It's hard to define Katie Runde as anything other than a Renaissance woman. The 34-year-old describes herself as a realist painter, saxophonist and spiritual thinker who sometimes preaches at her local church.
Around midafternoon on a mid-summer day, Runde stood on a two-lane bridge above the White River. She was there to have her portrait taken for this story, and she wore one of her latest creations at VPR's request.
A man drove by, nodded and said through his open window, "Nice wings."
He was responding to the human-sized feathered wings draped over Runde's shoulders. They were attached to a harness on her back, and the whole contraption – spanning 16 feet – weighed about 50 pounds. They were also attracting a lot of attention.
One man asked Runde if his daughter could take a photo with her and her wings. Another offered his drive-by opinion: "I don't think that's gonna fly!"
Even as the winged-artist-portrait held up traffic on the bridge, people didn't seem to mind. Mostly they smiled, and maybe wondered: what was the meaning of it all?
Inside her studio, Runde explained how the wings will be a "reference" for a painting she plans to do based on the story of Icarus and the idea of man ascending.
"Now, it didn't work out so well for Icarus – but that's part of the big picture," she said. "There's a picture of trying to rise and failing, you know kind of overdoing it, like hubris, like that kind of ascent."
When Runde talks about her life as an artist, she often prefaces it by saying "it's complicated."
But simply put, she really sees the different parts of herself – painter, musician and priest-in-training – as parts of an integrated whole.
"They all blend together though," Runde said. "There are all sorts of mixed metaphors, art and music and religion. They're all talking about the same things, like the deep parts of being human. You know science can tell us so much about the body and the brain, but not what it's like to be a person, and especially not a person going through stuff, you know, whether it's birth and death and all the big things."
This is not to say all of Runde's paintings involve big conceptual pieces like the Icarus project. That will be months in the making. In the meantime, she often takes on commissions: they help pay the bills, and Runde enjoys doing them.
"The one I finished yesterday is for my dear middle school friend's baby girl," she said as she held out a vibrant canvas. "She was born in the year of the phoenix, and so it's a Chinese style, sort of phoenix painting for a child, so the colors are really bright."
Typically, Runde can finish a painting in a matter of days or a few weeks. A still life that she had just started included a small statue of a Buddha and a tiny oyster shell that she said is a symbol for "pilgrimage" in the Christian tradition.
"Yeah, it's definitely coming from a theological place," Runde said. As for what the painting meant, she said she wasn't sure yet.
"Sometimes it takes until the end of a painting for me to really know what it's saying," she said.
In a way, Runde's whole artistic life has been an exploration. After growing up in Rochester, New York, she went to college in Ireland. Before that she studied music.
But Runde said she burned out on the classical training. These days, she plays saxophone with a band that does concerts at the town band shell in Bethel, her current hometown.
Music, painting, and spiritual thinking – all are ways Runde expresses her creative energy, and all against this small town backdrop. She moved to Vermont 10 years ago after spending a summer helping friends on a farm here.
Like so many artists, Runde hopes that someday, her paintings will be seen in places like New York.
"I would not want to move to New York and base myself there, even if I had the chance and the finances," Runde said. "You're just so weighed down and subject to the powers that be in the art world, and I don't want that."
Runde says Vermont grounds her, sometimes in seemingly little ways. Like knowing the guy at the hardware store who can help with construction of those wings for Icarus.
"Having a local hardware store just down the street, you know the owner, he's wonderful," she said. "Vermont is so good for nurturing, like, giving you the space to be who you really are."
For Katie Runde, Vermont is what allows her to be the artist – and the person – she wants to be.
"I think we live in a pretty spiritually repressed culture," she said. "I want my work to be out there, for that reason. Because I feel like they [the paintings] have something to say to the culture we live in now. That actually brings me back to what feeds me about Vermont: I find Vermont a wonderful place, a culture that supports integrity, above all else. And living here has given me the freedom to find where I do fit."
As Runde stands out on a bridge wearing the wings of Icarus in the midst of traffic, it's clear where she does fit. Here, Katie Runde and her art are free to take flight.
Every Monday this summer we'll hear from artists under 40 about what inspires their work and how they view the future for artists in the state. Support for Young At Art comes from Quantum Leap Capital.