Prolific painter and ‘color prodigy’ shares the power of inclusion through her work

Painters Amanda Saint Claire (right) and Katie Flores pose for photos with their collaborations at an art gallery
Painters Amanda Saint Claire (right) and Katie Flores with their collaborations at the Fresh Paint Gallery.
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Katie Flores, a visual artist who was diagnosed with autism at age 3, is showing her artwork in “Radical Inclusion,” alongside her mentor and collaborator, Amanda Saint Claire, at Fresh Paint Gallery in San Diego


As a child, Katie Flores always seemed to gravitate toward finger painting. Her mother, Margie Flores, figures it was the textural aspect of the artform. As an adult, Katie has developed into a prolific and passionate painter, who’s also been described as “a color prodigy” with a natural eye for spatial relationships, which makes sense considering her love of bright, bold colors, and the works of Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, Arthur Dove, and Henri Matisse.

“Katie was diagnosed with autism at 3 (years old),” her mother says. “As an adult, Katie is still sensitive to noise, strongly dislikes change, has limited verbal skills, and suffers from anxiety; however, she is a delightful, funny, caring woman who has thrived despite all her challenges.”

After aging out of the public school system a few years ago with limited job options, her mother looked into finding interests that would enrich her daughter’s life and recalled painting. She met a fellow parent of an autistic child who’d created a micro-business around that adult child’s painting, which led to the introduction of Katie’s first art mentor and her new journey as a professional artist.

Now, she sells her paintings and merchandise through her own micro-business, Inclusion Art by Katie; shares studio space and collaborates with her new mentor, artist Amanda Saint Claire; is a resident artist with Revision, a creative arts program that provides inclusive studio access and creative training; and is currently showing her work in “Radical Inclusion: Katie Flores and Amanda Saint Claire” at Fresh Paint Gallery in La Jolla, on display through May 23, in celebration of Autism Awareness Month. She’s also part of the “Young Art 2021: My World, Our Planet” exhibition, on the San Diego Museum of Art’s walking tour through May 9.

Katie Flores, 26, lives in Rancho Santa Fe with her parents, Mike and Margie, and her brother, Kevin. She took some time earlier this week to talk about her work, her mentor relationship with Saint Claire, and how painting has helped ease her anxiety (for this interview, her mother, Margie Flores, and her mentor, Saint Claire, assisted with her responses).

Q: What kind of style/genre would you say you gravitate toward, as a visual artist?

Saint Claire: Pop art, color field and abstract.

Q: What is it about this particular style that appeals to you?

Saint Claire: Katie loves bold color and food, and food in her art. She paints what she loves.

Q: How did you meet Amanda Saint Claire? And how did the two of you begin working together?

Saint Claire: We met at the “Radical Inclusion” traveling art show arranged by the book’s author, Andrea Moriarty (who is the mother of an autistic son and wrote the book as part memoir, part resource for being more inclusive of people who are neurodiverse). The show paired six neurotypical professional artists in the community with six neurodiverse artists. The show traveled to several locations throughout the county, including the Oceanside Museum of Art and the Lux Art Institute, but was cut short by COVID-19.

When Katie was selected for the (California Department of Developmental Services’) self-determination program, her mother arranged for a visit to the art studio and arranged for lessons each week. In the beginning, I allowed Katie to roll out paint on the studio walls because that was what Katie wanted to do, and then the lockdown came. After a tortuous April and May during the pandemic last year, Katie asked to return to the studio to continue; in June, Katie started renting space in my studio, and we were working together four days a week in isolation from the world. Essentially, we formed our own protective pod. We are currently together 12 hours a week.

Q: Why did you want to work with Amanda?

Saint Claire: Katie’s use of color caught my attention, and likewise, Katie was attracted to my similar use of color, and large and bold works. We also both had a quiet approach to the outside world, as if we were observing before we took over the room. I had trained for a year as an expressive arts therapist before changing course to become an expressive arts coach and educator. I later disclosed that my maternal grandparents were deaf and, perhaps because of that childhood experience, I had an easy way of approaching Katie and navigating situations in a way that empowered Katie to be herself in public.

What Katie loves about Rancho Santa Fe ...

It’s quiet and the sunsets are spectacular.

Q: What are you learning from Amanda?

Saint Claire: Katie is learning to take risks and to be proud of her work. She is taking more responsibility for her art supplies and her environment, and learning to speak in public about her work. Technically, Katie is learning about media and different ways of applying paint. She is learning about plein air, participating in community art projects, and working side-by-side with other artists in the community.

Q: Tell us about your exhibition with Amanda, “Radical Inclusion.” What does “radical inclusion” mean to you?

Saint Claire: What “radical inclusion” means to Katie is an opportunity to work one-on-one with a peer. It’s not that radical, actually, for one artist to mentor another artist, so perhaps it’s a misnomer, but there is not a working model for this in society, in general. It’s time to change that on a large scale, as more and more individuals become eligible for self-determination program funding. Creatives need gainful employment, and artists like Katie need assistance and encouragement to pursue their dreams.

Q: Why was it important to you to focus on inclusion in this exhibition?

Saint Claire: Katie’s company is called Inclusion Art by Katie, so the focus of the show is an outgrowth of Katie’s authentic brand. Being autistic can mean a lifetime of being excluded and of being “the other” because the pace of the world doesn’t slow down to wait for your answer, or allow you to be different. Having this opportunity to work side-by-side with a professional artist, who treats Katie as an equal and has the ability to pause to allow Katie processing time without hovering, has given Katie the ability to take ownership of her life and her craft in new and exciting ways.

Q: Can you walk us through your creative process? What steps do you typically take in creating your art?

Saint Claire: Katie’s process differs by the series. For example, for her pop art series, called “Yummy Yummy,” she works from hand-cut stencils created by me, so that each has a silk-screened appearance. She decides on the background color and then creates the popcorn or the ice cream cones or hot dogs. This series is her personal favorite.

For her solo work, Katie is just a color prodigy. She does not generally map out a plan for the rainbow arches and blocks of color, but seems to instinctively know how to create tension with tonal values and her color choices. For her collaborative work with me, the process has evolved over time. Initially, I set the blank canvas next to Katie for her to clean her brushes so she would not be overwhelmed by the scale. That progressed to large, unstretched canvas stapled on the wall where both of us would only work on the piece at the end of each painting session. Most recently, Katie and I would pass a painting back and forth, taking turns adding color and marks, to the point where Katie was responding to me with her visual language. You can see examples of the three styles of collaboration in the “Radical Inclusion” show.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

Saint Claire: I believe Katie would say, “Use a bigger brush” because that has allowed her to move into larger scale works that lend themselves so well to her style.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

Margie Flores: Katie has a brother with autism.

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

Margie Flores: Katie’s favorite spots include the world-famous San Diego Zoo. No trip to the zoo is complete without a ride on the Skyfari and a breathtaking view of the city. Not surprisingly, afterward, Katie will lead you directly to the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park. Her tour would be an insightful, honest description of paintings from the masters, including one of her most inspirational painters Frank Stella.

Lisa Deaderick is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune