The power of a brushstroke
Katro Storm’s inclusive passion for artBy Hank Hoffman
Katro Storm has drawn all his life. But two memories from his youth — one negative and one positive — propelled his desire to be an artist. When he was just starting school in New Haven, Storm, who is African American, was bused to Highland Elementary School in Cheshire as part of a desegregation program.
“I did a drawing on a piece of paper of a dragon — because my older brother used to draw — and entered it into a contest they were having,” Storm tells me in an interview.
Storm recalls being called into the principal’s office “like I was in trouble. They told me they didn’t believe I drew the picture. They gave me some crayons and put me on the spot and had me draw it again. When I was a little kid, that was a big deal — ‘You didn’t believe I drew it?’ Because I knew I drew it.”
But Storm also remembers getting encouragement. His father, who was a janitor at Yale University, would bring his son to work with him on snow days because the family didn’t have a sitter. Storm says his father praised his drawing skills to coworkers and some students.
“He would give me paper and sit me in front of the windows, partially so I wouldn’t bother him while he was working,” remembers Storm.
Students walking by would comment on his drawings and some would offer him money to try and draw the ornate windows.
“They would give me a dollar, which was a lot of money back then. It was a point in my life where I thought, wow, people were giving me money for my art,” Storm says.
Storm got accepted into the ACES Educational Center for the Arts visual-arts program in high school, spurred on by artist Anna Bresnick, who, according to Storm, “made me fill out the application form and made me go to portfolio day. She convinced me that was what I needed to do for myself.”
The support he got at ECA, along with receiving a scholarship to study art in college in Massachusetts, bolstered his confidence in making art a career.
Artist Paul Goodnight invited Storm to show work in a Howard University art event after seeing seven large paintings by Storm exhibited in a student show at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Where Storm had been selling paintings for $100 before that, afterward a Boston-area collector offered him a $1,500 commission to paint a portrait of reggae star Bob Marley. Rather than continue to struggle to pay tuition, Storm left college and moved to New York City to make a living as an artist.
Storm’s paintings are notable for the way they meld figurative representational imagery with the abstract use of color and spattered paint. He is influenced by the wealth of art he sees and incorporates techniques he enjoys in other artists’ works into his own. Among the artists he cites as inspirations are LeRoy Neiman, Robert Rauschenberg, Alberto Giacometti, and Jackson Pollock.
“I don’t have a good grip on doing abstract art, but I’m fascinated by it, so I try and do something I can recognize but in an abstract way,” explains Storm. “I take things I don’t understand” — offering as examples the characteristic elements of paintings by Rauschenberg or Pollock — “and try and educate myself by weaving that into whatever I’m doing. I like to have little kids recognize it and someone with a more mature understanding of art also appreciate it.”
His process plays on the tension between loose and tight approaches to realizing imagery. He starts with a canvas on the floor, dripping and splashing paint on it to rough out the shape or features of the person he is painting “because you put this energy into the painting when it’s on the floor.” Once he is satisfied with the basic shapes, he fine tunes the features with his paintbrush.
“When it starts getting too tight,” Storm says, “I put it back on the floor and start dripping and splashing paint until I get that feeling I’m looking for.
“I like you to understand that I’m doing something abstract, but I like you to understand that I can draw as well. I look at a lot of art, so I like to create the kind of art I like to look at,” says Storm.
Storm lived in New York City for 10 years, selling paintings and designing album covers. He says his time in the city “opened me up to a whole other culture because there were so many people pursuing their dreams in New York.” He moved back to New Haven in 2000 to help his family when his father, who has since passed away, became sick.
His environment determines the paints he uses, Storm says. If he has a large open space, he prefers to paint with oils. But currently, he has a small space with limited ventilation and paints with acrylics because they dry quickly and are non-toxic. Environment influences his works in other ways, as well.
“If I have certain colors around me, I notice my paintings reflect that,” he says.
If he’s painting in an industrial space, he says, “My work takes on the characteristics of that industrial space.”
The subject matter of his work is also subject to change.
“There was a period where I felt like when I went into museums I didn’t see enough faces that looked like me, so I painted a lot of things I wanted to see. I wanted to see Frederick Douglass or Malcolm X,” says Storm.
