The moment her watercolor reigned supreme in a fifth-grade art contest, Cathleen Engelsen knew she wanted to be a fulltime artist. She’s been prolifically painting historic scenes around the Garden State ever since. A native of Surf City, on Long Beach Island, Engelsen lives and works in her childhood cottage, surrounded by indigenous trees and fragrant rosebushes. Below, she chats about her process, a new pandemic project, and her lifelong love of the Jersey coast.
How do you approach painting local landmarks that mean so much to people?
The artistic eye may see the scene in color, design, shadows—but I like to paint something that’s going to bring back memories for people. Sometimes I have to think about it for a long time—sometimes a year—before it suddenly clicks. When I painted Bageleddi’s, I had a little bit of a sunrise. When I did Skipper Dipper Ice Cream, it was dusk, with a lot of people sitting around at the tables, so I used a lot of colors that you see at sunset. It’s a very plain building, so I worked in some ice cream colors, too. It’s just got to be something that people can relate to. An old truck with a little rust spot at Pinky Shrimp’s—everyone can relate to that.
Many local art shows were canceled this year amid the pandemic. Did you start any new personal projects?
My property on 19th and Sunset Avenue has a line of cedar trees, and they’re all socially distanced, so I thought: Bingo! I should hang a piece of artwork on each one—a distanced art exhibit in the trees. So I’ve done that on nice weekends all summer. I hang different little pieces of artwork on them each week. People love to jog on Sunset Avenue, and they buy things. It’s great.
What’s your home studio like? Do you have any painting rituals?
I can paint watercolors outside, or wherever there’s really good light. Upstairs, I can look out at the treetops and see a little bit of the bay. If it’s nice out, I open the windows. I listen to the radio a lot. My favorite station, which I’ve listened to for years, is WOND [1400 AM]. I just listen to them chit-chat, and they tell you everything that’s new in South Jersey.
Have you ever overheard any reactions to your work while out and about?
I remember one lady looking at a little dune scene that I’d painted years ago, and she couldn’t stop laughing. She said, Those grasses are just so funny! It was adorable. People could take those kinds of reactions the wrong way, but I thought, Well, that’s positive enough. They say it’s good to laugh every day.
What was one of your most challenging commissions?
In the 1980s, I did 40 paintings of New Jersey for PSEG. I did some of old Trenton for their Trenton office, which are still hanging—and then Burlington, Perth Amboy and Newark. That was a thrill. But Newark’s Four Corners was the biggest challenge—all these huge buildings; so much going on in the streets; people and buses and cars. And it had to be accurate.
Which Shore spots do you frequent?
I love the Jersey Shore—the history of it; the rides going up and down the coast. I think I really enjoy those rides most, especially in the winter—driving up to the Twin Lights [in Highlands]; down along the Shore roads through theWildwoods; to Cape May. But I also just love Long Beach Island.