From carousel horses to drinking games in Mongolia, this interview with Portland-based artist Kelly Neidig has it all.
When I interview artists, I combine my background in psychology with my new world of art. As such, during the interview I’d like to discover more about you as well as your paintings. It’s a good way for the readers to get to know you and your work. To begin, let’s go back in time and talk about your upbringing and early days.
I grew up outside Pittsburgh in a small borough. My earliest memories are of being out in the country at my grandparents’ houses. I have really good memories of those times, of going into the woods and playing. I have an older brother and all my cousins are older boys. I wasn’t quite old enough to play with them a lot or wasn’t interested in what they were doing so I spent a lot of time playing by myself as a kid. My imagination developed from there. I was creating a world for myself. In the winter when I was indoors, I did a lot of drawing. I remember sitting next to my grandpa and drawing all day long. I would visit my relatives and all the boys would be out playing. My aunt had all this paint and she’d let me sit in the laundry room and paint. With a different upbringing I don’t know if I’d be an artist. If I’d had a sister close to my age, maybe things would have been different.
Art runs in my family. My great-aunt, mom and aunt are all great artists and really creative. We have a couple of relatives on my mom’s side of the family in Serbia who are artists.
What did you draw back then?
Carousel horses. I really liked horses. I also did a lot of weird landscapes; really colorful, psychedelic rolling hills and bizarre trees and flowers.
Was there any other significant to the horses?
No, I just liked them. There wasn’t anything significant about them. It was cool to draw horses and embellish them with fancy saddles, ribbons, ropes and braided hair.
What kind of reaction or feedback did you get about your drawings?
I got pretty good feedback from my parents. I remember coming home from kindergarten and I had drawn a bird. I showed it to my mom and she got mad at me. “You didn’t draw this, your teacher drew it. It’s too good.” I thought she was really mad at me but maybe she was just saying it was really good. In the first grade, I won a drawing contest over Memorial Day, which often falls on my birthday. Every grade gets a piece of paper with a generic American flag on it and they add their own drawings. I drew a lighthouse around the flag. I won the contest and five dollars.
The school I went to didn’t have a great art program, so I was pretty much self-taught, especially in high school. I always wanted to take art classes across the river in the fancy town but we didn’t have the money. I don’t know if it would have made me a better artist or whether not having classes pushed me to develop my own style.
My parents had a Sam’s Club membership and my dad would come home with markers or drawing kits. It wasn’t something I’d asked for. He just picked them out for me and I was so blown away. One time he came home with beautiful colored pencils, which cost $100. I was so scared to use them. I still have them to this day. It was cool because when I went to school for landscape architecture I had to use them.
When I went to college, I wanted to go to school for art but I didn’t have a portfolio. I didn’t even know what a portfolio was. Instead, I applied for the landscape architecture program and got accepted at Penn State. There were a lot of painting and drawing classes there and I was actually ok at it. I enjoyed it and realized I could switch my major to art. I created my own degree. I took a lot of figure drawing, sculpture and ceramics classes. I also took Zen art classes, where everything made was destroyed so you could learn the Japanese art of letting go of what you create.
Before we leave your early days behind, what other creative outlets did you have, besides drawing?
Art was the only creative outlet I had. Living in a pretty small town before the Internet, there wasn’t a lot of access to music or information. We had a library, so I read a lot. I would read anything I could get my hands on. I liked a lot of scary, supernatural mystery stories and Stephen King. A lot of what I read was too old for me and I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on. My dad had gone to college and got an associate degree to be an electrician when I was very little. He must have taken an English class because I found a lot of his books, the great classics like Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby.
What was your earliest notion of what you wanted to be in life?
I didn’t realize I wanted to be an artist because I didn’t know it’s something you could actually be. I wanted to be a garbage man, a professional baseball player and be in the CIA; all of these unrealistic goals. I realized in high school I had to go to college and get out of this small town but I had to go somewhere cheap. Penn State was far enough away and big enough. So the goal was how to get into Penn State. When I was applying for college I wanted to go to school to do art but it wasn’t until I switched my major that I realized I could do this. I was so worried about telling my parents. I came home for Thanksgiving and went out with my high school friends and got really drunk. I didn’t come home until 10 the next morning. I was in the car with my parents heading back to Penn State telling them how I was switching my major to art and that this is how it was going to be and they just laughed their heads of. That’s when I realized they were supportive of me although a little sad because they would have liked me to be a landscape architect.
