Artists We Love

Written by BlackbirdGo November 30, 2018
The People

Image courtesy of Kaelyn McGowen

Color is both noticeable and invisible in our world. It’s a piece of our existence that is so common to us that we often forget that it’s even anything at all. We stroll through the streets of a brand-new city we’ve never been to, and we don’t think twice about the maroon and chocolatey hues that brick apartment buildings are built with. Unless it’s newly springtime, very rarely do we take a moment to appreciate the yellow flowerbeds in our neighborhood or smell the red roses (both literally and figuratively). We don’t even think twice about the deep blue skies that hang over our heads every single day until they’re covered in a fluffy blanket of grey clouds.

However, Kaelyn McGowen doesn’t just notice all of the colors throughout her day. She celebrates them, and her work is a testament to that.

Kaelyn is a young artist currently based in Seattle, where she is attending Seattle University to continue her education and further her career. Her vibrant and whimsical paintings and personality feel like a breath of fresh air through the dark, earthy atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest. Her use of color sparks a little bit of joy in you and a feeling of something else that you just can’t pin down. It makes you feel free, even just for the moment that you’re taking it all in. She combines the natural with the supernatural, and it’s clear proof that creativity and fun really doesn’t have to be for children. There’s a place for it in everyone, no matter what age you are, what career path you want, what pain you’ve endured. Kaelyn is living proof of just that.

When I originally reached out to her for this article, she enthusiastically replied, “Talking about art is my favorite thing in the world other than making it!” It was already obvious she was passionate about art, but, during my internet search of her, it became even more obvious that she had a story. I discovered she grew up in a faith-based education, and that came as a surprise to me. To be honest, I even briefly wondered if I had found the right Kaelyn McGowen. Even though she once called the biggest little artsy city of Reno home, my own brain couldn’t make the connection between her Burning Man-inspired, effervescent, psychedelic work and her conservative upbringing, and I knew that there was more to it than what meets the eye. To say that I was excited to get a glimpse of her worldview would be an understatement. Spoiler alert: she did not disappoint.

Kathryn: Where were you born and/or did you grow up?

Kaelyn: Born and raised in Reno, Nevada!

How, when, and where did you first discover your passion for the arts?

I went to a Montessori school before a more traditional education. It’s a self-directed form of education; they allowed the kids to have more of a say in how they spent their time. I remember we would move around to different stations around the room all with different hands-on activities. One of the stations was a little easel and pad with a paint palette where you got to wear a real apron and we chose whatever we wanted to paint. I loved the paint station. It was magical that recreating the world to our choosing on paper was possible. I planted myself at that little station. My mom has those first paintings hung and framed in her office to this day.

After that, all my birthday presents were studio kits, easels, and fancy pencils. My mom even started sending me over to a woman’s house she had met who was an artist and had a home studio. She helped me turn drawing from a hobby into something that I could build a future on. It took a long time for me or my family to believe I could really “be an artist,” but it wouldn’t have happened without those gifts or experiences.

My creative practice has always been my greatest superpower. Growing up—and now—making something out of nothing was my source of confidence. That journey from point A to point B taught me patience and bravery. It’s the tool I’ve turned to learn more about the world and how I’ve made sense of pain. I grew up on making, and I don’t really know another way. I’m incredibly grateful.

After seeing many of our mutual friends, I realized you attended Bishop Manogue! The high school is Catholic-based, so did that kick start your rebellious, unique, vibrant artistic style or did it come later?

To be honest with you, I didn’t love my Catholic education. I wasn’t confirmed either. My family identifies as Catholic, but, if I were to consider myself anything, it would be Unitarian. However, other than my early years at Montessori, I have had no other education other than Catholic education, so I can’t say for sure that a different educational setting would have been better for me. With that being said, I didn’t feel supported in my education settings. I think that’s the problem of the No Child Left Behind, testing, disciplined-based education trends of the time as well, but the atmosphere of a private Catholic school didn’t help. There just seemed to be a lot of motivation based on shame and conformity. There was no celebration of the individual—unless you were a rich, white, male athlete. The community didn’t acknowledge or have any way of offering support to me in my artistic interests. My grades were terrible and I felt in trouble constantly. But that’s the culture of those schools. We spent so much more time worrying about silly rules that had to do with the way we looked or tiny behavior infractions like tardiness than we did our education or individual strengths.

I was also kind of a little shit in high school, to be fair. But, looking back on it now, I just wanted to do my own damn thing. I always drew and made art, but I didn’t take it seriously until college. No one around me believed I would be able to pursue art in the long run, so I drew birds and mountains and kept it all pretty vanilla. Up until last year, my Dad would say, “It’s not too late for you get to a business degree and become a secretary.” Straight up. I remember painting a rainbow giraffe smoking a cigarette my senior year in high school and started to be able to collect the “this is really cool!” comments along with the “wow you must be such a stoner” ones in unison and didn’t care what people thought. I was making stuff I liked because I could.

You’ve lived in the Czech Republic for a time. Why did you move there, and did that change the way you approached your own art?

I was there for a semester when I was 19. I chose the Czech Republic at first because I wanted to learn how to blow glass, and the Czech Republic is a huge hub for that. I wanted to get out of Reno, see the world. I had a lot of family stuff I was trying to get away from at the time. But that ended up being a pretty dramatic time in my life as well. I’d planned on going with my long-term boyfriend of the time (we broke up months before we were supposed to leave and, well, guess what…he came anyway). It proved to be a heart-wrenching, dramatic, and painful situation for us both. I had broken his heart, and I felt terrible about it. It also proved to be very lonely. I made some friends I still cherish to this day. But mostly I traveled and spent a lot of time alone trying to figure out how I was going to “grow up.”

I got to see so many beautiful things. It taught me how lovely and wonderful it is to be alive, despite whatever pain you are going through. It’s such a big world out there; a lot of its beauty has been here all along, but a lot of it humans cultivated ourselves in the form of art: in our architecture, our music, our poetry, our murals, inventions, meals, cities—you name it. Because of how lucky I have been to travel, I know firsthand how much of humanity can be found in our art.

Why did you choose to move to Seattle to continue your career in art?

Seattle University has a Master of Fine Arts Leadership graduate program that I am currently in. It’s a two-year, practicum-based (similar to an internship for those who are unfamiliar) degree. Throughout the program, I learn about how the arts are brought to our communities through nonprofit and for-profit organizations, schools, and city initiatives. The MFAL degree allows me to teach at the college level and have the knowledge to work in or start my own nonprofit organization. I’m currently obsessed with neon art and am taking a neon lighting class this winter. I am hoping to have my first practicum at one of the neon studios in Seattle.

Seattle is full of creators. There’s more art here than I know what to do with. I’m finding myself exploring music, theater, and festivals in ways Reno is just not quite there yet. I worked a light art event where the gallery darkened the whole space and the light show within made you feel like you were in a galaxy. I also attended my first Halloween-themed drag show recently. Soaking up all these new experiences has been the best part.

Why is paint your most utilized medium?

Paint is appealing for a lot of different reasons. I find myself referring to myself as a “painter” rather than an artist a lot of time. Firstly, in my opinion, it’s very forgiving. Don’t like it? Paint over it, pretty easy. You can also paint anything; it’s a medium that lends itself to be used in so many different ways. I love painting clothing, rocks, wood slices, frames, furniture, sculpture, and of course walls. Color has so much influence in our lives, and we are in control of so much of that. Colors affect our mood and focus, and colors allow us to customize our environment. I’ve been using up old spray paint, painting my coat hooks, racks, little furniture, and tie-dying my curtains, putting more color into my life. Life is too short to be boring.

Your work appears to be heavily influenced by the supernatural combined with nature. Where did you find this style, and what drew you to it in the first place?

That’s wonderful it seems that specific! I’m trying to narrow down my style. I’m inspired by narrative surrealist works as well as pop culture-related surrealism. I don’t know if those inspirations all translate clearly into my own work, but it’s the kind of work I’m drawn to. I fall in love with anything that gives me the sense of possibility. Hope is a crazy thing, how we cultivate it despite all odds. I’m reminded of that when I think of space, dreams, and the natural world around me. I try to manipulate things to make the viewer think of what could be. The guy who inspired me to start painting was Peter Max, but I’m not sure you would know that looking at my work.

