We had the good fortune of connecting with Kelley Schei and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Kelley, why did you decide to pursue a creative path?
I’ve been drawing and painting for as long as I can remember. I come from a creative family, and even my distant relatives painted, sewed, or made crafts. When I started studying art formally it just felt like my identity, and I couldn’t abandon it. Being in my studio and working through a piece is when I’m most relaxed and most myself. Having a finished piece go out into the world to become part of someone’s day if they see it in an exhibition, or a part of someone’s home if they collect a piece, is immensely satisfying. I have thought a lot about whether I am doing something that is useful enough to a world that has so many problems. In the end I think that everyone is most useful when they are using their deepest talents. People have made visual art for tens of thousands of years, before there was written language, so making or enjoying art is an essential part of being human. Expressive culture has a way of slowing things down and making us more empathetic. Handmade objects, especially ones with no use value other than pleasure, are an antidote to hyper-capitalism and consumerist mindsets. And even if artwork isn’t overtly political, I think it can reveal insights about our culture. My work always returns to depicting landscapes, and meditating on our relationships with the natural world is particularly relevant during climate crisis. I don’t think art needs to trigger people into direct action to have a positive impact. It can help people connect with an idea they hadn’t thought of before or shift their perspective about something. Despite the challenges of finding my own place in such a competitive field, being an artist just feels like home to me.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I am a visual artist and work primarily in watercolor and oil paint. My work is semi-abstract and rooted in landscape traditions with some figuration. Some people describe my work as surreal or psychedelic, because I use dreamlike imagery and intricate forms. I gather inspiration by hiking and photographing extreme landscapes, like our mountains here in Colorado but also on world travels to places like Iceland, where I stayed as an artist in resident. In my paintings I reimagine our natural world and sometimes add narratives with animals and mysterious power figures that address contemporary concerns like climate catastrophe and political failure. Last year my work was part of a traveling show called Velvet Ropes organized by Zero Zero gallery in Los Angeles that allowed me to show in exciting venues around the world, including agnès b. galerie in Tokyo, House of Vans flagship store in London, Gallery Steinsland Berliner in Stockholm, as well as many venues US cities. I currently have paintings in the main exhibition hall at Redline Contemporary Arts Center as part of the Checking In exhibition. Other highlights for me have been creating work as an artist in residence in Europe and more recently at Vermont Studio Center. My path as a professional artist has been slow and steady. I studied at a prestigious grad program, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and spent many years in Chicago and New York building my studio practice and exhibition record before returning to Denver, which is my hometown. Using social media really helped me find an audience because I didn’t have to wait between shows to expose what I was working on. I’ve taught painting and art theory at the college level, at the Guggenheim Museum in NYC, and in private workshops. Teaching requires you to articulate what you know and many say is the final step in learning, and I think that’s true. It defined my understanding of what I’m doing technically with color and composition and the themes in my work. I haven’t taught since the pandemic started. Instead of working out an online curriculum I decided to take this unique time to dig into new depths of my own creativity. I didn’t expect to be exhibiting at all this year, and have been surprised at the opportunities that have continued to come my way as artists and curators find ways to keep on working in 2020. The most important lesson you can learn as an artist is to be yourself. It sounds like a cliche, but it’s true. You can create something gimmicky and marketable and be a flash in the pan, or get a show or some press, but there isn’t a substitute for improving technically and building a unique visual vocabulary over time. You have to explore the themes and imagery that interest you, instead of what’s trendy, and you can’t be afraid if your work doesn’t look like anyone else’s. That’s a good thing. There will be an audience for you.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
In better times, when we’re not in a pandemic, I love to check out exhibitions at MCA, Denver Art Museum, RedLine, films at SIE, I spend a lot of time in City Park and Cheesman Park, I’m vegetarian so finding healthy food is key- I love Somebody People and getting Ethiopian at Queen of Sheba, Japanese at Domo, Pon Pon is a great bar if you want to chat with someone somewhere with a living room feel. My backyard’s pretty cool too.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I have had the luck of working with many mentors over the years, and had great instructors and at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I studied. I have also grown a lot through making work as an artist in residence at residencies all over the world; most recently at Vermont Studio Center. At the moment I’m grateful to have work in an exhibition called Checking In at RedLine Contemporary Art Center, curated by Derrick Velasquez and Laura Shill. My respect for the natural world and animals is a big part of the work that I make, which I like to recognize too.
n/a (Kelley Schei)