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Kelly Marshall - visual artist, educator

San Diego, California / United States

Website | Instagram

We are beyond thrilled to have interviewed Kelly Marshall! Kelly is a visual artist, art educator, owner of a full-inclusion children's art studio Color Construct Create Studios, wife and mother of two. She is a multidisciplinary artist who is passionate about systemic inequalities in women’s health, division of labor, and what feels like a societal return to the 19th century.

Kelly, you are a multidisciplinary abstract artist with a career as a special education teacher. Can you tell us a little more about yourself (brief bio/history/backstory/journey into art)?

I have always been an artist/creator in some form. The stories from my mother date back to about 18 months of age when I managed to reach through the bars of the crib and get ahold of my grandmother’s purse. She had an affinity for red Chanel lipstick and, as the story goes, so did I! After what seemed like a very long nap, they went to check on me, only to discover I had painted everything from myself to the wall with red Chanel! There are many more stories like this one.

My parents did not have a means for art classes as a child so I didn’t take my first class until my sophomore year of high school. I was immediately hooked! Due to finances, I stayed home for college and attended San Diego State University where I received my degree in Painting and Printmaking. Although my original plan had been to pursue an MFA immediately after undergrad, my student loan situation created a little detour which led me into the field of education. After teaching special education for a decade and the birth of my two children, I opened a children’s art school with a full-inclusion emphasis. I have owned and operated my little program from 2011 until now when I recently closed my doors due to the Covid pandemic and my family situation.

During my time spent teaching, my students would often ask me about my own art practice? “Ms Kelly, what do you make?” The interesting thing was that I hadn’t really given myself permission to explore my own creative pursuits. I was constantly making, project samples or fun things for/with my boys, but never for myself. About 5 years ago, I succumbed to my inner need to create for myself. It started as a small spark, little efforts, and then grew into a full-fledged practice of daily making. I finally revisited my goal of going to graduate school for my MFA and am in my first year of the Low Residency Visual Studies program with Pacific Northwest College of Art. I should finish in the summer of 2022.

Your art reflects your interest in social justice issues. What are the main topics that you focus on and what do you hope to achieve with your work?

It’s interesting because my practice hasn’t always been about social justice. When I began making art, I was pretty exclusively focused on making work that was aesthetically pleasing and saleable. Through working with mentors and really reflecting on my intentions, I began to get more editorial with the work. I was not satisfied with “pretty” if it did not have any direct intention or meaning behind it.

This hunger for more is what has driven the themes behind my work. I am very concerned with systemic inequalities in women’s health, division of labor, and what feels like a societal return to the 19th century. My current project explores lace and it’s origins. By integrating lace into my pieces in a way that emphasizes its commercially and sexually charged aesthetics, I draw attention to social expectations around women’s beauty and the desire for an idealized embodiment while highlighting the obscured bodies that offer alternative testimonies for the multiple medical and social realities of class, gender, and sexuality.

Your life, work and art practice became challenging when your youngest child was born with a number of health issues. Thank you so much for sharing such a vulnerable information. What was/is it like for you? What would you advice parents who are in a similar situation?

My son was born with a neurological birth defect that has caused many serious complications throughout his young life. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, worse than the feeling of not being able to keep your child safe or healthy. His health has dominated my life as a mother. Balancing it along with being present for my eldest child has been all-encompassing. During the first few years of his life, I did not have any bandwidth for much outside of caring for the boys. I did not create during that time, in the same way, I do now. I survived.

Now that the kids are older and we have a relative handle on my son’s health, I have a lot more room in my life to focus on my career as an artist. The pandemic, however, has felt like a return to the early years of his life in terms of my fear. Since his physicians have recommended full quarantining for him (and our family, subsequently), I have chosen to stop teaching at my children’s studio in order to homeschool him. It was not a difficult choice, it was the only choice. We will operate under our new normal until a safe and effective vaccine is available for him. This massive change to our home situation has had an interesting impact on my practice. After converting my studio into shared classroom space, I am now able to spend my breaks and his independent schoolwork times working on my own practice. These little chunks of time have been just enough to keep my creative brain engaged.

The one piece of advice I would offer to any parent in a similar situation is to give yourself grace. Parenting is hard under “normal” conditions. Allowing myself time and space to just be as a mother and artist has been critical to my ability to continue. All of the struggle and heartache provides a depth of character and experience so valuable to the creative process. I hope my work reflects my advocacy for my son and others like him.