The Reno area is obviously known for Burning Man, and you’ve painted large murals for the festival. What inspired you to do so? Did it affect how you approached your own experience in BRC?

I think that Burning Man is the best art show in the world, and to make art for others to experience at the event is an absolute honor. I hope I can continue to do so for a long time. Art at Burning Man is decommodified. When you don’t try to make art to see how much you can sell it for, the space for unrivaled creativity comes into play. The things you see out there are pure magic; it is a tribute to humanity we are able to create. The Burning Man community has shown me a wave of support and love in what I do. I’ve been commissioned to paint panels for camps but this year was my first installation. A big part of the motivation for that project was that I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. To learn the skill sets and build a 11-foot spinning sculpture wasn’t a walk in the park. I couldn’t have done with without tremendous amount of help from friends and family, especially my cousin. He’s a contractor and let me use all of his tools and essentially lived at my house this summer helping me build it.

I also really believed in the art I was making, probably more than anything else I had ever made. I wanted to communicate a message to viewers with that piece. It was about heartbreak and how taboo it can be to talk about. I think we don’t want to give those who have broken our hearts more power, so we downplay how personally altering those experiences are. My paintings this year followed the story of Romeo and Juliette: two characters who gave up way too much (their lives) to another person. I relate to the guilt of throwing away your dignity for someone else, and that piece was a cathartic way to make something out of that pain. I hope to have a piece out there again this year.

How would you describe your style of art?

Whimsical, narrative, low brow, stylized, and, unfortunately for now, illustrative. But I’m trying to break out of that.

Can you describe your process from conception to completion for any piece you create?

It really depends on the piece. I make a lot of tiny paintings which are really straightforward. That’s idea, draw it, paint it. Or its plein air, and I just paint what I see. The same goes for clothing. When it’s a larger piece, I try to sit on it for a couple of months. I have a huge note on my phone called “painting ideas.” Then, of course, there is the sketching portion, which is unbelievably loose at first. Depending on the size, I either redraw or project my sketch on whatever I paint for accuracy on larger pieces. Then there is a process called “underpainting,” which happens in a couple of layers and is a different process for different people. For most people that means building up to full saturation and detail, but I can’t help but start with strong colors even in my underpainting. When it's finished, I photograph the paintings for prints and varnish it for the final touch.

What do you feel when you’re in the zone and creating a piece?

I feel useful. I live for those moments because it’s when I feel like I am contributing to the world rather than detracting from it. It’s one of the only times I feel really relaxed and confident.

Reno is an extremely artistic community in its own way that differs greatly from Seattle. Each city has its own voice in that world, so where do you hope that your art will take you professionally, personally, and geographically speaking?

I would love to work in programming, community engagement, or project management for Burning Man in the Bay area. That’s something I will prioritize looking into after I graduate. I also have long-term goals of opening my own maker school for women and youth and teaching art at the college level.

Personally, I want to learn everything. I hope that my artistic practice allows me to always be a student. There are many building and lighting skillsets that I hope to gain to make bigger installation pieces. I’ll be happy if I manage to keep making in some form throughout my career.

Whether it’s social media or artistic media, the entire landscape of how artists operate and sell themselves is constantly changing. How do you view the scope of fine art now that technology has become such an integral part of so many artists’ process?

Well, basically artists are completely tearing down the walls that defined “fine art.” Technology is moving so fast and opening up possibilities for creators that the cynics of the world are having a hard time keeping up. More people are able to engage and interact with art than ever before. For example, my Instagram feed is an endless stream of visuals from all my favorite galleries around the world, and it’s for free, at my fingertips. I can post on my Instagram Story that I’ve got some prints or time to make some smaller pieces, and I can make some extra money that week. Honestly, I have a hard time keeping up. I have friend who have mastered Photoshop for the sake of creating mock ups for paintings, and I’m over here thinking to myself, “How am I supposed to be spending all my time painting when there are all these other competitive skillsets?!” Painters are old fashioned in a lot of ways, but we are functioning and working in a modern world. If anything, technology is just allowing traditional medium artists to get better, if they use it right.

Keep up with Kaelyn on Instagram and check out her portfolio

Disclaimer: Keep out of reach of children. For use only by adults 21 years of age and older.