A Conversation with Kelsey Montague about #WhatLiftsYou

Taylor Swift in front of Kelsey Montague Wings – @taylorswift

Kelsey Montague toiled in the artistic trenches for years before this moment. In an interview for Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, Kelsey spoke about rejections from art gallery after art gallery and how she finally decided to create her own artistic path. Like many of us, she avidly followed the dark political work of artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey but Kelsey wanted to make her own statement, something positive and uplifting.

Kelsey painted her first set of wings on a New York City corner in Nolita and added the hashtag #WhatLiftsYou. Taylor Swift took the above picture and posted it to her Instagram account. A day later people stood in lines down the block to take their own winged pictures. Just like that, Kelsey Montague was on the map. And while obviously Taylor Swift has massive influence and social media frenzies create viral sensations, I like to think it’s also an instance of artists reaching out and helping each other up.

Because now Kelsey and her wings are a worldwide phenomenon.

Art by Kelsey Montague – Nashville, TN

I caught up with Kelsey a few weeks ago to ask her some questions.

Gypsy Queen: You’ve spoken before about your public street murals and how your wings were inspired in part by your grandfather’s artwork and his connection to birds. But how did you come up with the hashtag #WhatLiftsYou?

Kelsey Montague: I wanted to give people the opportunity to reflect on what is most important to them and that is how the hashtag #WhatLiftsYou was born. I also wanted to encourage people to post something positive on social media. There is an epidemic of cyber bullying online and I wanted my work to counter that.

GQ: Knowing that your public street art could disappear over time, does it matter to you that what you create won’t survive?

KM: I want it to survive long enough that it makes an impact in the community but I also kind of like the transient nature of street art. I think the fact it will eventually disappear gives it a kind of specialness.

Art by Kelsey Montague – San Diego, CA

 

GQ: Your #WhatLiftsYou interactive wings are very inspirational in a time that feels very emotionally charged, politically and socially. Do you feel that street art has the power to make positive changes right now, even in the face of all this turmoil?

KM: Absolutely. Again I think that street art should get us to ask important questions of ourselves and our world. What Lifts You really is about constantly reflecting on what is truly important in your life and escaping, for a moment, the negativity that surrounds us.

GQ: You’ve created a new hashtag, #WhatUnitesUs. What kind of subject matter do you plan to use for these murals?

KM: I want to focus on love as a superpower. My first #WhatUnitesUs mural features hearts coming from a person’s hands. I want people to reflect on our similarities instead of our differences and our power to spread love.

GQ: Did Trump’s election have an effect on your art? Or your artistic choices?

KM: I launched the #WhatUnitesUs campaign to give people a chance to reflect on our similarities instead of our differences, in response to such a divisive election.

Art by Kelsey Montague – San Diego, CA

GQ: Have you noticed a change in the art community since the election?

KM: I think the street art movement has continued to grow and gain steam in the wake of the election. I think that communities are even more open to street art because the need for beauty and comfort in our communities is so strong right now!

GQ: If you could send a message to the nation right now, what would it be?

KM: Let’s unite around our similarities, instead of fighting about our differences.

GQ: What’s next for you?

KM: I’m working on continuing to spread the #WhatUnitesUs and the #WhatLiftsYou message around the world this year! I’m also working on some cool projects and interesting products.

Thank you so much for your time, Kelsey!

If you’re want to track down Kelsey’s murals you can see a list here on her website. You can also follow her on Instagram.

If you’re in India, South Africa, Los Angeles, Miami or San Francisco, Kelsey will be coming to town to paint murals somewhere near you. Just look for the wings!

Art by Kelsey Montague – Nashville, TN

Nick Walker and the Problem of Vandalism

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

Had you asked me two months ago to pick an American city with a thriving arts community, I never would have picked Indianapolis.

In fact, if you’d asked me for my general impressions of Indiana I would have said “Midwest, corn… something about cars?” Maybe also sports??? The Pacers ring a bell. Art would never have crossed my mind, but that’s why the company CityWay exists —to change our minds about what Indianapolis has to offer.

