Catherine Rose McGuigan: A Renaissance Woman

PHOTO Rebecca D’Angelo                             DESIGN Doug Dobey

by Charles McGuigan

We arrive at ultimate truths through the arts and the sciences. Facts of one sort or other lead us to these truths, and there is no such thing as an “alternative fact”, which is really just another term for a lie. Catherine doesn’t peddle these lies; she trades in the truth, as all good scientists and artists must.  For instance, there is no denying that human activity is causing global climate change. By using fossil fuels and clear-cutting forests, human beings, for more than one hundred years now, have exponentially increased the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide, upsetting the delicate balance of the greenhouse effect that warms our planet. It is equally true that micro-plastics are found in the fish we eat and the very air we breathe. Something has to change and change quickly. Catherine is passionate about this, a passion informed and ignited by knowledge, talent and critical thinking.

From the time Catherine Rose McGuigan was old enough to hold a crayon in her hand, she had a compulsion to visually express herself, and from the moment she could walk, she was exploring the world around her, whether it was plucking leaves from trees, or picking up a single ant with tiny fingers, delicate as a Swiss watch movement.  As she grew older, Catherine experimented with many different mediums, from modelling clay to watercolors, from blow pens to colored pencils. And she became increasingly fascinated by nature. Many is the time I would find her in the forked bole of the saucer magnolia tree in the front yard, either writing in a journal, reading a book, sketching in a notebook, or stroking the black fur of Sophie, her beloved cat, who would join her in her leafy tower. As time went on, the arts and sciences merged in her creative brain, and a Renaissance Woman was born.

When she was just five years old during her Moving On Ceremony at Westminster Canterbury Child Development Center, she was presented with a bracelet that bore a single charm describing an artist’s palette. It meant a lot to Catherine to be recognized for her art, even then.  During the summers, her mother, Joany, and I frequently enrolled Catherine in art classes at the VMFA, Pine Camp, or the Visual Arts Center.

And regardless what form she worked in, Catherine always excelled. Over the years she would win one award after another, recognizing her talent.

Undoubtedly, some of her talent must be genetically encoded. Catherine’s mom is an extremely talented artist, my grandfather painted in oils, my brother Chris is a sculptor, my brother Bruce a painter, my sister Fran an interior designer, and my Aunt Kosh has worked all her life in assorted media.

Catherine sits at the far end of the table in our dining room. The walls throughout our house are covered in artwork, many pieces created by my daughter. Catherine is thinking back to her middle school days when she decided to become an artist. “I remember finding this one artist, Brigid Vaughan, on a website, and I really liked the stuff she made,” Catherine says. “They were drawings of characters in books that I loved reading at the time. Characters from Harry Potter and The Hunger Games.”

It wasn’t until she started in the humanities program at Monacan High School that she became fully immersed in art studio classes. “The program focused on art history, connecting it with English and world history,” she says. “I had to go through a bunch of different loopholes to try to get in to the photography class, but I eventually got in. And I think I was just kind of inherently good at it.”

The following year, she was able to skip Art 1 altogether and went directly into Art 2.  “And then I took independent study,” she says.  “We were learning techniques in different mediums.”

She gestures toward a colored-pencil drawing she made during that period that hangs on the gallery wall above the church pew in our dining room. It features a partial profile of a man who is either nervous or scared, or both. “I really liked using Prisma colored pencils,” Catherine says. “They have a high wax content, so you can mix them and make them look cool.”

During that time she explored other mediums as well. “I also liked playing with watercolors,” she says. “And then my art teacher gave me these oil paint sticks. I just got to use my fingers. I like using things that are really tactile, and I like getting messy.”

Catherine rolls her right hand over, revealing the heel of her palm that is splotched with a broad swath of color.  “It’s spray paint from a project we were working on yesterday,” she says. “All my clothes have paint on them.”

The academic rigors in the humanities department at Monacan were on par with those of a college, and Catherine excelled in all her courses of study.  She read widely in literature and history, was inducted into the National Honor Society, the Beta Club and the National Latin Society, and appeared on The Battle of the Brains. She also ran cross-country and played lacrosse. She tested out of her AP classes, and was awarded 20 college credit hours.