You’ve talked about your childhood and spending time alone. What was your self-esteem like as a teenager?
I’d say it was ok. Being a teenage girl is probably the worst thing on the planet you could put yourself through. Well, clearly not the worst but you know what I mean. You have to be skinny and look a certain way. A lot of my peers were always dieting. I made this resolve that I wouldn’t worry about what my body looked like. I was pretty skinny so it helped. Now, I have a hard time with women who say, “I gained 5lbs, I have to go on a diet.” Luckily, I had that self-esteem and chose not to worry about my weight. Because it was such a small school, everyone knew me and I felt like I was friends with a lot of people but everyone got picked on for something. I don’t think there was one person who got singled out and picked on more than the others. Everyone got their fair share.
I definitely felt lonely at times. There were times when girls and friends got into little cliques and I got excluded. But I would come home and go up to my room and draw. I had my own little world. Growing up with all boys and being excluded, I was used to it so I never felt too left out. I had my own things.
Were there any other significant or poignant moments from your early days we haven’t talked about?
No, I don’t think so. The big thing was my dad coming home with art supplies. That was so cool to me.
At Penn State you switched your major to art, what was the impact on your paintings?
I wasn’t really making anything that great at the time. I think I was doing more watercolor portraits of people but they were still abstracted. I remember taking these figure drawing classes and instead of using charcoals, I went in with watercolors and did abstracted work. The teachers liked what I was doing but the others in the class didn’t know how to critique me. Even with the figure drawings, the bodies would always end up looking like landscapes. Maybe it was because I had studied landscape architecture or maybe there is some love of landscapes in my genes.
There weren’t a lot of people I clicked with in high school but at college I found a lot of funny, creative people I could hang out with. I finally had friends that were cool and listened to weird music. I spent more time socializing in college than making art.
Were you looking for this? Was it part of the identity you wanted for yourself?
I don’t think I thought about it that way. I just found people I wanted to hang out with that I clicked with. I wanted to be sociable rather than sitting in my room and drawing.
What was the difference between the two groups of people – the people at high school and the friends you made at college?
Going away to college, you can be who you want to be. Growing up in a really small town, I was with the same 32 people for 12 years. You are stuck with them. When you are the kid who peed his pants on the school bus on the way to the museum you are always that kid. When you get to college you can be who you are as can everyone else. Going from a small town of 7,000 people to a campus of 42,000 people, no one cares who you are. A lot of that small town crap doesn’t matter. Also, the pool of knowledge was so much bigger and you can get access to all this information you never had.
So who did you want to be at that time in your life or who were you?
I was very happy I had really cool friends. They were so creative and cool. I was enjoying life at that time. Being a little crazy from having been so sheltered and not having access to a lot of information and resources, there was now this whole world of stuff out there. I knew at high school there was so much out there and it was fun to have access to that. I was just a girl having fun.
If we did a reunion with your closest friends from college, what words would they use to describe you at that time?
Happy, fun and a little annoying. I always saw myself as innocent. I never wanted to hurt anyone’s feelings or create drama. They would see me as a good friend running around hugging everyone.
When did your art career start in earnest?
After college I moved to Arizona with my boyfriend. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I knew I needed to make money so maybe I could pursue landscape architecture and paint on the side. It was a really hard thing to get into in Arizona because the landscape is so harsh. Also, it was really hard to make friends out there. I went from finally meeting a group of people that I loved to not having any friends. My boyfriend was always in school and I was very lonely which pushed me back into making art. In a way it was a blessing. If I’d had friends I would have been content having a meaningless job and socializing after work. It made me look at art really seriously. I met artist Candice Eisenfeld after about a year in Arizona. I really loved her work and she was making it as an artist. I asked her what I needed to do and she told me to get a cohesive body of work together. She also gave me a book about the business of art. I started going to galleries to see what work was out there and got inspired by all these artists, particularly the work of Michael Kessler. I stared using a lot of the colors he used – blues and grays. I’d be driving for hours and then come across these abandoned mining plants. I was painting these gray, dreary landscapes with these teeny, tiny plants on the horizons. I thought they were beautiful and I started marketing myself to a galley and got into one in Scottsdale.