Much like WALL/THERAPY in Rochester, NY, CityWay in Indianapolis uses art and charity to bring diverse communities together. Once a year it hosts IndyDoDay, a day where they to encourage the people of Indianapolis to get out and get involved in a project in their neighborhood so they can “get to know their neighbors, take ownership of their neighborhoods, and take care of one another.” They also partner with the Indianapolis Museum of Art, commissioning artists and bringing art to public spaces.

CityWay worked with The Alexander, a hotel in downtown Indianapolis, to curate the hotel’s art collection. They filled the hotel with the kind of edgy-but-tasteful contemporary art pieces that edgy-but-tasteful people adore and put together a gorgeous lobby bar designed by Jorge Pardo.

All of the hotel art was well received but then they invited the British artist Nick Walker to tag the hotel’s parking garage. For some reason, this was a bridge too far.

Now admittedly, it’s unusual to pay an artist lots of money to intentionally create a space that looks graffitied.

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

However, this is what Nick Walker does. He came up in the same British graffiti movement as Banksy, the most (in)famous graffiti artist there ever was. Walker has the same irreverent approach with his stencils, although his work is much less political than Banksy.

Walker’s main character is a formally dressed bowler hat-wearing character called Vandal. And most of Walker’s murals focus around the act of creating art.

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

Here’s the Vandal with his paint can

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

And his paint dusting plane

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And this chica with her spray paint missiles

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

And I love it. I love the artwork, the themes, the color scheme, and that it’s in a parking garage next to a high end hotel. It’s an unusual place to put commissioned artwork and moreover, it’s a clever way to put the gallery artist crowd and the street art appreciators in proximity and give them exposure to each other’s art.

Except not everyone agrees with me. I found the public response puzzling, to say the least.

In an article I can only describe as snarky, Katherine Brooks, the senior arts & culture editor for the Huffington Post, described Walker as “Banksy-esque,”  which no one would argue considering they were influenced by the same graffiti school. Despite that connection, somehow she makes it sound like Walker is simply an imitator. And then Brooks calls Walker’s work “lowbrow basement art.”

Oh snap!

This article in the Indy alternative newspaper NUVO is generally more positive, but also notes the irony of an highly-paid street artist whose main character is a Vandal “co-opting [the] graffiti culture.”

And that seems more to the point, doesn’t it?

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

However, Walker isn’t coopting the graffiti culture, he is a graffiti artist. Back in the 80’s he painted buildings illegally, just like all the other graffiti artists of that era. Walker’s work still references street art politics and vandalism and he still paints on public buildings but now he’s also a big deal art guy selling prints and paintings for thousands of dollars and he gets invited to tag up shi-shi hotel parking garages. Apparently that’s not ok? Apparently he’s only allowed to be an illegal vandalizing graffiti artist wherein he can paint whatever he wants or he’s allowed to be a big deal gallery artist but then he has to change his style and subject matter to suit the venue.

Walker is clearly aware that his artwork gets people’s knickers in a twist. He says:

“At the end of the day, ‘vandal’ is a taboo word…It’s a word everyone associates with graffiti. Everyone says if you paint graffiti it’s vandalism, or they used to before it became more of an acceptable art form.”

Therein lies the crux of the dilemma, right?

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

Graffiti used to be considered vandalism. It was cool because it was an art form created by outsiders and rebels and revolutionaries who flouted the law.

Graffiti artists were braver and crazier than the rest of us and their work was even more precious and fleeting because of the government’s power to eradicate it immediately and jail the artist. Anyone who believed in their art form strongly enough to risk imprisonment was inspiring.

But now… it’s different. Today street artists are invited to paint. They’re paid and often paid well, and their work is coveted by private collectors. Formerly repudiated artists now show their work in posh galleries and museums and their work is chiseled off of public walls and sold at auction for a zillion dollars.

