The Risk of Difference
Artist Kelly L. Taylor creates unexpected communities
by Chael Needle
We expect artists to take risks in their work, but society forgets (or is unwilling) to protect their lives from risk. The recent, tragic Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland, California, that took thirty-six lives at an electronic music party in the makeshift living space reminded me of the early days of the AIDS pandemic, when people in urban areas who had banded together to create community were suddenly torn apart. Many died; some soldiered on, expecting to die. In the midst of decimation, community was strengthened, ultimately, eventually. It seemed, then as now, that people had found a space where they could understand difference as an asset rather than a liability. Instead of the safe route of assimilation and maintaining the status quo, they took the risk of highlighting difference, despite the threats to livelihoods and lives.
Artist Kelly L. Taylor knows well the risk of difference, and the pressures to sidestep it. “There seems to be a simple solution: just get a ‘real’ job and forget all that ‘artist nonsense’! I’ve tried, a lot of artists try, to conform to society’s expectations and be a good little worker and a ‘productive member of society.’ Then we find ourselves slowly going crazy within the confines of a cubicle, wondering why we are so ‘bad’ and can’t fit in,” says the Greensboro, North Carolina-based artist. “It’s because we’re wired differently. We have different priorities and values. If artists could quit being artists, we’d do it in a minute. We don’t choose who we are. We’re made this way, born with a certain predisposition towards a different life. Sound familiar?!” she asks, referring to the kinship among the LGBTQ community and artists. “It makes me wonder why some careers are rewarded with money and prestige (like doctors, lawyers, etc.), while others are shunned and shamed.”
Taylor’s response is a proactive, self-empowered approach. “I figured the only solution is that we take care of each other. And instead of wasting all the effort trying to convince the world that art is important and artists are worthy of respect and compensation for their work, we need to look at our fellow artists, or outcasts (anyone who doesn’t quit fit in), and just come together and take care of each other. That’s why we end up living in old warehouses and in commune-type situations, so we can pitch in a take care of each other inexpensively. The art community and the LGBTQ community overlap, the lines are blurred, we’re all the same. That’s why I’ve always been drawn to the creative community, where nobody minds how you want to look, what you want to do with your body and who you want to share it with.”
Taylor tended to her creative spark from an early age.“Remember in the eighties when we worked so hard to defy the labels and just be ourselves and do what we wanted to do outside of the expectations of society and family?” But the 1980s, especially for a teenager, were threaded with fear. “At one time it was the threat of nuclear war that would keep us awake at night worrying. That fear was replaced by the fear of AIDS. After high school the distant fear became real when I watched a dear friend of mine waste away and die, struggling with AIDS. The realization that I slept with someone who slept with someone who slept with someone who contracted HIV made it all very real and very scary.”
The fears need not stop us from living, creating, or fighting back, Taylor believes. “I’m a proponent of safe sex, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and am outspoken about these issues when I come across someone who needs to be educated about them, who needs a nudge to open their minds. Although I haven’t participated in any Walks or awareness activities recently, I feel that will be a necessary part of asserting our presence and exercising our rights in the next four years—during the upcoming nightmare-come-true Trump administration.”
She continues: “I donate to Planned Parenthood. I voted for Hillary. I’m ready to stockpile the Plan B pill and give it away like candy [in the face of defunding]. And condoms should be free, not kept locked up behind the counter in drugstores. It just blows my mind the way some people spend so much energy trying to control other people and what they do with their bodies!”
Taylor, who holds a BFA from Guilford College, where she dual majored in Art (with a painting focus) and English, has been widely exhibited and is currently represented by Delurk Gallery in Winston-Salem. Early inspirations were Keith Haring and Basquiat: They “made us believe anyone could be an artist, even me,” she says. “Now I admire the work of Vermeer, Van Gogh, Hans Hofmann, Walter Tandy Murch, Remedios Varo. Sometimes I try to paint like Tom Waits sings—full of texture and shadows, sad and happy at the same time.”
Her series of still lifes are a case in point, “full of texture and shadows, sad and happy at the same time.” A cherub gambols amid toys. A stuffed animal bunny poses with a skull. Her paintings seem to understand ephemera as treasure. There are no people represented, except indirectly, and so there are people everywhere. These are strange, unexpected communities, where the softness of life coexists with the hard and mechanical, where loss is palpable, but so is survival, and where difference becomes a risk worth taking.
