SF based artist Kelly Tunstall creates large-scale bodies of work, occasionally in collaboration with her equally talented husband, artist Ferris Plock. Sharing an aesthetic filled with vibrant color and pattern, Kelly’s elegantly elongated dames play perfect narrative foils to Ferris’ toothy yet tender beasts. For her newest exhibition, ‘Secret State’ that opened earlier this month at SF’s 111 Minna Gallery, Kelly stands on her own with an impressively large collection of whimsical portraits imbued with unexpected, odd inclusions such as multiple limbs, astrological head gear and disembodied eyes appearing imbedded in upturned palms. We had the chance to interview Kelly as she was working on her show, view more images of the work and read the full interview below.
What do you believe to be the heart of your work?
A strange sense of beauty and the internal being externalized and likewise.
You often paint impressively large bodies of work. Can you attribute this prolific style on careful planning or are you inspired to create more as you are working?
I wish I could attribute it to that- I guess I’m really a subconscious painter.
I really paint best that way. I save up a lot of energy and thoughts over a few months and then put it all into a group of paintings. I like painting in collections because themes naturally occur, and all the pieces tie together naturally. And then the final act is hanging them together and then the piece is done.
When I work in groups, it’s truly one big piece. I feel like each piece is a study towards the larger context.
I love planning for specific environments and histories, so the big shows are a really good opportunity to do that. When the opportunity is there, my/our work can become really site specific. I have to be ENJOYING myself. I do great work with pressure and a timeline; everything feels fresh if I’m working up until the last minute, so I can experience it right along with everyone going to see a show. It’s new to me too that way.
Then I get to pick a dress and get cleaned up and glamorous and then you’re IMMERSED in it, which is the best way to be with anything. I need to live it, is the best way to state it. It needs to grow out of my hands and into the world.
Can you explain what a usual working day for you is like?
Nope. Each one is different.
However, an ideal day or week means I can just melt into the work and everything is ready for that to happen. No supplies to be bought, food and beer nearby, nothing else to think about. When my head is on it’s ON and I do my best to make sure that time collides with when I can be in the studio or get it down in a sketchbook. I keep concepts for paintings as concepts or rough sketches until I can have some serious time to work through something.
What is it like to collaborate on paintings and shows with your husband? Do you plan out the collaborative pieces you paint together or does it happen organically?
We are always kicking around ideas for our shows. Collaboration has really pushed each of us in our own bodies of work; we’re both working on our own after showing almost exclusively together for a few years there. So it will be fun to get in the studio together again whenever that happens.
The big shows are a blast. we each have ideas for pieces that we head off and then we just go back and forth. Ferris will work for awhile, we’ll trade off when we get stuck or feel done. I love starting big backgrounds, we’ll try to start with a basic color palette, just to keep things even. That never stays put.
Color and pattern seem to play a large role in your work, almost acting as secondary characters. Can you talk about this?
My actual artistic education was mostly in graphic design- so the purely communicative, almost scientific aspects of aesthetic judgementsthat absorbed that other way (on the left side) and then have ended up making their way to my guts and then my hands- I have really innate reactions to color- I really fall in love deeply with colors for awhile but then there’s the basics. I always feel like I’m learning, but I really FEEL color.
Patterns are meditations; I love the act of doing them, but not like Ferris right now- he’s almost compulsive. Or yes, absolutely compulsive. It’s incredible.
I’ll get into the fashion side of things in a minute; that definitely has something to do with it.
Are your figures conveying embodiments of emotion or narrative?
Good combo of both. And also a diary.
If they could, what do you think they would say to each other?
I’m pretty sure they sound like birds.
Where do you imagine the ideal place for your work to be hung once it leaves the gallery?
Somewhere where it’s loved and someone is able to look at it everyday for years. Personally, I think the little ones look great in groupings, like a portrait wall of an imaginary family.
How important is fashion to your work?
Very. I always feel like I’m the fashion designer I wanted to be or I’m painting things I would like to have from real designers. And then the need goes away. We were never rich, but I was always challenged to draw the things that I dreamt of.