So where does that leave us?

Is street art still a form of rebellious expression?

Is graffiti still outsider art if it’s supported by big companies and museums?

And more importantly, if street art no longer is outsider art, does it lose its impact?

I don’t have answers for these questions. Yet.

However, hear this: Nick Walker worked long and hard to get here and he outlasted thousands of other graffiti artists in the process. Moreover, his artwork is badass and if people pay him a zillion dollars for it, then good on him.

We should all be so lucky.

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

WALL/THERAPY in Rochester, NY

Art by Icy and Sot – Rochester, NY

Believing in the healing power of pictures, Dr. Ian Wilson, a radiologist and former graffiti artist from Brooklyn, in 2011 initiated the WALL/THERAPY project in Rochester, NY.

“The idea behind the project last year was to inspire the youth in the community to believe in something, anything,” Wilson said in a 2012 interview with Rochester’s City Newspaper “Because so many really don’t have any belief in anything, whether it’s the value of their own life, or their future….I wanted to produce something that spoke to them specifically, to charge them to believe in something.”

Art by Omen – Rochester, NY

Untitled (Chained Eagle) by Liqen – Rochester, NY

An international, all-star group of artists accepted Wilson’s invitation to come paint, and all of the buildings involved in the WALL/THERAPY project donated their walls. The public reception was so positive that the WALL/THERAPY project has grown every year since 2011, bringing over 100 murals to this modest sized city.

Fight Club by Conor Harrington – Rochester, NY

Art by Joe Guy Allard and Matthew Roberts – Rochester, NY

And then it actually worked.

In a 2015 In-Training article depicting some of the social challenges unique to Rochester, editor-in-chief Ria Pal says, “The murals proved to be an organic way to desegregate the city, bring new customers to small businesses, create dialogue, encourage residents from different areas to take pride in their neighborhoods and rediscover the city… No one would call WALL\THERAPY a panacea, but it does seem to be one successful way to mobilize once-stagnant neighborhoods and foster stewardship.”

Art by Mr PRVRT – Rochester, NY

 

“Color creates energy, energy creates inspiration, inspiration creates change.”

– WALL/THERAPY

 

While the public art is stunning, the WALL/THERAPY project goes deeper than the surface of the beautiful murals themselves. Wilson partnered the artistic endeavor with his other business—the Synthesis Collaborative, a company dedicated to providing radiology services and equipment to the developing world.

Got that?

One lone guy from Brooklyn simultaneously is providing colorful inspiration to kids and communities in Rochester, stimulating imaginations, and providing them with hope and a sense of what’s possible, while he also facilitates X-ray images of sick people in the developing world to help provide diagnostics, health, hope, and thus a longer life.

By this equation one could say pictures + hope = possibility.

Sleeping Bears by ROA – Rochester, NY

I was born white and English-speaking in America. I have a college education and a good job and I see a lot of art, so I thought I knew what I was looking at. But after Rochester and my experience reading, researching and experiencing WALL/THERAPY, I’ll never look at public art in the same way again.

Where I once simply saw beautiful pictures, I now always will wonder about the kids walking by these murals and dreaming of a better lives, lives they always will be able to link back to a mural and their first artistic taste of a wider world, beyond the limits of their own neighborhood.

Rhapsody by Faith47 – Rochester, NY

The Street Art Revolution

Art by Guido Van Helten - Reykjavik, Iceland

Art by Guido Van Helten – Reykjavik, Iceland

Not long ago I had dinner with close college friends so we could bemoan the election results. All my friends were sure we were in for four years of bullshit, but I shared an idea that only recently had occurred to me:

What if the next four years also brings an explosion of incredible art?

As protest. As a means of speaking truth to power. As a vehicle for rage and outrage, solidarity and organizing, grief and hope and persistence.

Historically art has thrived under oppression. When artists have to scrape and work and struggle, art acquires depth and context. It becomes a sounding board for expression that becomes urgent and relevant. Give artists something to fight for or against—boundaries to exceed, trespass, or transgress—and we get better art.

