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Interview: Kirsty McKenzie

"CANCER" by Kirsty McKenzie

1) Could you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your background as an artist? How did you come to make art?

I have always been an artist, since I was a child. Growing up watching Jem and the Holograms, I wanted to be an actress, rock star, and fashion designer all at once… but also, I wanted to be a cat.

I studied fashion design at the Rhode Island School Design (RISD) from 2001-2005, but I was always an artist in my heart. Some of my designs were a bit “out there”, avant-garde, and certainly not mass market, so this let me to costume design.

I redefined myself purely as an artist after I got clean in 2013-14. My art and creativity are my life. I “live my art” and it is an extension of myself, and I am an embodiment of my vision at all times.

This means I adorn everything from myself to my home, every moment is art, every detail is considered. There is little separation between my personal life and my professional life.

2) How do you try to take ownership of the female body through your art, away from the male

perspective and the male gaze?

I achieve this by empowering my female subjects through their facial expressions and body language, so they have an air and aura of “you can look, but you can’t touch. My body isn’t for you to exploit…” Coming from a bisexual positionality myself, there’s often a “queer-pearance”, for the female, nonbinary, and queer gaze.

"Cat Lady" by Kirsty McKenzie, 2015

3) Why and how do you try to explore the unconventional forms of beauty? What makes beauty unconventional, and what makes the unconventional beautiful?

I like to create distortion of forms and features, sometimes achieved through blind contour/ partial blind contour drawing processes. Or in my collages with exaggerated features, or some form of disfigurement. These create a mood, sometimes humor, and an unconventional beauty that sits outside of the stereotypical societal beauty standards.

"Feed Troll" by Kirsty McKenzie, 2019

4) Do you try to break down the requirement for a female beauty to be "picture-perfect" through the act of collage and assemblage? What does your artistic process and works do to the assumption of (primarily male) objectifying persons that women have to appear "flawless" or "perfect" to be beautiful?

Most of us have imperfections, flaws, asymmetrical faces and bodies. The preposterous notion that women have to appear "flawless" or "perfect" to be beautiful, is absurd, but also so tragic, and dangerously perpetuated in the media.

The constant inundation of how women are supposed to look, is overwhelming and disgusting. While this is increasingly true throughout the past few decades, this is something that goes back centuries. The body shape trend may morph and change through the eras, but the control of women’s bodies has remained a constant.

From a loss-of-consciousness inducing corset, paired with a bustle that defies what is physically attainable, to an emaciated wisp of a woman skulking down the catwalk, as if to the morgue.

It does not seem like society, the media, the fashion industry, and Hollywood are changing, save for the body positive trailblazers who are making earnest strides for change. We need more of those. Not Kardashians, lip fillers, botox, butt implants, and SnapChat filters and FaceTune - turning women into animé characters and avatars.

I created a video installation last year called Feed Troll that explored mental health, addiction, bulimia, and the pressure of curating the perfect image online, perpetuating the social media mythology. It was actually banned from YouTube, due to the “showing of bodily fluid, with the attempt to shock or disgust”. This couldn’t be further from my intentions, even though the impact is grotesque and triggering.

"Black Cat Lady" by Kirsty McKenzie

5) Why and how did you draw African American women, and do you feel that you have a

permission to draw them as a white woman artist?

I feel that it’s important to draw African American women, and not just draw White people, so my art is inclusive and culturally diverse. I have always shown diversity in my illustrations and runway shows when I did Fashion Design as well. One thing I’ve noticed, is I do a lot of line drawing on white paper, as a stylistic choice, but realized my art was getting too “white” and I wanted to move away from that, even if it meant doing a line drawing on a darker piece of paper, or on an underpainting, in keeping with the contour line drawing style, but not having it be white-washed and racially pigeonholed.

"Green Cat Ladies" by Kirsty McKenzie

6) Do you feel that true artists must lead a tormented way of life? How does your experience with addiction shape your art? What leads people into substance abuse and addiction in the first place? How did art help you to overcome the problem?

History has often romanticized the portrait of the artist as a beautiful and tragic mess. Perpetuating the idea that great artists are not peaceful souls, and that one needs to be in pain or lead a turbulent and troubled life, in order to make truly great art - for raw unbridled talent cannot come without a price. Whether it’s the mad manic artist who conjures brilliant ideas in a frenzy of fervent euphoria, or the tortured talented musician who meets a junkie’s end.

In 2013, I faced my substance abuse and addictions that had overshadowed my life for 17 years, and began my powerful, transformative journey of recovery. What began as an avid sketchbook practice, soon exploded into a full-blown art addiction. In 2014 I passionately redirected my focus from fashion and costumes to visual art, and rediscovered myself as an artist. A big part of my healing process has been living my art, and creating my life as art.

"Lounging Cat Ladies In Yellow" by Kirsty McKenzie

7) What are your color concerns in making collages? How do you make your work highly

coherent and cohesive while putting together different materials from different sources?

I find that the balance of color is key, so things don’t “get lost”. Making certain elements pop, and creating depth, and a painterly vibe. I love making sense from the disorder on the table, when my Virgo organization and sensibility kicks in. The unintended profound synchronicities that arise from the chaos are really what creates the collage magic.

"Sunset Cat Lady" by Kirsty McKenzie

8) How do you depict women as being sexy, interesting, and strong while avoiding overt

sexualization and sexual objectification? What is the boundary between the realm of attraction and fantasy and the realm of objectification?

I create this tension and distortion of forms and features, as well as strong personalities to move away from being overtly sexual. These women boldly reclaim their sexuality, in a strong way. Anyone can be objectified through the eyes of the objectifier. No one is “asking for it”.

When I did fashion design I asked my runway models “to walk like you own the world, or that you could eat the world”. I would always select performers, drag queens, and friends that I new could drop some attitude as they sashayed down the catwalk, versus a nondescript thin model who could not evoke that level of confidence and sass.

"Polly" by Kirsty McKenzie

9) The idea of drawing or painting is perhaps akin to putting a makeup on one's face. Would you agree with equating drawing and painting female figures to some kind of self portraiture? How can art be re-conceptualized as activities included in the female domain, rather than something macho and masculine as thought of by the older generations, such as Abstract Expressionist male painters?

I would always think that drawing and painting was akin to putting makeup on when I have done extreme drag looks, such as fully face painted clowns, and other creatures that took hours to create.

Many artists create portraits of others that all look like them, often due to familiarity, or egotism - such as Picasso, or Diego Rivera. I strive to paint and draw diverse characters who do not resemble me.

I always find that self portraiture and portraiture is about capturing the essence, and not always a direct representation.

I think it’s been so important to move away from the boys club of the Abstract Expressionist painters of yore. We still have such a far way to go moving forward, but also recognizing the female artists, especially Black artists and other ethnic groups who have been erased from history.

"Spirit Guides" by Kirsty McKenzie

10) What do you feel is your strongest work? How do you want to grow from this point on as an artist? What are your plans for the post-COVID future?

I feel that my strongest work is possibly Spirit Guides (2019) which is a mixed media collage about my parents’ death – and my recovery journey and the animals, archetypes, and symbols that show up in our lives. I am currently doing my MA in Art Therapy in San Francisco at CIIS, and I would like to continue deeper themes of mental health in my expressive arts therapy journey.

My artistic practice has been a valuable therapeutic tool, from which I draw great strength. It has been paramount to my success in sobriety, as well as my experience with bipolar disorder, and navigating life through loss, and heartbreak.

I hope to impart this wisdom of creative healing, and experience deeper fulfilment and meaning in my life.

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