2. KENLY CRAIGHILL - July 7, 2017
Kenly is bright and effusive, instantly beaming and chatting the moment she opens her apartment door to let me in. She and her partner live in a quaint two story walk-up in the Museum District, tucked away from a majority of the city’s noise and clutter. The space is brimming with art - it is hung up on the walls, spilling out of bookcases, scattered on her worktable. She tells me a little about each piece - most of them were done by her friends and were part of a trade or collaboration with another artist. They are grouped on the wall across from her workspace, hung above a mustard yellow loveseat, bathed in light from the window opposite.
There is the slow clack of nails on hardwood, and a mess of white fur comes meandering down the hall. “Hi Monster!” Kenly exclaims, laughing as she bends down to hug the large mutt that her partner, Cam, recently adopted. Monster Jam, as he was named by the SPCA, is old and deaf but sweet and unaffected.
Kenly has a record on in the main room as I enter - Parallel Lines by Blondie - and it spins while we talk, while she begins to show me around. She walks me through the living room to her workspace - a large wooden worktable scattered with scraps from magazines, sheets of stickers, markers, puffy paints, crayons. A few plastic crates atop an old gas radiator house small tubs of acrylic paint, screen printing ink, spray paint, excess supplies that couldn’t quite fit on the table.
The piece she’s currently working on sits atop the fray - it is a large white sheet of paper, bright red and green intersecting lines drawn with marker, black vibrant screen-printed letters spelling out the phrase “waist trainer.” Kenly begins to explain the motivation behind her work, the need to make things look good, cobble together and contextualize herself and her story, get people to look at something tangible and physical. She ruminates on her recent decision to cut out drawings from her old sketchbooks to use for her new collages, as opposed to creating new ones for her pieces. This way feels more organic and natural, she explains, as she shifts some scraps around, pulling specific cut-outs and pages from the pile.
Her and Cam share this small space, which she explains isn’t very conducive to her creative process, but functions well for now. She explains how she’s really fine with any sort of space - “anything with running water” - and she’ll even settle for less than that, she remarks, laughing. She plops to the floor, reaching beneath the desk to retrieve two huge packets wrapped in brown paper and begins to unwrap them, ripping them open. She pulls out a few large collaborative works done by her and Cam as well as lots of her smaller solo pieces. She remarks how she hasn’t collaborated with Cam recently, these pieces were done when she came up to visit him in New Brunswick, New Jersey this past year. He spent a year there working towards his MFA at Rutgers, ultimately deciding to come back to Richmond.
She shuffles through the work on the floor and then hops up, “Maybe you’d like this!” flits over to the nearby bookshelf, pulls out a copy of WWE Unscripted, an in-depth photographic account of professional wrestlers. Kenly squats back down, begins flipping through it - half the pages are missing huge chunks of images which she has cut out and pasted together to create most of the pieces she has spread out beneath her. She went through a period of time in which she used images from this publication constantly, loving the theatrical aspect, the overzealous nature of professional wrestling, pasting wild images of grown men in spandex, faces grimaced in pain or performative anger, on top of her words and drawings in crayon and marker, paint splatters, washi tape. When I ask why she works primarily with this particular medium, she replies, “Paper is cheap,” going on to describe how this form makes sense to her work right now, the directness of it, the relevancy of literal cutting and pasting to the story she’s trying to tell.
Her work often deals with body image, the commercial and popular representations of celebrities. She’s recently moved on from the wrestlers to models and actresses, these “otherworldly beautiful women” who she describes as the protagonists of the story. It’s a story that she’s “a part of but also not a part of,” one where the expectations are always impossible, unattainable versions of reality. She ruminates on her work, whether or not it is empowering to women, whether or not it is her responsibility to make work that is necessarily empowering. She’d like her work to be that, although it’s not something she’s willing to force.
Kenly has just graduated from VCU’s undergraduate painting & printmaking program in May, and she reaches behind her, extricating four pieces from a stack of work leaning up against the wall beside her. They are pieces from her senior show - four rectangular wooden frames, sewn and stuffed, images glued or stitched onto fabric, bursting from the frame. I ask her why she decided on VCU, and she admits that it wasn’t what she wanted initially.
Kenly grew up in Midlothian, what she refers to as a quintessential suburb, lying 20 minutes south of Richmond. At the time, she viewed VCU as the school that everyone went to after high school, somewhere that wasn’t particularly difficult to get into - a safety net of sorts. She didn’t want people to think she was stupid for ending up there, or settling, and she went in undeclared at the onset, afraid to apply for the arts school in fear that she would be rejected.
However, she hasn’t technically graduated, she explains, until she finishes up the last few credits that she’s working on now, taking a screen printing class over the summer. She dropped a ceramics class this past year after having a seizure during the very first class session. “I’m epileptic,” she explains, describing how the motion of the ceramic wheel had some sort of triggering effect. “I was too embarrassed to go back,” she says, laughing somewhat sheepishly. “The professor was so, so sweet, but I just couldn’t go back,” she explains, shaking her head.