Chael Needle: What attracts you to still lifes?
Kelly L. Taylor: I used to be a strictly abstract expressionist painter, letting my emotions direct my work and deliberately avoiding the creation of representational images. My fiancé, Jeff [Taylor, also an artist], and I used to scout estate sales, yard sales, and antique shops for random, weird, interesting vintage and antique things. We would collect and display all of the things we fell in love with in our apartment and our studios. After Jeff’s death, I cherished everything he left behind. I moved into his studio and painted, surrounded by his things. The items around me influenced the expressions in my abstract work.
Then during a painting course I was taking at college, we were required to do a still life painting. I chose some of Jeff’s things and set up my still life in honor of him. And I fell in love with examining and reproducing objects; I got lost in painting the details. I found I could express myself and tell stories through still life painting. It helped things feel okay again. It helped me say things I had trouble speaking about.
I started to examine the significance of objects, what they hold, like energy, or something, from the person who once owned and loved them. I thought of how we construct a person from the things they leave behind.
That reminds me a lot of the AIDS Quilt. It helped a lot of people not only honor their loved ones with objects they left behind, but also say things they had trouble speaking about.
Yes, like the AIDS Quilt, which is fantastic in the way it brings people together to commemorate loved ones and to record the names that will no longer be spoken by some because of a senseless stigma, or because our culture does not support the idea of grieving. But I don’t usually incorporate the text of the name in my pantings. Although I believe that saying the name of your deceased love one is important, I leave the narrative of my paintings slightly ambiguous; I think death is a universal thing so most people can identify with my work, even if they don’t want to.
I notice that your paintings incorporate skulls alongside more everyday objects. Do you feel our culture tends to want us to do the opposite—separate the living and the dead? And if so, what’s your take on that?
Our culture definitely wants us to separate the living and the dead. It seems impolite to talk about death. It scares people, makes them uncomfortable. And instead of trying to understand it, and accept it more, most people pretend it doesn’t exist, like it’s not the inevitable. And the way people insist that death is the absolute worse thing that can happen to a person is interesting to me. Yes, saying goodbye to someone you love dearly is the hardest thing in the world, but the actual death is an end to suffering, so, in that respect, it’s a positive thing. To some people the idea of death is a comfort.
Like the AIDS Quilt maybe I should be more deliberate, more flamboyant, about the name in my work: Jeff. The name, the person, who is most present in my work. Jeff struggled with addiction and depression. He also had hepatitis. He could have just as easily contracted HIV. And as I understand it, the suicide rate among people with AIDS was pretty high at one point. There are connections here.
I’m sorry for your loss. However, I do like the ambiguity, and the surprising juxtapositions in your still lifes as well. Could you describe your process in composing a piece like Miss Kitty? Do you scout for objects and then try different combinations?
I’m always scouting for objects at yard sales, antique stores, and estate sales. I especially like estate sales because the items still have a lot of the recently deceased owner’s energy in them, or so it seems. Walking through an estate sale house, you can really get a sense of who the person was (is) and connect with them through the things they left behind.
So I bring home the objects that I’m drawn to. I usually live with them, and look at them, for
a while before I’m compelled to paint them. Sometimes I get a spontaneous picture in my mind of two objects fitting together and I paint them that way and wonder what it could mean. When I want to tell a specific story, I choose objects from the things I’ve collected to symbolize parts of the story. Sometimes I combine photographic references with real objects to create a painting.
I set up the objects, play with different combinations, configurations until I’m satisfied with the composition. Then I play with the light on the objects to create the shadows. I like to add to the narrative with the shadows, suggesting things through the shapes and darkness and color of the shadows and through the areas I choose to highlight.
What’s next for you?
I just finished a kind-of collaborative project—a series of self-portraits that include my tattoos done by a tattoo artist friend who owns a tattoo shop/gallery. I’m displaying this series there during December. I’m also showing work in various places around the Triad area of North Carolina.
I recently received a grant from ArtsGreensboro and I’m using the grant to further my study of traditional oil painting materials and methods. I’m experimenting with various mediums and varnishes in order to make the colors richer and the finishes more consistent in my paintings.
For more information about the work of Kelly L. Taylor, log on to: www.paintingpoppy.com.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.