You opened a full-inclusion children’s art studio in 2011. Tell us all about it!

Color Construct Create Studios is my baby! As a special education teacher, I absolutely fell in love with my students but could not manage the needs of my children due to my son’s health AND meet the needs of my students full-time. Opening an art studio for children of all abilities was the perfect marriage between my career as an educator and passion as an artist. Together with my friend and business partner (an occupational therapist), we have offered therapeutic art classes after school and during the summer for the past decade. For many of our fully-included students, our classes are one of the few extra-curricular activities they have access to. Our neurotypical children receive innumerable benefits from working as peer models and friends. My students are my joy, and sharing art with them is a gift. We are currently on “pause” with the pandemic but hope to resume classes in the future.

You have a long career as an art educator but you only started selling your own work in 2017. Your art is breathtaking! What was the defining moment when you realized that you can be a full-time artist?

I love this question. It was the moment I finally gave myself permission to do this thing that I’ve always wanted to do. I finally felt secure enough, in myself as a person, to be vulnerable. Being a visual artist is a constant exercise in vulnerability. Every time we make something and send it out into the ether, we are exposing ourselves to judgment. I love creating so much that when I’m out in the studio, hours can go by in a flash. Over the past few years of truly committing to my practice, I’ve discovered that I have something to say and will not be satisfied until I say it (in paint!).

Your dream came true when you were accepted into a graduate MFA program at Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland. Congratulations! How does it feel to be a student again?

This year, I revisited my goal of going to graduate school for my MFA and am in my first year of the Low Residency Visual Studies program with Pacific Northwest College of Art. I am really grateful to be in this program RIGHT NOW as opposed to when I was 22 years old. My life experience and perspectives drive my work in ways that are complex and mature. I have no regrets about waiting. It is perfect for my current life stage and situation. The program is incredible. I feel so challenged and supported in all of the issues that concern me as well as the interests I’d like to pursue creatively! Visual Studies is much more than just art-making. We really get into the “sauce”, the theory behind why art exists and is necessary to the fabric of our society.

My undergraduate program was very practice-heavy and so this is really expanding my theoretical knowledge base. It is also really special because we are able to access some of the best facilities in the country while being part of an intimate cohort of artists. Low Residency means I attend in-person for 3 summer intensives while working independently with mentors during the 2 school years. I am absolutely loving the challenge!

How did you feel about motherhood in the past and how do you feel about it now?

Motherhood is something I have always cherished, even with the incredible highs and lows. I lost my mother as a young woman and that experience changed my own relationship to and with motherhood. I also battled with post-partum depression after losing a pregnancy between my boys and after the birth of my second child. My creative process is centered around self-reflection which is also a critical part of my success (and sometimes lack there of) as a mother. Now that my boys are 10 and 13, I am constantly reflecting on my own experiences, how I react, and how I can support them as they exercise their independence. Teens are not easy but can be so much fun! I feel very strongly that art about motherhood needs more representation in the art world at large.

What is the message behind your art?

My work is aggressively female! Whether represented in form or just intent, there are strong themes of feminism, bodies, invisible labor, and motherhood.

What does your art do for you?

My artwork is my voice in a world where I feel voiceless. I’m driven by my belief that hard work can prevent us from returning to the systemic inequalities of the nineteenth century, and abstract painting allows me to wrestle between two worldviews: a hard anger over today’s injustices versus a softer appreciation for the hope that social justice work creates. Instead, my paintings engage with the complicated moment in history we are all facing, and that most of us also face privately. These are moments that can feel simultaneously desperate and filled with inspiration about the change that might be possible.

What are your plans for the future (career, parenting etc.)?

Survive the teen years!! This next phase is all about letting them go out and find themselves. Hard for mom but so important. In terms of my art, I’ve let go of the limitations I placed on myself. I had falsely assumed that the measure of my own success was sales of work, gallery exposure, and shows instead of the work itself. By freeing myself of these limitations, I am much more open to the possibilities inside my own imagination. The results have already yielded greater satisfaction and drive to push my own limits. My next project is taking me into 3-dimensional work, sculpture, and further inquiring into what I can do with lace!

What advice do you have for fellow art mums?

Don’t second guess yourself or limit yourself by the notions of other people or their expectations. Explore your own imagination! I lost mine for a while and didn’t nurture it. Finding it has taken time but has been worth every second of the journey. The best piece of advice that I have been given is to create my own opportunities!

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