When pressed further about about her experience at VCU, she responds that she was not “totally thrilled.” She explains that after her time there, she found that there were a lot of things that could be improved upon and changed, and it was the sort of program where you really had to seek out the experience, the learning, the value, for yourself. Which she was able to do, largely in part due to her inclusion in the Merit Studio. It gave her the space she needed to produce work that was important to her and allowed her to flourish in her program. Without it, she says, her experience at VCU would not have been as productive or beneficial.
I ask her about her inspirations, and she hops up again, pulling another volume from the bookshelf. It is a plain orange hardback book, big black block letters on the front spelling out Sterling Ruby. She begins to flip through the book, pausing momentarily at certain pages, continually talking and explaining as she goes. Ruby is an American artist who deals with many mediums, his work leaning towards the abstract, urban, chaotic. While Kenly is greatly inspired by Ruby, she also remarks how she’s “tired of loving men.” She appreciates the work of Rachel Harrison and Becky Brown, both known for their unique styles of assemblage and collage, but still wants more female artists to look up to - to be inspired by.
There is a bit of exasperation, frustration in her voice as she remarks, “Women are the crawlspace of the the art world.” I ask her to elaborate, not quite understanding what she means at first. She explains that women provide stability, a foundation, whether emotionally, physically, mentally, for the people around them, for men - their partners, coworkers, friends. The logistical abilities, practicality, multi-tasking, planning, responsibility, drive, that women offer - without it the art world would crumble, she explains. But still, women are not hired, they are under-payed, their work unwanted, shunted aside.
“And now I have to navigate through that,” she sighs, elaborating on the difficulty in dating another artist, who produces work in the same vein as hers. She emphasizes the importance of being the “protagonist of her own life,” wanting her work to stand on its own, and not in relation to her partner’s. The last thing she wants is to feel like a “sidekick,” as she explains it, only known as “the painter’s girlfriend.” Women have to work harder to be recognized and appreciated, she explains, even as they give so much to their craft, to those around them.
She jumps up again from her desk, excited, almost unable to sit still, laughing as she crosses the room to a different bookshelf. “I think you might like this,” she says, pulling out a thin, black, spiral notebook. It contains writings and notes from her first few years of college, overflowing with melodramatic tirades and notes from her Gen Ed classes. She skims, flips, reads a few lines aloud, finding the humor in the distress felt by her former self. The record ends, she walks over to the player and flips it over, “11:59” comes on, Debbie Harry crooning about the end of time, about wanting to stay alive. Monster is sprawled on the ground, sleepy, unbothered by us, Kenly sits beside him, petting his mop-like belly as she talks.
I bring up her post-graduate plans, and she mentions Bard’s MFA program, located in rural New York, overlooking the Catskill Mountains. Their program caught her eye the most, but she’d still like to take a bit more time to herself, to develop her work, before diving into a graduate program. She ruminates on the possibility of doing a residency, mentioning one in France at the Centre Pompadour - a laboratory for Neo-Feminism. She laughs to herself as she recalls a dream she had recently in which Cam decided to do that specific residency - and she was flabbergasted, completely bewildered that he would usurp an aspiration of hers without fully being able to understand it. She tells me about a few other residencies she’s been looking at, feeling the need and the desire to create, to ground herself in the story she wants to tell with her work.
She mentions her most recent project, her newfound interest in creating powerpoint presentations, her desire to print the slides, produce a zine, use CMYK screen printing for the production of it. A few days later, as I scroll through my Instagram feed, I notice she’s finished it, a small, rectangular booklet, entitled THESE AREN’T JOKES THESE ARE MY POEMS, short snippets of text, incredibly close-cropped images of pink, glossy lipsticked lips, goopy blue eye-shadowed lids, a page filled with large white letters - “Top Ten Bruises on My Body.” It is exciting to see her new work so soon after hearing her talk about it, she is passionate, seems quick to action, easily excited, spurred on, inspired to work, to create.
After a while of her talking, me prying, I begin to start talking more, her listening, me rambling, until half an hour is gone and I realize I haven’t written a single thing down. I felt comfortable there, open and welcomed, so much so that I let myself talk and talk, her being so willing to listen. I check my notes, make sure that I have asked everything, have all the information I need, take a few more detail shots. I ask her if I can photograph her standing in the middle of the room, and she consents, laughing a bit, remarking how uncomfortable she feels being photographed. But she doesn’t look it, and she lets me shoot away while she continues to talk, talk about her desires, her goals. She casts her gaze around her as I shoot, the space reflects her - it is vibrant, messy, stuffed with art and life and light. The record ended a while ago, but the space was not empty for noise, our conversation, her excitement for her work, and the opportunity, the ability, the freedom to keep producing.
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