Kathleen Blackshear, artist and teacher, was born in Navasota, Texas, on June 6, 1897, the daughter of Edward Duncan and May (Terrell) Blackshear and the great-granddaughter of Thomas E. Blackshear. She attended public schools in Navasota and began studying art and music in her early teens. After graduating from Navasota High School in 1914, she earned a bachelor of arts degree from Baylor University, where she contributed to the idea of establishing the Armstrong Browning Library. A photograph of Kathleen Blackshear was placed in the cornerstone of the Browning Library in 1950. After college she spent a year studying at the Art Students League in New York City. From 1918 to 1924 she worked in various teaching and design jobs and traveled to Europe and Mexico.
In the fall of 1924 she entered the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she studied with John Norton, Charles Fabens Kelley, William Owen, and Helen Gardner. Gardner, the author of Art Through the Ages, one of the first textbook surveys of art history to incorporate non-Western art, inspired in her an interest in African and Asian art that shaped her career.
In 1926 Blackshear was hired to teach art history under the direction of Gardner, and the two women thereafter formed a close relationship that lasted until Gardner's death in 1946. Both women took their students to the Oriental Institute and the Field Museum of Natural History, thus affirming the value of African and Asian art at a time when non-Western art was usually studied from an anthropological viewpoint. They have been credited with shaping the distinctive style that emerged among Chicago artists during the 1940s and the 1950s. Blackshear also emphasized visual analysis of the formal properties of art objects, an emphasis that one student described as "teaching art history as art, not as history." She was remembered for the warm support and encouragement that she offered her students, particularly african american students.
Blackshear rejected academicism in her art and teaching. Drawing on memories of her childhood on a Southern farm, she used african americans as her primary subject matter from 1924 to 1940. Influenced by African masks and textiles, Post-Impressionists such as Paul Cézanne and Georges Seurat, and Cubism, she worked in a simplified, geometric style that became increasingly abstract in her later years. She experimented with ceramics, enamels, and batik processes after she earned her master of fine arts degree from the School of the Art Institute in 1940.
She participated in over fifty-five group exhibitions sponsored by such organizations as the Art Students League of Chicago, the Chicago Society of Artists, and the Art Institute of Chicago. The Witte Museum in San Antonio mounted the first solo exhibition of her work in 1941 and included her in two later exhibitions. She was also included in group exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1930, 1934), the Fort Worth Museum of Art (1935), the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (1936, 1939, 1953), and Rice University (1965). She exhibited her work for the last time at the HemisFair, San Antonio, in 1968.
In addition to teaching and exhibiting, Blackshear wrote two plays and provided analytical drawings for Helen F. Mackenzie's Understanding Picasso: A Study of His Styles and Development (1940), Katharine Kuh's Art Has Many Faces: The Nature of Art Presented Visually (1951), and the revised and third editions of Gardner's Art Through the Ages (1936, 1948).
Kathleen Blackshear retired from teaching in 1961 and returned to Navasota with her companion, Ethel Spears. She continued to lecture on art at museums and schools throughout Texas until the early 1970s and received the title professor emeritus from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1968. She died on October 14, 1988, in Navasota, where she was buried in Oakland Cemetery. Her work as an artist and teacher was honored with the 1990 retrospective exhibition "A Tribute to Kathleen Blackshear," organized by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Her work is included in the permanent collections of Southwestern University in Georgetown, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Art Institute of Chicago, and a number of private collections in Navasota, Houston, Chicago, and San Diego.