At that point were you sure you wanted to be a career artist?
Yes, absolutely. I knew it’s what I wanted to do. I saw Candice doing it but I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be. I didn’t know how long it was going to take to get there but sometimes I realize that I’m more successful than I think I am. I’m not just a beginning artist anymore. I have been in museum shows. I shouldn’t downplay that.
Is there a particular piece of yours that really stands out in your mind?
Yes, it’s called Escape. It’s 72” x 72”, the biggest painting I have done. I don’t even really remember painting it. I was so scared to work on that canvas because of the size. It was daunting. The rays of light coming out of the clouds and the tree-lines against the horizon I’ve never really done in other paintings. I still have it. It’s in my dining room and I look at it every day.
Is there any significance to the title?
I think because of the size. Doing a really large piece allows you to escape. Also, I was having problems in my marriage at the time and my aunt was passing away. When I was a kid I would paint a lot to escape. That piece allowed me to do that. I probably don’t remember painting it because I was so stressed about everything else. That piece was in my studio when I was sick and it was hard for me to feel like an artist and think I could paint again. That piece reminded me I can do it and I will paint again.
What are your benchmarks for success?
Being able to support myself 100% making art is huge for me. I feel like I’m almost there. I occasionally struggle month to month when nothing comes in and I look at why aren’t I generating more sales than I’d like to be but I’m in your gallery, another one in the Hamptons and I have been in two museums, which is a huge benchmark. I’m being taken seriously as an artist.
A lot of stuff in the past I would have said “yes” to I won’t any more. Someone said to me recently, “There is this little coffee shop that has artwork, you should show your stuff there.” This isn’t the right situation for me anymore. I have got my work up enough that people know who I am. I don’t want to say “no” to anything but….
What do you like about being an artist?
I like that I can lie in until 10 o’clock every morning if I want to. I like that I don’t have a boss. I like the process of being creative and sitting down in my studio and solving a problem of how to make this piece of art look good and know when it’s finished. I like the business aspect too of doing the marketing and applying for something and getting accepted. It’s awesome selling art and making money off that, feeling that people like my art and will be a champion for it.
What do you like about being in the art world?
I like meeting other artists and l love the relationships and camaraderie with them. They understand how hard it is to get into something and write grant applications. Meeting patrons and seeing all the support for the arts that’s out there is amazing. But sometimes I question what I am doing. How is putting clouds on a canvas making the world a better place? But then I remember the feeling I get when I look at something beautiful that inspires me. I love that art has the ability to do that and being a part of that.
Let’s talk about the evolution of your work.
When I moved to Portland, I was doing these really drippy, watery works like the cloud pieces I am working on now. I was using acrylics, doing a lot of layers and really light colors. I was playing with abstract landscapes and something happened. I’m not quite sure what but I started painting these lines. They weren’t quite landscapes. They were really awful. I took them to a gallery that I was going to have a show at and the curator almost had a heart attack. She said it wasn’t like the work I’d shown her. Something clicked in my head. I knew I had to make the lines in the landscapes looser and layer more. I said, “I have to go. I know what I need to do.” She apologized thinking she had offended me but it was exactly what I needed to hear. As soon as she said they were awful I got this picture in my head of these landscapes. I made 17 pieces in a month and a half. The work got a really good reception. That was in 2007 and I was doing it until 2010. Then I got really sick with Lyme disease.
When I think, “Why haven’t I got further when I’ve been painting for 10 years solid?” I have to remember I got sick and I also got divorced around the same time. There were three years when I didn’t produce much art. I was in a lot of physical and emotional pain and I started doing these tight mandalas. I am not good at being tight and precise in my work so they weren’t great.
Where are you now in your practice?
I’m working on these clouds. I’m kind of going back to where I started when I moved to Oregon. Lighter colors and watered down washes. A lot of drips come from that. These drippy, light washes. I’m layering colors over the top of each other but with the cloud pieces there is a lot more room to breathe and for the under-layers to show through. I’d now like to take that back to the landscapes. I’m on the verge of something new coming from this. I have to give this body of work time to develop. I’ve got a pretty good reception on the cloud pieces so I’m happy about that.