For the last nine years, I’ve been working as a wardrobe supervisor on tour with Broadway musicals. I’m on the road 52 weeks a year and I don’t have a home. I live in hotel rooms and when I’m not working, I travel for fun.

For the first couple years of my touring life, I was a tourist. I made an effort to visit all the must-see places in every city. I ate at the hot restaurants and experienced the tourist attractions that made each city unique. This is “been there, done that” traveling—experiencing a city as a microcosm.

But nearly a decade on, I’m looking for a different kind of traveling. I want to see the world in a broader context. I want to find the things that unite us, particularly now when my home country feels so fractured, practically pulsating with outrage.

The great Paul Bowles says this: “I feel that life is very short and the world is there to see and one should know as much about it as possible. One belongs to the whole world, not just one part of it.”

Untethered, perpetually homeless and belonging nowhere grants me an unusual perspective. I see a lot of the world. More than most people. And because of that, I notice and pay attention to things that most locals no longer see.

For the last two years I’ve been noticing, documenting, and contemplating the rise of street art across the nation and around the world. In every city I visit, I see huge, beautiful murals on public buildings, often funded by governments and massive corporations.

Art by Charley Harper - Cincinnati, OH

Art by Charley Harper – Cincinnati, OH

It feels like, rather suddenly, everywhere I look there are street art expos and fairs and celebrations and paintings and other forms of street art such as wheat paste, stencils, and stickers. It’s as if there were a cultural earthquake and myriad new public works of art are the aftershocks.

I grew up in an age when public (spray) painted art was called “graffiti”—a dirty word. Graffiti was found on buildings in “dangerous” neighborhoods, signifying gang territory. Municipal governments bonded together, seemingly unified in their hatred of graffiti art and its artists, labeling them vandals and passing legislation aimed at eliminating such defiant forms of artistic public expression.

These days, however, I see street artists everywhere expressing themselves publicly in staggeringly beautiful, powerful ways. And cities throughout the world are protecting, promoting, and funding their efforts, turning public, urban art into a boon rather than a bane.

Street art is ephemeral. It’s exposed to the elements and it fades and chips. People paint over it and build things that block it or demolish the buildings where the art lives. I love the transient aspect of this art form. For all the times that street art is a public roar of defiance and a statement of intent, it’s also quite delicate and disappears quickly.

Wheat paste Stick-Up - Chicago, IL

Wheat paste Stick-Up – Chicago, IL

I’m in a different city every week, and I’ve realized of late what an unusual lens this street art revolution affords me. Every city promotes different kinds of art and displays that art in a unique way. Some of the artwork is explicitly political in nature and some of it is utterly mystifying, yet each city contains street art treasures that say much about the spirit of the people who live there. In all my years of travel, street art is one of the most interesting ways I’ve ever discovered to experience a city.

Here’s an important caveat: I am never on the crest of the wave when it comes to trends or trendspotting. I’m late to every party in life and in the virtual world, so I am very aware that the artistic revolution I perceive has been happening for much longer than I’ve realized.

But I see it now.

It’s February and we’re more than a month into a new presidential administration and a commander-in-chief nobody knows how to handle. No one knows how much to protest and how much to sit tight and wait. And yet, there are many artists who have made up their minds, decided what to say and how to say it and art is exploding.

Everywhere.

Paul Bowles also says, “Before there can be change there must be discontent.”

Well, we’ve arrived. I can’t remember an age of discontent quite like this one. But with it has come change. Massive colorful powerful artistic change.

I want to explore these works of street art, document them, think about them, and remember them for posterity. I want to be a repository for this artistic roar and watch the echoes change the world long after the edifices on which they were created have crumbled and the artwork itself physically has disappeared.

Street art is changing the world as we know it. I’m going to start writing about the revolution here.

More to come.

Art by Natalia Rak - Providence, RI

Art by Natalia Rak – Providence, RI