While still in high school, a few of Catherine’s pieces hung in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. She received a silver key award from the National Scholastic Art and Writing Program (this same foundation has presented laurels to luminaries from Andy Warhol to Truman Capote) for a self-portrait she had drawn. The following year she would receive two gold key awards from the Scholastic Arts Program. One piece was of a former professor of mine who would also teach Catherine at VCU—Dr. Nick Sharp. The other piece that won a gold key was a pen-and-ink drawing that stuns the viewer and demands closer inspection. There are about fifty people—women, men and children—plodding slowly to some vanishing point, and you can sense there are thousands of others in front of them and thousands more behind them. They are all naked with their backs to us. They are being herded, many of them slumped forward. When you look closely, you see a child, without the benefit of a parent’s hand, holding a stuffed animal, which is the only element of the drawing done in solid black. The piece is called The Dispossessed and it does what art is supposed to do; it moves you outside yourself and into another’s experience, and it forces you to consider your own humanity.


“We were studying the Trail of Tears in AP US history,” says Catherine. “I got the name from that audio piece you did called The Dispossessed.  I liked how encompassing it was. It’s not just applicable to the Native Americans who were displaced, but it’s also applicable to the people in the Shenandoah region and literally anywhere else, any group of people that have been displaced from their land forcefully.”

Catherine’s first university of choice after high school was the best public art school in the country, and one of the best in the world—VCUarts. She worked tirelessly in the AFO (arts foundation) program that first year, frequently staying through the night in her studio just south of Broad Street.

“It should also be noted that I’ve always struggled with art,” Catherine says. “Always trying to be better, and always doubting myself. To this day, I always doubt myself.

“But that’s a good thing,” I say.

“Yeah, it is a good thing,” she says.

When she first started classes at VCU, Catherine decided to declare environmental studies as a minor alongside her major in communication arts.

“I have always loved the outdoors,” Catherine says. “I always liked that primal feeling of being outside, kind of how I like getting my hands dirty with art. There’s something nice about tangible things.”

And Joany and I often took Catherine on vacations and outings to our many state and national parks, and we hiked and biked and camped and canoed and reveled in the natural and sublime beauty of our public lands.

Catherine’s book cover design for “Crime and Punishment”.

“I went into illustration in communication arts because I thought it would be cool to have more classes that got the creative juices flowing,” says Catherine. “And that was the time I decided I was going to do an environmental studies major also. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll have all the knowledge to back it up and I’ll have the art skills to do whatever I want.’”


From her earliest years, Catherine has been a hard worker. She and her lifelong friend, Selena, delivered the Bellevue route for North of the James magazine. Catherine also did a lot of babysitting at her mother’s house. She worked the summer of her senior year in high school as a maintenance ranger at Pocahontas State Park. After that she took a job with Paralyzed Veterans of America, where she worked full-time in the summers, and part-time throughout the year. Although she took a full course load at VCU, she also managed to work thirty hours a week, and during the summer she worked full-time to bank more money. Catherine has lived independently since she first went off to college.

For a couple years now she has been part of the Stir Crazy Café family.  And I want to say something here: the group of young people who work at Stir Crazy, most of them being millennials, are the hardest working group of people I’ve ever met. What’s more, they not only hold down their jobs as baristas or kitchen workers, they also have other interests and pursuits. These people hustle. The negative nonsense about millennials I’ve heard espoused by some is not true of the millennials I know. They are the most politically engaged and best-informed generation I have ever encountered. Plus: they’re very quick studies.


As Catherine was juggling work and school, she applied for a grant, which she was subsequently awarded. “In January of 2018 I received a grant to make promotional posters of the Virginia State Parks similar to the ones they made in the thirties with the Works Project Administration for the National Parks, but these were going to be different,” she says. “We were going to do them in our own style. So we got money to screen-print a bunch.” Catherine’s friend and fellow comm art graduate, Madi Hall, is helping with the project.

“So far I’ve done five; Westmoreland, Grayson Highlands, Natural Bridge, Douthat and Shot Tower,” says Catherine. “Madi has done High Bridge Trail, First Landing and Kiptopeke.” Eventually, the pair will produce one poster for each of the 38 holdings in the Virginia State Park system. “In each poster we include different facts about the park, and show off what is unique about each one because they all have something totally different to offer. This is a way to really to draw more attention to our state parks.”