Or it doesn’t and then I need to go buy something, which is now ok, because then I’ll love it and it will work itself into the work somehow- like some bit of embroidery or lace or two colors together will just strike me. As long as something comes out of it- that’s the rule.
Fashion is a very real way of communicating, and even more so if you know the many languages. It’s incredible the voices people have- like so many tropical birds! I love the fashion blogs, but that’s really candy before dinner for me. I love the runway shows more than anything because they are complete expressions of designers and sets and makeup. They’re like 5 minute movies in 30 still frames. That’s supper.
Fashion can be a very real and momentary read on what’s going on out there- the sea changes are incredible. I realize it’s hugely wasteful, but that’s changing, and so unattainable, but no more so (and way less so) than all the trade shows, I love craftsmanship in its highest forms and I like to see it encouraged. That’s why couture is so important to me. Traditions and methods are being lost every day, that’s just one of the most visible ways. I could never embroider or bead or cut patterns or make cloth. So I do it in my work.
I would cut paper dolls all summer when I was young; editing down and selecting the pieces from Vogue I loved kept me busy. That’s really how I fell in love with fashion.
Can you share some of your current inspirations?
I’d call them triggers- I always enjoy a Wes Anderson or Miyazaki or Fellini film, love the Rolling Stones, but it all mixes together along with the everyday stuff. I think I’m a generalist when it comes down to it, I think.
I like listening to the radio because I feel like that’s where I get clues or answers to stuff I’m thinking about or trying to resolve- just because it’s so random. I try to tune in as much as I can when I’m out and about because I feel like answers can come from anywhere.
I adore odd juxtapositions. Anywhere.
I’ve got eyes that eat. I can go without food for days as long as I’ve got intriguing things to look at, play with, listen to.
I find interior design very inspiring- spaces and combinations of space and use of color in things that are not directly related to what I do helps to give me some sort of context. I am always playing with our house. little vignettes, new toys, antiques, pieces of printed matter. It all informs composition and color if I’m stuck.
Same for clothes. My closet may well be my palette. It’s also a good mix. My favorite designers that live in my closet are the imaginative pieces from alexander mcqueen, undercover, and the utalitarianism of isabel marant, though i really love the materials, quality and crafstmanship of the anonymous vintage designers. Those things tend to fit me better anyways- I’m really kind of small.
I immerse (when I can) at stores. I love to catalog visually what’s out there. I love the formality and quality of displays at Barneys, conversely, the sheer multitude of options at Target.
I really digest stuff before it applies to my work.
There is always a peculiar element to your work, such as: the unexpected ways in which you paint eyes, the elements of navigation and exploration, circus freaks, mythological creatures….
It’s external symbology of the internal for me- that girl having extra arms means extra efficiency or desire to be more so, or multiple eyes to see better from the mind or more watchful all over, but I also don’t mind co-opting imagery and symbology from religions, ancient cultures; people know these symbols somewhere in their guts I think.
The eyes are worlds inside of worlds- mirrors to the soul and all, but also I strangely try to reflect where light sources might be in the space they are in at the moment. Ferris and I are very practical- we have to stop ourselves from being like, well, that bear couldn’t possibly be balancing on that piece of string or whatever. Even though we don’t have to, we can’t help but making rules of physics and the physical world apply… most of the time.
I’m never one to try and tell a specific story that someone could literally read, it’s more a feeling that you get. That you’re being looked out for. If I attach myself to one of my pieces- that i need to hold onto one for a bit, I kind of think it knows something I don’t- some attribute I’m looking for aspiring to- something I might need to absorb. I can’t speak for other people and why my work appeals, but I really do think they can be protective.
My father was an airforce navigator, so his maps showed up early on as backgrounds. I love them, they’re so graphic, but that’s also what we wrapped our presents in.Personally, I feel like I’m still out there exploring- living in San Francisco; every day you’re doing ten things to keep it together. It’s all very romantic, good work, but hard for sure.