A Conversation with Kelly Vivanco

by Ken HarmanPosted on

Kelly Vivanco has been quietly painting away in Escondido, California for over six years, honing her skills at depicting her inner world until creating an enigmatic yet compelling scenario has become almost second nature. In much of her work, it is the eyes that first captivate the viewer – they are deep, glistening pools of emotion that can evoke a storyline in a glance. Even her animal characters are imbued with distinct personalities and roles in the mysterious allegory in which they dwell. All of Kelly’s work has a distinct narrative sensibility, bringing to mind the great children’s illustrators of the turn of the century – a vintage storybook feel which is made contemporary by the self-possessed attitude and quirky style of her subjects.

Adept in many media, Kelly generally works in acrylics and water-soluble oils. Her paintings run the gamut from loosely rendered, illustrative tableaux to highly finished imaginary portraits, but no matter what method she chooses, they share her confident hand, acute sense of color and a playful wonder.

Kelly is busy preparing for her first Los Angeles solo show, entitled “The Conservatory,” which opens on June 12th at Thinkspace, but fortunately she found some time to chat with me about her work.

Amanda Erlanson: Tell me a little about your childhood, which you spent drawing “subterranean cities and space warrens” in “a nest of paper, crayons, markers and other materials.” Was anyone in your family an artist?

“Her Favorite Red”
Kelly Vivanco: I was always drawing, completely content with a blank pad of paper and pens. My mom always tells me how I would set up a nest, sometimes several nests of creative supplies, where I would sit and draw. I was never a coloring kid. Never liked coloring books. My grandfather was a Sunday painter and I got lots of supplies from him. My grandmother from my mother’s side was artistic too, but I never really saw what she did.

I remember one of my distant relatives died and they sent me a lot of pads of paper from her estate. She was an artist too, and I guess someone remembered that I was a paper monster. That was the best thing, like Christmas, boxes and boxes of paper pads and markers. Kinda dusty-smelling, but who cared?

AE: That sounds wonderful. Did you always know you would be an artist?

KV: I think I did. I can’t remember ever wanting to be anything else. It was the only thing I felt I was any good at. I thought I might illustrate children’s books one day. I loved Richard Scarry books and Beatrix Potter. I enjoyed looking through my richly illustrated books, getting absorbed in the worlds. Sometimes I look through a book I haven’t seen since I was little and I have this sense of recognition – like, “Oh my god! I was there!” Like I had actually been in the picture.

AE: We’ve spoken in the past about how much we both love Golden Age children’s book illustrators like N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle. Do you think there were particular illustrations or other images that you encountered at an early age that may have shaped your aesthetic?

KV: Well, definitely Beatrix Potter’s work. I loved The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and The Tale of Two Bad Mice. Anything that has hidden elements to draw you in. My mom gave me a couple of books based on Chinese folk tales – one was called The Magic Brush, I believe, where a boy is given a brush and everything he paints comes to life off of the page.

The other was Japanese, called Issun-boshi, about a boy who is one inch tall and the adventures he has. It was great, lots of colorful illustrations of demons and giant fish. I was always looking through books my parents had too, tomes on Egypt and the art in the Louvre and Uffizi Gallery. There are plenty of books I got from the library as well, I just don’t remember the titles. I get so mad when they want to cut library funding and hours. I think, “Hey! That’s where I got my fuel!”

AE: Yeah, public libraries are the soul of our culture… I would be a very different person if they hadn’t existed. You once said, “My paintings are a little theater, putting on plays of interesting scenarios I like to watch. Little mysteries, precious enigmas.” With what seems like remarkable ease, you create recognizably individual portraits with an overwhelming sense of narrative – dramatic depictions of emotions and passions that are instantly discernible. You imbue even your animal characters with distinct personalities and feelings – determination, resourcefulness, weariness, curiosity. I know that some of your characters’ costumes and expressions come from your large collection of vintage snapshots. Where else do you gather inspiration for the incredible array of emotions and situations you depict?

KV: It’s all inside, I suppose, but if I am feeling blank I will look through my old photos or the giant stacks I have in my image library and a cloud will form. That’s what it feels like – like 1,000 droplets of inspiration forming. Sometimes just being outside and looking at the light or some amazing colored flowers will be enough. It feels cheesy to say I feel inspired by a sunset, but it’s true. I won’t say, “Look at that vibrant bougainvillea, I must paint it!” It will be more like a welling of appreciation for the color and form I am seeing, and I will take that feeling of inspiration and transform it into my own language.