Last summer, Catherine spent a couple months as an intern doing field work in northern Michigan at the University of Michigan’s Biological Station in Pellston, about thirty miles south of Mackinaw Bridge. “I worked under Dr. Chris Gough from VCU and he has a lab that does forest ecology,” Catherine explains. “They had a long- term study going on up there looking at relations between levels of disturbance in a forested ecosystem and how well the forest rebounds and how much carbon is able to be sequestered. I learned volumes there.”

Catherine is currently working on a number of art projects, and along with her work at Stir Crazy, has a job with VCU’s office of sustainability. “VCU started this project called the Urban Forestry Collaborative,” she says. “VCU and a number of organizations around Richmond are all working to benefit the city as far as urban canopy and forestry growth is concerned.”

For a few minutes, she’s silent, her eyes transfixed on the tattoo that adorns the underside of her left forearm. It was inked by the people at Lucky 13 on Broad Street, but Catherine drew it. It is Belle Isle, one of our favorite haunts on the James River, and clearly shows the rock pool and the water-filled quarry.

“It’s horrible,” says Catherine, reflecting on the state of our planet. “It’s really depressing when you hear the facts about it. And our county, of all the countries in the world, should be leading the way, and we’re doing the complete opposite.” She mentions how the current administration withdrew the United States from the Paris (Climate) Agreement. “We are one of two countries that are not in the Paris Climate Accords,” she says.

Catherine recently returned from a trip to China, where she visited her boyfriend, Tyler, who is studying at Jiangxi University of Finance and Economics in Nanchang.  “Even in China, they’re cutting out so many different things,” she says. “They’re part of the Climate Agreement and they have a tax on plastic bags in their grocery stores. And when I was flying out of Shanghai, I could see hundreds of wind turbines in the water, and offshore, and also on the land.”

It’s well past time to take action. “You have reports coming out annually from scientists that show the basic carbon emissions are so much steeper than we previously thought,” Catherine tells me. “It’s not a question of fifty or hundred years from now, it’s a question of fifteen to twenty years from now when temperatures are going to rise significantly.”

“Everything’s a lot worse than they thought it was going to be, and the people in control aren’t acting on it, and that’s what’s so dangerous,” says Catherine. “They don’t care about the future, or taking precautionary measures.”

Even from an economic standpoint, tackling these problems makes sense. “It’s more cost effective to be a sustainable business because you’re saving on energy costs,” Catherine says. “It takes a little more effort in the beginning stages, but in the long run it saves you money and it’s beneficial for the planet. And they won’t do it. They still just won’t do it. They’re just greedy sons of bitches. I’m really mad about it.”

As she should be, as every member of the human race should be. Catherine then mentions a report by the World Bank. “They looked at how many more jobs solar energy creates as opposed to coal, and coal is a dying industry because it’s a non-renewable resource,” she says. “And we’re literally blowing up mountains right now trying to get the last bits of coal that other countries won’t even buy from us anymore. And instead we could be investing in solar power and wind power and educating people on how to become solar engineers and how to manufacture these products. There’s so much that can be done.”

There’s a deep sadness in her voice, but it is tempered with resolve and challenge. “We shouldn’t be having this conversation because the planet is more important than your goddamned end-of-year profits,” Catherine says. “Who cares about profits, if you don’t have a planet left? How is that even a discussion? That shouldn’t be a discussion. It should be common sense.”

Then she mentions how Maine has outlawed Styrofoam, how California eliminated single-use plastic bags. “We’re getting there, but there are so many backward-thinking people,” she says.

Catherine returns to her own art and science. “Scientific information tends to be hard to understand and that’s always been an issue,” she says. “I would ideally like to take that information, interpret it and visually be able to break it down for people, to be able to graphically represent the information and have it available for people.”

“If you don’t have facts, what do you have?” Catherine Rose McGuigan asks. “That’s what we rely on. Facts.”

I look down the length of the table into the green of her eyes that are not tearing up.

“If I don’t keep my values, what do I have?” she asks.


“Absolutely nothing,” she says.


About CharlesM 290 Articles
North of the James, is an award-winning general interest publication with a regional focus that has been serving the region for over 20 years. North of the James presents business profiles, book and restaurant reviews, a calendar of events, and much more

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply