Steph Kellett

Artist: Steph Kellett
Photographer: Electrify

A Conversation with Steph Kellett

What was your first creative experience?

I think my first creative memory was drawing with a crayon on my wall. I was three or four, it was in the summer and light out but past my bedtime. I was trying to draw in such a way that my blankets would cover it even when my bed was made. After Mom put me to bed, I would stealthily get out all my colours.

Did your mother ever find it?

Yeah, she did. I grew up with a single mom and I’m sure she knew a lot of stuff that I thought I was sneaky about. I definitely got in trouble for drawing on the walls numerous times.

Do you think that was your first mural?

I think so. Later on, Mom let me paint some of the walls, and those murals still exist in the house that she still lives in.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Kamloops but I grew up in the desert of Penticton until I went away to college.

Where did you go to college?

I went to OUBC for Fine Arts. They had just finished the new studios at the North Kelowna campus and I thought I would try it out. I had a great time! I didn’t get much sleep though, nor did I do much painting. I studied video editing and photography. After I completed my diploma, I did a few years of travelling and then ended up at UVIC in 2006 to finish my degree in art history.

How did you make your way to the Kootenays?

While I was studying art history, I fell in love with a few creatives and their stories. They often had sojourns into the wilderness to paint or write. I had come through the Kootenays to visit a few times and I thought it would be romantic to spend a winter in a cabin and teach myself to paint. I finally did that in the winter of 2009. I had my truck packed with everything that I owned. I had been landscaping and teaching yoga for a few years before, and my world was primarily physical and practical. While I was driving from Victoria to the Kootenays though, I got rear ended and lost a good deal of my mobility for the next six months. It created this fork in the road. I couldn’t go back to those physical vocations, at least not right away. I was like “Ok, well, painting has to work then.” And it did! It’s been carrying me ever since. I feel incredibly grateful for that injury actually, and for the incredibly supportive community of the Slocan Valley where I lived for my first eight years in the Kootenays. The Slocan gave me a connection to the rural and the wild. It gave me an appreciation for deep listening which I carry with me. Living there inspired me to start painting landscapes.

How do the politics of the natural world feed into your mural?

The wolf and caribou populations in the Selkirk Mountains are a big topic lately. There’s controversy around culling wolves in an attempt to stabilize the cariboo population (even though human activity is what creates pathways for wolves to get into the subalpine in the winter). I use silhouettes of wildflowers and some invasive species in the mural as well. All of these species live here in these mountains. The mountains are part of them. We place all our ideas on them; things to be saved, things to be killed, things to be controlled when really they just need to be able to exist in their home here. Depending on where you are standing, the mural can offer different perspectives; you can see one or the other or both. You can see this individual creature in a landscape, or you can see its relationship to its family and each other.

What is your process like for making something like this?

I usually start with a background colour or with a specific shape or emotion. I add in imagery and graphic elements from there. I take a lot of time to listen to the piece, and see what it’s asking for – it’s a really magical process that I totally dig. This mural was a bit different because I started with the 3-sided shape of the building, and looked at how the architecture could be an ally in the conversation I wanted to generate about the caribou. I made the design from there.

Do you like painting in public?

I do. Over the years it’s gotten a lot easier to be watched, and I love the interactions with the public.

You mentioned earlier that you studied art history, are there any famous painters that influence your work?

I love Emily Carr and Ana Mendieta, and Frida of course. Those artists who could really pick up on the feeling of a place or experience, and translate it. Women like that are really inspiring to me because although women are quite cued into emotional and transformative processes, we aren’t always encouraged to indulge them. I really like to weave that indulgence into my work.

How would you define transformative?

To let a place or an experience shape you. To not be so static in the idea of the work but change with the changes. My work has continually changed through the years, it’s hard to solidify it.

How do you navigate the business side of being an artist in a rural community?

At first I needed to develop a wider range of skills. I did everything from logo design to murals and grant writing. I threw my own art exhibits. My partner is a DJ and a writer so he DJs my art openings and it’ll turn into an all-night dance party. Currently we’re working on a collaborative book of his short stories that I’ve illustrated. Diversity is really a thing that you develop in rural areas. You get the luxury of honing in on a specific style or a specific skill set right away in the city. I feel like I’m just on the edge of that now.

What advice would you give your young artist self?

Never say never. Everything you say you’ll never do, you usually end up doing, and you end up loving it.

Always move towards an edge of discomfort because that’s where growth happens.

Don’t get too upset about the immediate future. With art, there’s a lot of ebb and flow, a lot of feast and famine. You just gotta take the long view. There’s a general incline for most people who can make it through the first ten years. But that first ten years is often grueling. Artists often feel unseen or unappreciated, and sometimes you’re not sure what you’re doing, but you have to just keep doing it.

What is your favourite place to eat in town?

Oso Negro is great. I love El Taco, Red Light Ramen, and Cantina Del Centro – the food and staff are so great at all of them.

What’s coming up for you?

Right now, I am working on a grant project where I’m illustrating a journal that I kept while out on a wilderness trip. I’m hoping to have that completed by November of this year. I’m also starting another large body of work that will be exhibited at the Kootenay Gallery of Art in 2020, based off of two trips to the Yukon. I’m also working on a few commissions and some paintings for a show at Red Light Ramen in April of 2019. I’m also excited to be partnering with WildSight at the beginning of November. Stay tuned for that.

In the meantime, you can find prints of my artwork at the Nelson Museum gift shop and Gaia Rising in Nelson, Rambling Rose’s Treasure Shop in Winlaw, Kootenay Gateway in Rossland, Prima Materia in Nakusp, and online at my shop

Why murals?

Murals are public. They’re for the people. I like art to be accessible and emotive, and I like art that has a deeper meaning, a shared experience. The mural viewer is whoever happens to walk by, and I like the thought of how diverse that conversation could be. Murals also have a dialogue with time, and you can revisit them over the years.

Interviewer: Nicola Rough – 2018



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