Double Portraits: Kate Moldauer's Paintings of Lesbian Couples

Kate Moldauer portraits displayed at the Gay And Lesbian Alliance Center in San Luis Obispo. | Photo: Paula McCambridge.

One artist's quest to feature lesbian couples in her work may challenge stereotypes and construct enlightened beliefs about the lesbian household.

Painter Kate Moldauer, who has been in a relationship with her wife Jean DeCosta for the past 26 years, said she researched the art of double portraits and was surprised to find there were none depicting the relationships of lesbian couples.

"My thinking was just to put out as many portraits as I possibly could in whatever way the couples present themselves," Moldauer said. "My message is, 'We're okay just the way we are. We don't have to be gorgeous. We can have families. We can have dogs. We can be professionals and blue-collar workers, but more than anything, we just need to be seen.' Right now, we're not seen."

Detail of a Kate Moldauer portrait. | Photo: Paula McCambridge.
Detail of a Kate Moldauer portrait. | Photo: Paula McCambridge.

Moldauer said it is her intention to paint more than just the look of the women in her art, to paint the story of who they are as people and as partners. The portraits consist of two or more separate canvases, each one illustrating an individual in the family. The canvases are then tied together so that, like the families themselves, the art has individual pieces that come together into one unit.

"This gave me the opportunity to talk about the stability of lesbian families and that we are willing to do whatever is necessary to have stable families and to create environments for our children to be happy and healthy," she said.

Moldauer's process begins with spending several hours getting to know potential subjects personally. The women featured in her first portrait are Debra and Donna Mason of Morro Bay. When she met the friendly couple, she immediately began taking in the visual cues to their identities.

Detail of a Kate Moldauer portrait. | Photo: Paula McCambridge.
Detail of a Kate Moldauer portrait. | Photo: Paula McCambridge.   

"I listened to the words they used -- Donna mentioned 'I fell in love with Debra as a person,' and that's still an important piece of her story to relate to others," Moldauer said. "Then if you look at how Debra dresses as opposed to Donna, there's more information. Donna has her beautiful silver jewelry, and she has her full-length boots. Debra, on the other hand, is wearing Converse shoes and sitting in a Lazyboy with a handle on the side. Donna perches on the edge of the ottoman."

Those details are pieces of the unique story of Donna and Debra's lives. The couple has been together 21 years and married in 2008. When they met, Debra had just moved into the house next door, and Donna did not identify as a lesbian.

When Debra was moving into her home, she needed a hand in getting set up and went next door to ask for help. When Debra knocked, it was Donna who answered.
"I loved her from the minute I saw her on the other side of the door," Debra said. "She was this beautiful woman with beautiful green eyes -- those beautiful green eyes got me."

Kate Moldauer portraits. | Photo: Paula McCambridge.
Kate Moldauer portraits. | Photo: Paula McCambridge.

For Donna, there was some process involved. She identified as heterosexual at the time, but she couldn't help but fall in love with the person Debra is, she said.

"It's easy to love her," Donna said. "I was not gay when I met Debra. I just loved her as a person. And now we are almost always together. We became grandmas together and worked together at California State Parks at Hearst Castle, and we got married in that teeny tiny little window that you could in 2008. We're just regular old grandmas."

Donna paused as if looking at her partner with fresh eyes then added, "She has this beautiful silver-gray hair."

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Donna and Debra first heard about Moldauer's project through a mutual friend, Ethyl Tink Landers who is another California Central Coast painter and who attends the same church as Donna and Debra. Landers connected everyone, and it led to the first portrait of Moldauer's new series.

"She showed up with her iPad one Saturday morning," Debra said. "She took photographs, and we told the story of how we met. I've been a lesbian for a very long time -- I've gone through the process of having to hide my feelings and hide who I am, and now I'm married to the love of my life."

For their portrait, Moldauer placed a house in the background of each canvas to represent the houses they once lived in next door to each other.

Artist Kate Moldauer works on a painting. | Photo: Paula McCambridge.
Artist Kate Moldauer works on a painting. | Photo: Paula McCambridge.   

"There was no question that the houses had to be in there because they were the initial separation they had to overcome to be together," Moldauer said. "The third piece was that they are together 24/7 -- they work together, cook together, live together; they're separated only when one goes to the gym. It is a beautiful story, and I am trying to tell that story. As an artist, I'm condensing their lives down to this moment in time."

Moldauer has the second portrait of the series in the works. It involves a couple, Jo and Donna, as well as their three young children from Arroyo Grande.

Moldauer holds up an old black-and-white photo of her partner as a child standing on her mother's shoulders.

"I call them The Flying Wallendas, and I see this family as The Flying Wallendas," Moldauer said.

There will be a total of multiple canvases to depict each family member, and the canvases will be arranged, one above the other.

"The Poet" by Kate Moldauer.
"The Poet" by Kate Moldauer.

"I knew in this family that these children had cemented their relationship," Moldauer said. "Jo had her first child at 47 through artificial insemination, so the children are central to their story. I didn't care if it turned into four canvases; I wanted the whole story to be told."

Moldauer said she will paint her own family's portrait and it will become part of her series, but that this series is not about her life but about all lesbian couples.

"I have to stay grounded in this," she said. "This is not about me. I want to give myself lots of room to create the kind of art that... well... it just justifies part of these women's lives. This is who they are."

Moldauer has painted for decades after studying art and art history. She works exclusively in oils for the paint's technical qualities and also for their place in art history.

"I like the medium, and I think you get the most out of it," she said. "It takes a while to dry... you get luminosity that you wouldn't necessarily get from other paint. But I also like it's connection to the history of art."

"Anything Goes" by Kate Moldauer.
"Anything Goes" by Kate Moldauer.
"Everyday Princess" by Kate Moldauer.
"Everyday Princess" by Kate Moldauer.


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