Ashfield artist’s work is inspired by beauty

  • Freelance artist Gayle Kabaker works on a project in her studio in Ashfield. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Ashfield artist Gayle Kabaker poses for a portrait at her studio in front of two framed reprints of New Yorker covers she created. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Ashfield artist Gayle Kabaker poses for a portrait in her studio. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz



  • One of Kabaker’s paintings, depicting a woman dancing with an elephant. CONTRIBUTED



  • Kabaker’s drawing selected for the cover of Resist was inspired by the approaching women’s march on Washington — “imagining what women of all colors and ages might look like,” she said on her blog. Pictured are the stages of the drawing, from start (at left) to publication (at right). CONTRIBUTED BY GAYLE KABAKER

Recorder Staff
Published: 11/15/2017 3:18:18 PM

At the end of a dirt road in Ashfield, past woods and farms, Gayle Kabaker is at work on one of a pair of computer screens in her home studio.

Blinds are drawn to cut down glare, and Kabaker’s colorful paintings and prints stare down from three clip-strips along one wall, a framed pair of New Yorker covers she’s done on the opposite wall.

“The work I’m doing right now is kind of all over the place,” says Kabaker, not boastful, but simply her work on illustrations seem themselves almost in a lifelike perpetual motion.

The freelance illustrator and artist’s work seems so ubiquitous at times that you might think the two computer screens were a dozen.

It’s a lightness of spirit that Kabaker excels at, doing work she’s drawn to. Her paintings, in acrylic gouache, may be uplifting and joyful, yet their seeming simplicity is the product of hours of painstaking detail. She prefers small works, often manipulating details on the computer.

“I scan in the original art, then work with it in Photoshop,” she says. “My final doesn’t look much like the original I started from. It’s always nice when a painting comes out perfectly, but it’s not an essential part of my process. I’m not hard on myself that way.”

Kabaker landed her third New Yorker cover in September — her second of the year — and also illustrated a new CD cover for Ashfield cellist Rebecca Hartka, based on drawings of performances at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield as well as performances in Cuba — just one of the artist’s many working vacations.

She’s also just wrapping up work on an animation, and just finished drawing a Broadway musical’s final rehearsal before its opening.

“Sometimes, I’ll ask if I can come in and sketch or paint something because it interests me,” says Kabaker, who met the director of a Broadway revival of “Once on This Island.” Done in the style of a Caribbean folk tale set in the French Antilles, it explores class tensions.

“I love painting musical, theater, dance and performers ... I don’t get the opportunity to do it in rehearsal, hardly ever,” says Kabaker, who’s been a regular doing sketches at the Green River Festival, often turning them into paintings, mostly for herself.

“I try to follow what is inspiring for me,” she says.

Fashion illustration

Kabaker moved in 1987 to Ashfield with her husband, photographer Peter Kitchel, after studying fashion illustration at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, Calif.. After college, she went on to work as a textile designer, graphic designer and illustrator.

“I worked for many clothing designers, often bartering for clothes instead of money,” Kabaker was quoted as saying in a New Yorker description of the Sept. 27 cover. “I once pulled up to the toll booth on the Golden Gate Bridge in my little red Fiat sports car wearing $1,000 leather pants and not enough money for the toll.”

“I went to school for fashion illustration because I love beauty and beautiful clothing and all of that,” she said during a recent studio interview. “Every year, I submit ideas for New Yorker ‘Style’ covers. That’s why it’s particularly fun that this one came through.”

Growing up in Japan, Hong Kong and Maryland, Kabaker — whose father worked for the Voice of America — says she always loved drawing, especially “women and pretty clothes.”

“I knew it from when was really young that that’s what I wanted to do,” she says. When her babysitter went on to create artwork for The Washington Post’s Style section, she was inspired to become a fashion illustrator.

With that job right out of college, Kabaker says she branched out to do more general illustration after she moved here, doing commercial work for large advertising clients, watching the ebb and flow of calls from advertising agencies to work on logos and other commercial illustration. Much of it was food or travel related, including a few years illustrating a monthly column for Gourmet magazine.

With an illustrating style that shows a strong line against washes of painted color, Kabaker’s art appeared as a New Yorker’s cover first in June 2012, to mark the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in New York.

The first New Yorker cover, Kabaker’s digital manipulation of one of the women in the painting above her computer, was discovered through contest entries for a weekly submission contest on art editor Francoise Mouly’s “Blown Covers” blog.

“She said, ‘You might want to try painting it, because often, people will want to buy the original. If you try painting it, we can see which one we like better.’”

When she did, she found that she wasn’t able to recreate it “in old-fashioned paint.” And it didn’t matter, because someone wanted to buy the print anyway.

Kabaker’s “love who you want” spirit is also reflected in the ad she did on that theme for Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, and the same image of two kissing women appeared on a 2013 cover of the international monthly, Le Monde diplomatique.

While she says she loves the cover — which won 3x3 Magazine’s annual illustration award — Kabaker says she almost likes better the painting of two women summer gowns that hangs above her computer desk.


The second New Yorker cover, a close-up of a mother and child sledding downhill, which ran on Jan. 30, captures a liberating, joyous moment that Kabaker guesses fit perfectly between the weekly magazine’s covers marking the women’s march on Washington and a comic illustration of President Trump.

“But, who knows what they do?” says Kabaker, whose work has also appeared in the New York Times. “I’ve sent them stuff I thought was so good, and it gets nothing.”

Inspired by a protest song, “Funeral,” that her daughter, singer-songwriter Sonya Kitchell, wrote after last November’s election, Kabaker submitted another drawing envisioning the approaching women’s march on Washington — “imagining what women of all colors and ages might look like,” she described on her blog. “Determined. Angry, yet hopeful. Brave. Strong. United.”

Mouly instead chose the work for the cover of a new political publication, “Resist!” that was distributed at the January women’s march around the country.

Over the years, Kabaker has seen changes in how her art finds its way to market, from source books and awards collections that art directors used to find illustrators. The double-edged sword of the internet has allowed Kabaker and other artists to work anywhere, but also opened the floodgates of competition from everywhere.

“There used to be certain ways you got work,” she says. “Now it’s more of a free-for-all. I don’t really know what works anymore.”

Yet she does, happily.

Promoting her art through her agent, on her website — which she also sells her prints — and through a blog and social media — Kabaker has also traded her artwork to travel for stays in Puerto Rico, Grenada, Mexico, as well as Plum Island and elsewhere.

“When traveling,” she says, “I force myself to draw and paint in my sketchbook. I like it after I am warmed up and get going. I take a lot of photos and paint from these in my hotel room or when I get back to my studio.”

Finishing up work recently on a travel catalog for ACIS, Kabaker also got to work on a promotional animated version that makes use of her artwork, working with a consulting animator.

“That’s one of the favorite things I do,” she says, “where I get to be artist and creative director, and I can bring in music and animation, and I get to write the story. I love doing that.”

She said it’s especially fun doing collaborations with her daughter, Sonia, whose songs have inspired some of her work, and whose talents can adapt music like a traditional Danish song for an animation that Kabaker worked on.

“A lot of my favorite work is work I’ve painted for myself,” she says. “I’m in a space where I’m not aggressively going after anything. This is what I do; they can come to me ... I’m just seeing what comes in.”

To learn more about Kabaker, visit: See one of her animations at:

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