Tell us a bit about yourself-where you grew up.  Things you like to do besides painting.  Interesting tidbits.  
I am the youngest of 6, and was teased and picked on by siblings because they all knew I was my parents favorite ;) I was largely ignored and able to devote large amounts of time to nurturing my imagination.
I spent my first 19 years in Toledo Ohio, and every summer meant a visit to nearby Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky ... ("The Amazement Park!" chock full of roller coasters!) In fact, my professional art career started at Cedar Point, where I had my first job as a portrait sketch artist while still in college, and continued to work in that industry through 3 states and 12 years.
Did you start art as a kid or do other creative things like music or dance? 
I believe I was born an artist.  I have memories of art projects from kindergarten.  Even by 2nd grade I knew art was my subject.

When did you start to paint? 
I've been using pastels since I was 11, when my parents bought me a basic set of 12 Nupastels, and when they had their bowling league nights, they’d take me along and I’d sit at one of the round tables in the bowling alley and draw with pastels in a sketchbook.  I still have some of those early drawings!
I had the basics of the other painting mediums in college, but wet media gave me some bad mixing experiences back then (plus I hate cleaning brushes!) so throughout college and beyond, if I had to produce something fast, I’d use pastel (or pencil.) I did finally take an oil painting workshop several years ago and I love oils now but pastels are still quicker and easier for me. I’m fairly adept at using watercolor or acrylic (usually as underpaintings for pastel.)
How did you come to choose pastels?

(They chose me, see above ;)
Who was your most influential mentor?  Why? How?
Gosh, for career success I must credit mostly two artists who’s workshops I took early in my independent development.  The artist Sara Eyestone says “Work in a series.”  Prominent Daily Painter Carol Marine, says “Paint daily!” (And working small helps with this.)
Who is your favorite artist?  Why?
I've taken tons of workshops over the last decade, but I would have to say that all of the instructors' varied advice about 'color' or 'value' or 'temperature' just brought me closer to the impressionists' theories of the effects of light on color, and a painting by Claude Monet that I fell in love with in 3rd grade at the Toledo Museum of Art: "Antibes seen from La Salis" https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/antibes-seen-from-la-salis/IAEox-ulEctNag?hl=en  and from then on the impressionists and Monet in particular have been my favorite artists. I think it's taken the last few years for me to realize what a powerful effect that painting has had on me, and when I began to use the gold-toned primers under my pastels in 2012, I've been hooked on the incredible vibrations that cool colors can have over the warm primers, and I've learned so much from the experience! 
 Where do you get your inspiration for paintings?
I work primarily from photos, and I have a hard drive full of more than 200GB of photo files that I’m constantly adding to. I do most of my paintings from my most recent photos from my travels: a zoo or farm, a road trip, a renaissance festival. But if I happen to get bored, I just sit at the computer and browse. In no time I’m sliding some pics into Photoshop to crop and edit…

Tell us a bit about your process.  
My current process developed gradually through several steps.  Around 2002 I used some Art Spectrum primer on some matboard to fit this old frame that I had because it was just a bit larger than a sheet of Canson (my usual surface of the time). Well, I found out that matboard is not good when primed and I had to gesso the backside desperately trying to get it to lay flat again! My second attempt with the primers was on foam board… Uh, that didn't work either.  Then somewhere someone told me about Gatorboard and I never looked back. I really enjoy the brushed-on texture of the Art Spectrum primers and the Terra Cotta color became my favorite because I love the warmth. 
In 2009 I was painting a 32 x 32 of a white calf, black calf and brown mama, and faced with the choice of building all of those extremes with pastel, or underpainting them first.  I opted to underpaint to save time! ("Black Coat") 
With "Texas Pride and Progeny" in 2012, I recalled the Quinacridone Nickel Azo Gold color that was used by Susan Ogilvie, and primed my board first with this color because these grasses were SO gold, it just called out for it! So this painting has the gold under the lights, and the terra cotta under the shadows. I quickly became addicted to this gold color and continued to use it under almost all of my works. 
Since the gold color is slightly transparent and gets darker on each application, and my purpose for underpainting was to save time on the pastel, my underpainting slowly developed into the more value-scaled image that it is today. 
My actual pastel application has varied depending on who’s workshop I’ve taken most recently, lol. Nowadays I’m back to a variety of strokes using both the side and the tip of pastels. Overall my goal is to merge the underpainting with the pastel as harmoniously as possible. Sometimes it works. ;)
Toot your own horn. Tell us about awards and honors that you may have gotten in your creative life.  Which was the most meaningful?
I love competing and I love winning! I've been blessed with over 125 awards in the past 17 years of my professional career. (I had to go into my files and count, lol!) My most impressive awards include the Salmagundi Club Award from the Pastel Society of America and the Art Spirit Foundation Diane B. Bernhard Award for Excellence in Pastel from the Hudson Valley Art Association. I am a Signature member of the Pastel Society of America and an Eminent Pastelist with the International Association of Pastel Societies. I've also been featured in the Pastel Journal and the Pratique des Arts Spécial Pastel, and have had my artwork published in five books.
But as far as any of these being the most meaningful, I have to say my impressive bio is just icing.

Are you teaching online? If so, share info if you want us to promote.
I'm glad you asked! In these weeks following the shut-down, I have developed my own creative answer to the global stay-at-home with a "sharing-in-place" phenomenon that I call Virtual Open Studio Days. Live via Zoom, these are a casual cross between classes, demos and mentoring. Laid back and informal with lots of live Q&A and discussions and demos on technique, process, and anything I happen to be working on in my studio. You can read more about it on my site events page here: https://www.ritakirkman.com/event/140413/live-virtual-open-studio-days-online-and-ongoing