‘Transmutation,’ An Interview with Kellesimone Waits
Kellesimone Waits’ new series of paintings titled ‘Transmutation’ feature wide-eyed heroines, delicately sketched in pencil and set against bright backdrops of color. Paired with carefully chosen flowers and animal companions, these women confront the viewer with a quiet power. Each portrait is inspired by a different Grimm’s Fairy Tale — dark tales of animal transformation, curses, and untimely deaths. Kellesimone has made a name for herself as an artist with versatility, authenticity, and a subtle whimsy. Galerie Project took a moment after the opening of her new solo show to speak with Kellesimone about her artistic beginnings, powerful women, and some of the macabre stories that inspire her.
Galerie Project: Can you tell me a little bit about your background? How did you become involved in art?
Kelliesimone Waits: Well, like most artists I have always painted. But, as far as starting out and showing… I walked into a gallery one day, it was pretty naive, but I just walked in and asked for a job at a gallery in the town that I grew up in, Santa Rosa. I talked to the gallery owner for a while. She said that she didn’t have a job for me but got my number and if anything came up she would give me a call. A week later she contacted me and said that she was having a group show and wanted to see my work. So that is how I got my first show. Later, I got a job sitting the gallery and gained some experience with that too.
GP: You were raised by an artist, your mom Kathleen Brennan is an artist correct?
KW: Yeah, my mom writes and paints some too; also my dad’s a musician (Tom Waits). They have both always been very supportive of me.
GP: ‘Transmutation,’ this particular series, was inspired by the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, what drew you to that theme?
KW: Well, I knew that I wanted to make work again with people and animals. I have a series of work called ‘What’s Your Power Animal?’, which is a series of people with animal heads, pulling from myths and stories from all sorts of cultures. This time I wanted to work with women and animals. I started out with ‘The Frog King,’ which is a Grimm’s Fairy Tale. From the series ‘What’s Your Power Animal?’ I have Venus hanging in my apartment, which is a painting of a young woman with a frog head. So I think that was how I made that leap. Then I realized, looking into more Grimm’s Fairy Tales, there were so many stories where transformations from man to animal happen. So I just stayed with the Grimm’s fairy tales.
GP: The medium you chose for this show, mostly pencil and watercolor, felt very soft and light — the Grimm’s fairy tales are often quite dark and foreboding. Why did you choose such an airy medium?
KW: Yeah, I was interested in making a beautiful image. But, I was also interested in showing the women as strong. Which is why I have them looking head on, confronting the viewer that way. They’re all making eye contact, and that is very deliberate. Also, I like the contrast between the materials. Let me tell you about the flowers too, those all connect to the stories. Sometimes the stories do have flowers in them. For the ones that don’t, I pick flowers out myself and the meaning of the flowers connects to the story. So they’re all picked for a reason.
GP: What about the large portrait of the girl in the button down dress with the crows flying overhead? Can you tell me a little about that painting?
KW: Well the flowers in that one are Forget Me Nots, and the crows are left as crows until the girl grows up. They were turned into crows when she was a very young child, a baby actually. Her mother curses her sons because they take too long coming back from the well to get water to baptize the baby daughter, who is very sickly. They want to baptize her quickly because they’re worried she’s going to die. So when they take so long to return the mother curses her sons, but it’s more of a half-assed curse than an evil curse. They still turn into ravens though, and they stay that way until the girl becomes a young woman; she goes on a long journey to save them and loses her pinky finger along the way. She sacrifices it to get into a big glass mountain where her brothers are; she loses a chicken leg that the stars have given her to gain entrance, so she cuts off her pinky finger instead. I love the Forget Me Nots for this story because if I were a raven that had been stuck that way for that long I would be worried that I would be forgotten.
GP: Out of the series, which would you say is your favorite story?
KW: I think the juniper tree; it’s one of the darkest. The dark part is that this jealous step mother, who can’t stand her step son, murders him. She has him stick his head in a trunk to pull out an apple, and then she snaps the trunk shut on him. She props him up in a chair and sets his head on his shoulders, then sends her daughter to talk to him. She tells her to get an apple from him, when the daughter tries to pull the apple from his mouth his head rolls off his shoulders and the daughter runs downstairs crying because she thinks she killed her brother. The mother says, “Oh no! What are we going to do now?” She lets her little daughter think that she has killed her brother. She says, “The only solution is to chop him up into little pieces and feed him to your father.” So they do that, the little girl is crying the whole time and ends up collecting the bones to bury under a juniper tree where his mother was buried. After she buries them the tree bursts into flames and the son comes rising out of the flames like a phoenix; which is why there’s a phoenix in the drawing. Then he sings a song about what happened to him flying throughout the town and collects various things — a pair of slippers, a gold chain, and a mill stone. He goes back home and sings his song again and gives the gold chain to his father, the slippers to his sister, and the mill stone to his step-mother by dropping it on her. In one version he turns back into a boy after killing his step-mother and in another he flies away.
GP: You said you wanted to focus on women, I noticed that this show is composed entirely of female portraits. What is it about the female form you really wanted to explore?
KW: Well, most of my work has been about the female form. I have just always been really attracted to that. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman and I connect? There is just something really beautiful about it, the female form is all throughout art history too.
GP: So it’s a bit of self-exploration?
KW: Yeah, I have actually had someone tell me that she could sort of see me in the portraits.
GP: Interesting, do you work from models?
KW: Actually I work from images in fashion magazines.
GP: Do you gather inspiration from anything else?
KW: I like [Francis] Bacon a lot, and Nathan Oliveira, Marlene Dumas; all for their paint handling I would say.
GP: What are your next projects? What can we look forward to in the future?
KW: I’m actually working on more images about the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I’m taking work from Project Gallery to Scope and doing pieces that show the men in transformation. I have a bear that’s floating in space with limbs coming out of him, painted to show the man transforming into a bear.
‘Transmutation’ opened October 10th at Project Gallery located at 961 Chung King Rd, Los Angeles, CA 90012 and runs until November 15th.
Enjoy “Tears of a Unicorn” by Masayoshi Fujita while viewing the gallery below.
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