AE: Your surreal, slightly sinister dreamscapes have a disturbing and wonderful power – as in the girl gingerly reaching for the spiky red twigs emerging from a radiant hole in the ground in “New Growth,” and the child lost in the swamp at night with a boat full of strange radiating objects in “Constellation.” I’ve often wondered why you don’t paint these dark, enigmatic scenarios more frequently. Does this sort of imagery come to you only at certain emotional periods in your life?



KV: Ummm…. it’s a mystery to me, even. I think each piece sprouts individually. An overall mood may lead to a small body of influenced pieces but I can’t look on many pieces and recall how I was feeling at the time.

AE: I’ve read some of your blog posts about your dreams, which seem to be unusually strange and vivid. Do some of your paintings emerge directly from your dream environments, or are the associations between the two more nebulous?

KV: Nebulous, definitely. My dreams are often odd. Maybe that is the mystery element. I don’t think I have intentionally painted things from my dreams – more just a general inspiration of oddness or mood – but my paintings do end up with a dreamlike quality, in that things happen which have no explanation.

I once had a dream about a white horse which talked to me. It left me with the most curious and wondrous feeling. I told a friend of mine about it. He fancied himself a dream interpreter, and he proceeded to tell me what it was about. I don’t remember what his interpretation was, only that after that, I was never able to recall that wondrous feeling I had been left with.

AE: You paint in several different styles – from the most classically rendered of oils to loose, expressionistic acrylics – all of which are distinctly yours, yet produce quite a variety of results. Switching gears frequently – including keeping up with your thrice-weekly web comic, Patches – helps you stay fresh and inspired. Many admire your work with custom vinyl toys, where you take the blank toy form and deconstruct it, transforming it almost beyond recognition. You’ve mentioned to me that you’re tempted to do more sculpting, but are leery of becoming too fragmented in your artistic pursuits. Where do you see your work heading in the future?

KV: I saw a blog with some amazing hooked rugs, and instantly wanted to try my hand at it. I have to consciously rein these horses in constantly so I can stay focused on painting. However, I would like to do more sculptural pieces. I did a figure for my husband Peter for Christmas and liked the way it turned out. Maybe more of those. The custom vinyls were fun, but what I want to do would be from scratch. One of my big temptations would be to make or have someone make clothing based on what I have painted. That would be a lot of fun (and a totally selfish way to get a coat or a dress).

AE: That would be great. We’ll have to hook you up with an aspiring designer!

KV: Someone who was a lot better at sewing than I am, at least!

AE: Hats, too. We need better hats.

KV: And bauble-y barrettes and brass buttons.

“Curious Bouquet”
AE: Indeed. I recently read that Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series was partly inspired by Leonardo da Vinci‘s “Lady with an Ermine” and Hans Holbein the Younger‘s “Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling,” and it occurred to me that these two images bear a certain resemblance to ones you’ve painted of similar subjects. In the past, you’ve mentioned Holbein – the great Renaissance portrait painter revered for his penetration into character – as one of your inspirations. I think I can see some of his influence in your characterization of your complex but self-possessed subjects. What in particular intrigues you about Holbein’s work?

KV: Exactly that, this richly detailed self-assuredness all of his paintings possess, even if the subject looks otherwise. I love his colors as well. I sometimes look through his work for color combinations. Nearly all of the old Dutch masters are incredibly inspirational to me. I adore the Pre-Raphaelites, too. But that makes sense, because they were looking back through the gaudy gilt to the solid detail of the Dutch painters.

AE: What other painters or illustrators from the past move you powerfully, and what aspects of their work do you find most intriguing?

KV: Rembrandt, Millais, Waterhouse, Dürer, Sargent, Kahlo, Van Gogh, the Wyeths… there are so many things in all of their work to be inspired by! I am easy in that respect though. Sometimes I am transfixed by a simple line or color. We recently walked through the Art Institute in Chicago and my mouth was agape at the massive amount of work by artists I had never heard of – Ivan Albright being one of them. How can I not know of this guy!? His work is amazing in person, a picture does it no justice. It’s like he got caught in a whirlpool in every square inch.

