Kate Hughes Rinzler, Artist

By Arthur Hughes

Kate Hughes Rinzler, an artist, dancer, and educator, died December 25, 2010, in Prescott, Arizona, at 73. The cause was a brain hemorrhage resulting from a fall at her Prescott home. She had suffered breast cancer for ten years.

Best known in her later years as an artist of batik painting, Kate began her career as a modern dancer in Los Angeles at twenty-one, in 1958. In the 1970s and ‘80s she was a curator for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which was co-founded and then directed by her husband Ralph Rinzler for 17 years beginning in 1967.

In Los Angeles she formed a two-person company with Fanchon Bennett (later Shur) in the early 1960s, and they performed several concerts of their work together in those years. One was “Buck Light and Tumbling Spring: A Contemporary Dance Concert in Four Art Forms” which included poetry, paintings by Gerd Koch, and music by Bonia Shur.  Works included High Spring (1961), and Gesture of Deer (1963), which were performed in concerts at Los Angeles State College and Sacred Heart College. Kate danced as the Girl with Long Hair in Fanchon’s Lullaby (1960, scenario and choreography by Fanchon Bennett, in a film presented at the Cannes film festival). Also in the early 1960s she joined Bella Lewitzky’s Dance Associates (which 1966 became the Lewitsky Dance Company) as both a dancer and choreographer in this Los Angeles–based modern dance troupe. In 1996, shortly before the company was disbanded after 30 years, Lewitsky was awarded the National Medal of Arts. At the Washington, D.C., ceremony she told Kate that of the dancer-choreographers in the company, Kate was the most profound and that if she had remained would have been an outstanding dancer.

In 1960 she co-founded, with Fanchon, the New Dance Theatre School, which took over the old Lester Horton dance studio and was also the first home for Bella Lewitsky’s company. The New Dance Theatre’s company, Directions in Dance, did several concerts in those years with choreography by Kate and Fanchon. Giving up professional dance in the mid-1960s, she financed and taught art at the experimental parent-run grade school Council Grove, in Pasadena. Its founder and director Lola Hansen was the person who influenced Kate to give up dancing in favor of supporting the school, which Kate’s daughter Marni attended.

In the Los Angeles years Kate was instrumental in founding the pioneering folk music cabaret The Ash Grove, established and directed by her first husband Edwin Pearl in 1958. This was the first venue for exhibiting her batik paintings. She had a cameo appearance as a prostitute in Joseph Strick’s film adaptation of Jean Genet’s The Balcony (1963).

Free Southern Theater was a touring company associated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and founded by John O’Neal and Gilbert Moses.  In the summer of 1965 Kate, nine-year-old Marni, and Ed Pearl went to New Orleans, where FST had recently moved to from Toogaloo University in Mississippi. Kate taught the troupe dance technique. The company performed before various New Orleans communities, including white communities, to inspire discussion about their differing experiences with racism. These were worked into a script and the resulting plays were performed before integrated New Orleans audiences, in a city that was entirely segregated at the time. A couple of white actors played parts in these plays. One of them was Kate, who went on tour with FST into Mississippi in the fall of 1965.

As a white actor in a largely Black company, it harkened back to when as a 12 year old she had performed in her aunt Dorothea Simmons’s play Wa Fe Do (“What to do,” in Jamaican creole), as a cruel planter’s wife. The play was about a rural black girl from Saint Ann Parish who goes to New York to train as a nurse, but returns to her roots because she misses her people and wants to serve them. Dorothea and husband Uncle David lived in Jamaica and Kate visited them there on three occasions, an extended stay in 1946 when she attended grade school, and for the summers of 1950 and 1952. Her childhood friend John Allgrove recounts how when Kate in 1946 visited her aunt in the Blue Mountains, where John lived and with his mother, she pleaded with Dorothea to pay to send John to school.

During the civil rights period Kate bought a home for Black activist and singer Fanny Lou Hamer. Later she did the same for the Georgia Sea Islands singer Bessie Jones.

