malavel Sark, who sells poisoned seeds to all farmers and the government has Red Zones in the inner cities where fresh foods and produce are banned.

EG: When did you start writing? 

KPT:  I always thought I would be a visual artist, so I didn’t think about writing as a profession. In fact, in one of my first college courses, an English comp instructor said to me, “I hope you never plan on being a writer.”

I dropped out of college that same semester and instead got married, moved to Hawaii, had two children and got divorced. I didn’t go back to university until my daughters were in grade school. I was in an advanced comp class and for the first assignment, the professor showed us several profound black and white photos. We had to pick one and write about it. I panicked, believing I couldn’t write. I went up to the professor, Mr. Patton, and said, “I have to drop this course.” He told me, “No.” He wouldn’t sign my drop/add form. “You’ll have to either take an ‘F’ or do the work,” he said. I couldn’t afford to fail. I stayed up all night crying about my inability to write. It was a big drama before I got down to just writing it. Come to think of it, it’s still that way, a big drama before I write.

Mr. Patton gave me an ‘A’ on that first essay. I’m not sure if it was to keep me inspired, or if it really was an OK paper. But I credit Mr. Patton with changing the course of my life. I took every course of his after that, I just loved everything about his dramatic, free style.

That’s when I started writing.

EG: You once let me read an essay you wrote based on spending time with your daughters on a wild trip to Mexico. It was so beautifully written. It felt like you were actually reading it to me because you pour so much of yourself into your writing. Do you feel more comfortable writing about your own experiences, or do you feel more comfortable writing a news article? I use the word “comfortable” because sometimes it can be a really vulnerable and, well, rather uncomfortable experience writing about yourself, at least in my experience. That being said, which would you prefer to write?

KPT:  I’ve been a news writer for so long that sometimes it is automatic and that makes it comfortable. But when I write about my own experiences, it’s easy and fun as long as I don’t get too personal. I hate revealing too much about myself, even though I think the best memoir writing is when you are willing to lay it all out bare, getting to the core of things. That’s hard for me to do. It takes some courage to do it and I don’t always have that much courage. But when I do, I’m happy with the result and it is often some of my better writing.

EG:  What’s a writing habit you rely on to get you through a first draft?

KPT:  First, I need a deadline, real or imagined. I am a huge procrastinator. I try to just write, freewriting of sorts.

EG: Other than writing, you also are an incredible artist. Can you tell me a little bit about the mediums you use most? How would you describe your art style?

KPT:  I love working in clay. I started out as a sculptor in seventh grade! I’ve won a couple of awards for my sculptures. But for me, life always gets in my way and I didn’t get back to it until we lived in Pittsburgh. Now I have a kiln too. Charcoal and pencil sketching is something I do every day. I am teaching myself oil painting and it is a big challenge. But I am determined to master it.

My husband and I used to work in wood, glass, and metal and we were in several galleries and went on the road with our dogs to sell our creations. I absolutely loved that time in our life.

EG: As for your paintings, is there a central thematic or conceptual aspect to your pieces, or do you think every painting is its own thing?

KPT:  I can’t set out to paint something because it always changes and what might have been a portrait to start becomes an abstract French village. I let the brush lead the way and I just follow.

EG: Who or what is your main inspiration for your work? Is there an artist who has driven you to explore visual art?

KPT:  My grandfather and street artists and the old Masters.

EG: Are you self-taught when it comes to visual art? Where did you learn or study your crafts?

KPT:  Somewhat. My grandfather and mother were both oil painters. I used to watch my grandfather paint for hours and he would explain things to me. When I was very young he bought me my first sketchbook and charcoal. As an undergrad at Millersville University, I was a fine arts and theater minor.

EG: How does your visual art inspire or reflect your written work (and/or vice versa)?

KPT:  It sets it free. It’s like my writing gets cumbersome and heavy and painting gives it wings.

EG: What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

KPT:  Write, write and keep writing. It doesn’t matter what you are writing, just write. Tell stories. Listen to stories. Observe stories. Read stories. Write stories. Paint stories. Break the rules, chop away the debris, and explore your own artist’s voice.

See? I told you she’s wonderful. You can keep up with Kathleen’s work on her website.

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