AE: You’ve mentioned an affinity for the work of Odd Nerdrum, the Norwegian figure painter who uses traditional techniques reminiscent of Caravaggio and Rembrandt. He is a rebel amongst his contemporaries – the modernists – in that he embraces the representational, emotional and sensual in his work. Tell me a little about your relationship with Nerdrum’s work.

“Tea”, “Vapors”, “Sky”

KV: I saw his work in a book perhaps 10 years ago and it struck me as brilliant. Apart from the egotism of the man himself perhaps, his work has the depth and technical skill of Rembrandt married with some deeply emotional and sometimes disturbing imagery. The beauty of the way he handles paint, at odds with a decapitated head! You just gotta love the way he handles paint, if that is your thing at all.

AE: If you could hang just one classic painting from history on the wall of your studio, what would it be?

KV: Hmm man, that is a hard question! Probably one I have seen in person that just made my insides electric – I am going to go with the first one that comes to mind when I think of that feeling, and it would be “Joan of Arc Listening to the Voices” by Jules Bastien-Lepage. The best face! I saw it in the Metropolitan Museum of Art maybe 15 years ago. It just stuck with me because of that feeling I got. There have been a few I have seen in person that have made me want to cry. Overwhelmed, like a ginormous BABY.

AE: It’s lovely… her expression is so real, and the fiery angel is almost translucent over the everyday surroundings behind her. Really unusual. Is there anything else you’re finding really fascinating at the moment? Literature or philosophies that spark your imagination? Anything that helps you get into the right mindset for painting?

KV: I wish I had more time to read! It is one of those things that fall aside when there is painting to be done. I did read The Road by Cormac McCarthy recently. Bleak and amazing.

I have been thinking about silent pictures recently, how the actors were so expressive with their eyes. They had to convey so much visually, and the depth of emotion was open to interpretation. How one connected with their looks and actions was important to the story and empathy for the characters. We recently watched City Lights. I would put it in a list of my favorite films. We also watched Sparrows with Mary Pickford. The film quality and mood is really amazing.

AE: For some reason, the reference to silent movies reminds me of your painting “Tune“… all the story caught in that single moment and glance.

KV: I would like to think that the subjects of my paintings, human or animal, are able to convey hints and glimpses of some larger story that the viewer can connect to.

AE: Your June 12th solo show at Thinkspace is called “The Conservatory.” What can you tell me about the work you will be presenting?

KV: Of course, it is never my intention to present a preloaded and limited interpretation of my paintings, but to leave it open and release a thousand furling tendrils of stories and connections. I am going for a multi-meaning there, where a conservatory is a place to study or perform art or music, and it also can be like a greenhouse where people grow interesting plants and specimens. I guess overall, it would be a place where interesting things grow and happen.

AE: That’s a perfect description for a place where your work would flourish.

KV: I wanted to choose a theme which would be inspirational and not limiting. Set the stage, if you will. Places where amazing things happen. Kind of like the “Peppermint Forest.” The show at Subtext in July with Jason Limon will be “Under the Cover of Darkness”. Open themes!

AE: What are you looking forward to right now? Hopes, dreams, plans for the future?

“Curious Bouquet” process

“Rider” process

“Flight” process
KV: Hmm… plans. The best times are hanging out with my family and painting! All I can hope for is a plan that includes more of that. Peter keeps making me panels to paint on, so I keep painting! Maybe travel, go to more museums and places of natural beauty to be inspired. Find some more music that fuels my painting…

AE: You’ve got a pretty ambitious schedule for the rest of the year, too!

KV: Cripes, I know! They all happen to be bunched up in the coming months, then it drops off into deep space!

AE: That will be a good time to contemplate your next move.

KV: I have painted more in the past year than in any previous. Rather than getting burned out, I am getting better. Painting non-stop – for the most part – has opened different passages up, leading to new work.

AE: So great to hear that the pressure is inspirational rather than exhausting. I know you have this infinite fount of wonder in you, but there’s only so much time in the day.

KV: Indeed, I am petitioning for longer days, but only weekend days and weekdays after 5. I don’t know who to give the petition to.

AE: I will have to do some research on that and get back to you.

KV: You are better connected than me!

AE: I’m just very good at research.

By Amanda Erlanson

See the Thinkspace Gallery for more of Kelly Vivanco’s work here…

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