Kate married Ed Pearl in 1963 and they moved into a large, rambling house at 6161 Temple Hill Drive in the Hollywood Hills. However, the marriage was not really a successful one and it ended in 1969, and in 1970 Kate began a relationship with Ralph Rinzler, whom she had met when he performed at the Ash Grove in 1961 as a member of the Greenbrier Boys.


She went on to teach art, dance, drama, video, and oral history in public and private schools after moving to Washington, D.C., in 1970, the year she married Ralph. She participated as a puppeteer and puppet maker in Peter Schumann’s Bread & Puppet Theater in Vermont and directed a Native American children’s puppet theater in Pembroke, North Carolina.

In Washington, Kate developed the children’s area of the Folklife Festival, held every year on the National Mall. Visit the Festival’s tribute to Kate HERE.  She earned a master’s degree in cultural anthropology, studying children’s play, particularly neighborhood football teams in Washington.

The Rinzlers’ town house on Capitol Hill was the gathering point for many influential cultural figures: Alan Lomax, Bess Hawes, the Seeger family, her friend Hazel Dickens, and the myriad of performers and artists participating in the Folklife Festival. Ralph Rinzler died at home at 59, on July 4, 1994, at a time when a festival happened to be in full swing.

During the teaching and Folklife Festival years Kate maintained her artistic output crocheting afghans, sewing quilts, and making batik paintings and wearable art. Since 1997 she has shown batik paintings and quilts in mother-and-daughter, two-person, and solo exhibitions at the Market 5 Gallery in Washington, D.C. (2003, also with her brother, artist Arthur Hughes), Studio Channel Islands Art Center in Camarillo, California, (2001, with Arthur), a solo retrospective on the occasion of her 70th birthday in Prescott (2007), and at a celebration of her life’s work at Prescott College (Sept. 29, 2010, “Lan Ting” celebration), and at Bread & Puppet Theater in Vermont. In 2010 she donated her batik paintings to Prescott College.

Kathryn E. Hughes was born March 17, 1937, in London, the daughter of Paula Mason Hughes, a botany teacher originally from Nottingham, and Walter Scott Hughes, a physicist originally from Milton, Massachusetts. Just before World War II broke out, the family, including her older sister Margaret (1932-79), moved to Berkeley, California. The family, which by then included a son Arthur, moved again, to Ojai, California, in 1947.

Before leaving Ojai, Kate Hughes was a student at the Happy Valley School where she studied drama with Ronald Bennett of the Chekov Players and folk dance with David Young before graduating in 1955. Bennett cast her in lead roles, such as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She was influenced by many Ojai artists, having been taught Jackson Pollock–like technique by the Abstract Expressionist Liam O’Gallagher at the young age of 12. Later she studied with Alice DeCreeft, an admired sculptor of horses and other animals. Time spent hiking in the mountains above Ojai Valley and in touring the Southwest made chaparral and desert landscapes a life-long visual reverie.

In 1956 her daughter Marni Hoyt, who survives her and lives in Washington, D.C., was born. The father was Keith Hoyt, who had attended Happy Valley School. He died piloting a light airplane in 1977.

Kate’s recent phase of batik painting commenced with a work inspired by 17th century Taoist painter K’un-ts’an whose paintings evoked memories of mountain hikes in Ojai. She subsequently produced a series of landscapes and animal paintings inspired by other Oriental artists, including the mythical folk leopard/tigers of Korea, called horangees. This work led to a desire to produce American landscapes, several of which were shown at the “Landscapes” exhibition at the Market 5 Gallery in 2003.

Batik painting, which she innovated, employs the application of hot wax and dyes to create works of art (wall hangings) that can be viewed both opaquely and translucently, giving the effect of stained glass. To increase the density of detail and layering, the hot wax and dyes are both applied from the back and front of the work. Wax is partially removed from the completed work, the remaining wax imparts glowing intensity to the color.

In addition to her daughter Marni, Kate Rinzler is survived by her brother Arthur Hughes of New York City, nieces Stasha Hughes of New York and Charmienne Pohlman of Westminster, Maryland, and nephews Colin Young of Davenport, California, and John F. Hughes of Barrington, Rhode Island. And five grandnieces and grandnephews.