As an artist, what is the motivation to evolve your style?
“I got this. I know how to paint lines. I know how to make lines that look like a landscape. I know how to make realistic clouds but what next?” I need to challenge myself to keep changing the work in a way that keeps it interesting. Boredom is a motivator. I’m bored with the lines at this moment. “What can I do differently but still true to the way I paint and the colors I use?”
What are your hopes for the future?
I hope I can keep painting and not have to get a job. I feel like I have hit a lot of goals I wanted to achieve. I’ve been in museums. Hopefully that’s not going to stop. I want to keep doing what I love doing, travel more and incorporate my art into my travel more by giving a lecture or teaching a class.
Talking of travel, how did your artist’s residency in Iceland come about?
I always wanted to go. I used to be a travel agent in a past life and learned about Iceland and that they eat fermented shark. “I need to go to this country where people eat fermented shark.” I learnt more about it and that it’s a beautiful, amazing country. I was trying to get my husband to travel with me but he wouldn’t. He didn’t think it sounded like fun and didn’t want to travel with me. I couldn’t live the rest of my life not traveling. This artist’s residency was open so I applied and got accepted. I was still pretty sick from the Lyme disease and I had just got off my antibiotics. I had six hours in any given day when I could move about which was fine because there were only four to five hours of daylight. I’d go into the city and look at art and come back to the residency. I became good friends with two of the other girls. We hired cars and went out into the countryside and took pictures. I saw the wild horses and came full circle from my childhood with my love of horses. I still think about Iceland a lot when I’m painting. I was there in the winter but it was very colorful. I saw how colorful white snow can be when it’s reflecting the sunlight. Gosh, it’s so beautiful.
You recently came back from Mongolia. Why Mongolia?
It’s another one of those places that you hear about but don’t really learn anything about other than Genghis Khan. It’s a mysterious place that fascinated me. I saw the movie Weeping Camel and thought, “My gosh, that’s my landscape.” It’s flat and open. The people in the movie seemed beautiful. As I learned more, the more fascinating it became to me but never somewhere I thought I would get to. It’s so far away and remote. It was hard to believe that we were going until we got there.
What was your favorite part of the trip?
I thought I’d be so inspired by the landscape. It was beautiful but I was more fascinated by the nomadic herders. They live in yurts and raise cattle. They are not poor but have chosen to live a simple, nomadic lifestyle. They are vey happy but have no sense of time. I loved that there is no attachment to time or possessions. It’s a very harsh environment, hot in the summer and -40 in the winter. It blows my mind. People are friendly and hospitable. There is this small, nomad festival with archery, horse riding and wrestling. They put on an exhibit for tourists and we saw them build a ger in 20 minutes. Then there was the vodka made from distilling yoghurt. We were sat in the ger with these two older Mongolian guys who were telling the women to get the foreigners drunk. We were cracking up, playing drinking games. Getting to know the people and how they live was the best part of the trip. It was hard to come back to powerlines and billboards and all the crap I have in my house.
What about the art there? Will any aspects of the style spill over into your work?
I think so. Some of the contemporary artwork in the museums and galleries was beautiful and inspiring. Their style of artwork is pretty similar to Chinese and Japanese artwork. It’s mostly very traditional, Buddhist work. It’s very colorful. You see the Chinese and Japanese landscape-style paintings where everything is stacked up on top of each other with no perspective; nothing gets smaller. My clouds are stacking and not going into the distance. I want to do that with landscapes and clouds. I really like that.
You’ve been painting professionally now since 2003. What would your advice be to an artist who is just starting out?
Make the time to make your art and read as many books as you can about art marketing. They won’t teach you that in school. If you want to make a living as an artist, you have to know how to market yourself. Just because you are an artist doesn’t mean you can be flaky and lazy. If you say you are going to hang your work somewhere, you have to do it. If you don’t, people will drop you very quickly. If you are a jerk, no matter how good you are, people won’t put up with this, unless you have a lot of money in the first place. There are too many other good artists. We have to be nice to the gallery owners and coffee shop owners. You have to take every opportunity you can to get your work out there. Once you get rich and famous, then you can be an asshole but not until then. Maybe 10, 15 years ago you could have been a jerk and got away with it, but not now.