But Storm is not one to be constrained by stereotypes or others’ expectations. At one point, partly in tongue-in-cheek response to some who complained that he “didn’t paint white people” and partly because of his own fascination, Storm produced portraits of serial killers — white folks, all. Invited to be part of a show — on the expectation, Storm believes, that he would produce “ethnic” work — he instead painted portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Charles Manson, and Marilyn Manson and called the series, which was influenced by the “six degrees of separation” concept, Connect the Dots. He tells me that he has also painted portraits of white musicians he admires like John Lennon and Kurt Cobain, as well as family portraits regardless of nationality.
“I’m a Black artist and I’m proud of it. But at the same time, if I was a chef, I don’t want to only cook fried chicken. I want to be able to cook fried chicken because I like fried chicken, but I also wouldn’t mind knowing how to make sushi. I’m interested in a lot of things,” Storm says.
Art is his full-time passion. He channels that passion not only into creating his own work but also into mentoring young artists, particularly in New Haven’s low-income neighborhoods, and curating group shows.
“I was always trying to find a curator that would take my work and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to put your work in an exhibit,’” Storm says. “Instead of just trying to put myself out there, the Arts Council (of Greater New Haven) gave me the opportunity to curate and I loved it.”
Storm recently curated back-to-back Sound Influence shows — which explored the impact of sound or music on artists’ work — at the Arts Council’s Sumner McKnight Crosby Jr. Gallery.
“I didn’t want to give strict guidelines,” Storm says. “I wanted to leave it up to the artist to interpret sound in his or her way.
“I’m making studio visits just by the nature of being an artist. It gives me the opportunity to say I can pull these artists together and have a great show with interesting people,” he says.
His inclusive sensibility extends to the community and informs his work with young people. Storm offers the positivity of art as an alternative to the negativity of the violence that plagues New Haven.
“I was riding the bus and I overheard some high school kids. I was listening to the things they were idolizing and one of those things was a kid who made the newspaper for a crime. A light went off. I understand — they want to be recognized. If they can make the newspaper, they’re somebody,” Storm says. “If I can inspire kids to make the newspaper doing art,maybe they can be equally inspired doing something constructive.
“I think they’re all looking for identity and approval and want to be someone. The role models they have are so slim in those low-income neighborhoods. I try to make my presence known and give them the opportunity to help out on projects,” explains Storm.
“When I was a child, I always wanted to meet a strong, diverse Black artist. I didn’t know anyone like that at the time and didn’t know where to find any. Unless it was Black History Month, you didn’t get to see Black art,” declares Storm. “I want people to know that talent doesn’t come to just European artists. I don’t think talent passes judgment. It comes if you’re wealthy or poor, whatever your nationality is, whether you’re short, tall, or fat. Talent is the one thing that doesn’t discriminate.”
Storm has directed several mural projects, involving young people in the creation of public art with positive messages. In 2009, Storm was the lead muralist for the “READ” mural painted on the outside of the New Haven Free Public Library Willis K. Stetson Branch in the Dixwell community. Storm put some 500 hours into the project, assisted by students from Hillhouse High School. Within the four letters that spell “read” are painted portraits of successful people from the Dixwell community, along with some national figures.
“Once you start learning that your community has a rich history, it plants a more positive seed. A lot of people think you can only make the newspaper when doing crime. If you can make the newspaper telling a story about the beautiful history of your community, I thought that was a win-win situation,” says Storm. “I don’t own a newspaper but I do own paintbrushes and some canvases. I can paint images that hopefully can inspire someone to pick up a paintbrush instead of a weapon. Maybe the weapon can be a paintbrush, like the old saying, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’”
Storm can point to one specific positive outcome of the “READ” mural project. According to Storm, one of his student assistants, Marquis, was about to graduate from Hillhouse but didn’t know what he was going to do with his life. After the school year ended, Marquis and his sister continued to help Storm with the mural. The Stetson Branch librarians took notice. They helped Marquis get into Gateway Community College and gave him a job at the library.
“The idea that this kid is able to get into a college and now has employment at the library — surrounded by books and people who have high expectations for him — is incredible,” Storm says. “And it all came from a brushstroke.”