Kata Billups said she knew around fifth grade that she wanted to be an artist, and her parents encouraged their children to be creative. They allowed Billups to drag anything from the barn to decorate her bedroom, which she could paint in any color.
Born in Charleston, W. Va., Billups spent most of her childhood in Ohio because her father was the assistant dean of social work at Ohio State University. “I used to yawn when I would say ‘Oohhiioo,’” she said. “It was so boring. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.”
Billups left after graduating from high school. “My dad would send me to any art school that took me,” she said. “Money wasn’t an object.” She chose the Kansas City Art Institute.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in painting and drawing in 1979, Billups went to Charleston, N.C. “I started drumming up ideas of where we (she and her boyfriend) can do our art and make money,” she said. “So we go out to Saudi-owned Kiawah, which was a big resort being built at Charleston at the time.” Billups and her boyfriend sketched resort visitors. One day, a Saudi prince asked her to paint his princess; both were guests of the resort. He gave Billups $100 – which was a lot of money to her at the time. The prince and princess were so pleased with the sketch that the prince told her for the next 20 minutes she could purchase anything she wanted. Billups said it was tempting but she declined.
In 1983, Billups left Charleston and headed to Long Island, N.Y. “I wanted to go to the major places,” she said. “I decided to be a New York artist. I wanted to really be famous.” She worked in various venues – an advertising firm, a sign company; as well as doing personal portraits. “If you want to be a freelance artist you need to have about 20 things you are juggling at the same time,” Billups said.
After a year, she decided she didn’t like living in New York, so she went back home to Ohio before eventually going back to Charleston.
In 1986, Billups was commissioned to create a mural in Memphis, Tenn. On her way there, she stopped in Nashville, Tenn. She went to a local nightclub and met a singer/songwriter, Fred Koller, who would eventually become her husband. After a two-year long-distance relationship, they married in 1988; and Billups moved to Nashville.
Shortly after she moved, Billups experienced a life-changing event. “I had a complete physical, mental and emotional breakdown,” she said. She had been diagnosed with anorexia in high school, and the disease contributed to her breakdown, she said. “I was bedridden and slept for 22 hours a day. I almost died.”
As she gained back her strength, Billups began painting pictures on quilts. The Tennessee State Museum eventually purchased one of her hand-painted quilts, which featured a country music theme. Those quilts inspired what she refers to as her “rock-n-roll” art.
In 1990, Billups sold some of her work to Opryland and also won the Platinum Athena Award for one of her portraits – the award honors women’s achievements in Nashville. Over the next four years, Billups built a portfolio of her work. During this time, she realized her marriage wasn’t working, and she realized a need to be self-sufficient.
“I was going to need to be self-employed, so I started to try and figure out what kind of work I was really, truly driven to,” she said
After seeing another artist’s paintings of Elvis Presley at an art show in Nashville, she found her niche. “It resonated with me,” Billups said. “It was funky … cool … fresh.” She started painting her own renditions of Elvis, but soon found out that Elvis Enterprises heavily guarded its copyright, which protected the Elvis name, and his likeness and image. Billups said she received letters from them, asking her to “cease and desist.”
So, she began including Elvis and other rock-n-roll artists like Bob Dylan in a variety of theme-based, whimsical paintings.
After divorcing her husband, she moved back to Charleston and entered her rock-n-roll art at the Spoleto Festival, which Billups said is a major performing arts festival held in Charleston each year. She said her “wacky rock-n-roll art ... sold like hot cakes.”
Eventually, her art earned national attention and more than 15 venues throughout the United States displayed her art. Billups became known as the “Elvis artist.”
“I would go to yard sales and say, ‘I’m just picking this up because I am going to put it on my art,’” she said. “They would know my face and say, ‘Are you the ‘Elvis artist?’”
Billups became so popular that celebrities like Susan Sarandon began to collect her work; the list of notables grew to include R.E.M., Julia Roberts, Dennis Quaid, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffet and Sting and his wife, Trudie.
Eventually, she decided to try painting what she calls her “ultimate icon” – Jesus.
“If I could find more ways to paint Jesus, I could die and be happy,” Billups said. Finding a way to incorporate Jesus into her art became her goal during graduate school at Winthrop University in South Carolina. In 2003, Billups graduated with a master’s in fine arts in painting and drawing.
While pursuing her master’s, Billups also pursued love – through Match.com, where she met George Knowlton of Colorado Springs, Colo. They met in person and ended up nurturing a long-distance relationship. “I counted up the hours, and I think we talked on the phone for that year over 1,000 hours,” she said. “So we really got to know each other.” After Billups graduated from Winthrop University, she moved to Colorado Springs. She and Knowlton married in 2004, and two years later they moved to Peyton.
Eight years ago, Billups started her own eBay gallery. She said it has been successful “beyond our wildest dreams.” Billups said she has sold more than 500 of her pieces through the eBay gallery. “It is all virtual,” she said. “I get to work from home and don’t have to hang the restaurant shows like I did in Charleston.” Billups said eBay has brought in international buyers, and getting to know the people who purchase her art is fun. “I have a philosophy professor in Paris who owns my work,” she said. “I have a mango farmer in Australia that owns my work. I have a cool relationship with some of them.”
For now, Billups plans to stay in Colorado and continue painting the things that make her happy. “I enjoy every painting I do,” she said.
Eventually, Billups would like to make her way back to Charleston because, as she said, “There is just something very romantic about Charleston.”
(Click photo to enlarge)