April Artist Spotlight: Interdisciplinary Initiator, Kelley Meister

gif by Kelley Meister

gif by Kelley Meister

* Hey Kelley, thanks so much for taking the time to do an interview! Can you tell us what your art forms are? Can you define them for us?

I am an interdisciplinary artist whose work combines drawing, video, and performance into installations and stand-alone films. My artistic practice relies upon the accumulation and exploration of what constitutes a landscape. I am interested in the natural and social ecosystems of environments – both as a means of exploration of artistic material and as a means of public engagement.

 * Do you remember when you first became interested in the arts? How did it happen? Did you have any big influences?

 I have been making art for as long as I can remember. My great-grandmother Hortense Kelley studied painting with Thomas Hart Benton; my grandmother was also a painter. Both of them were teachers as well. My mother is a writer and has taught composition at various community colleges over the years. Additionally, there are a lot of musicians and musical talent in my family. As a child, I took Bob Ross-style oil painting classes, ballet, and piano lessons. Throughout junior and senior high, I was an avid member of the band/orchestra. I thought I was going to become a professional musician, but I was overcome with anxiety the older I got every time I had an audition. I eventually gave it up when I went to college because I couldn’t handle the pressure of college auditions. I thought I was going to be a journalist/writer, but during my second semester of college, I took an Art Appreciation class and fell in love with feminist artists like Hannah Wilke, Carolee Schneemann, Ana Mendiata, and Claude Cahun. I wanted to use my body as the canvas, like these artists I admired, so I abandoned the Journalism school and shifted to fine art as my major. I haven’t looked back since, though my artistic mediums have spanned oil painting, watercolor, printmaking, papermaking, photography and film, and more recently, new media and animation with a secret ceramics practice on the side.

* What does teaching offer you that creating your own artwork does not?

 Working with other people to capture their creative visions is an ever-inspiring process. I am always so tickled by what my students make and how they choose to creatively solve the problems I set out for them. I am a very social person - and teaching is a great way to engage my social side with art-making. Growing strong relationships with each student is a priority in the work that I do. Each class is an opportunity to creatively collaborate and get to know so many new people and their creative expressions. I especially enjoy working with young people to make movies (live or animated). Older elementary school and higher students are discouraged from playing and imagining - but when making movies, students get to engage those creative muscles and really revel in the play of it. I deeply appreciate watching students go there and facilitating that process for them.

 * What do you hope participants of your programs learn or come away with?

 I want participants to come away with the idea that making art and being creative are rewarding endeavors in and of themselves, and that the process of getting from the beginning to the end of a project can be more valuable than the finished project. I also like to reinforce the moments in the creative process where participants have agency to make their own aesthetic or creative choices. I often emphasize the challenge that they are working on and that their job as the artist is to work through that challenge.

 * What projects or programs have you been working on recently?

 This winter I’ve been busy! I went up to Stephen and Argyle, Minnesota, which are about 50 miles from Canada and 25 miles from North Dakota, three times this winter to work with students from grades 3rd through 12th grade on making movies and digital stories. In March, I did a residency at Maxfield Elementary here in St. Paul making animations with the 4th grade. And I also did a couple quick animated gif workshops (see student work below) over in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, recently with middle schoolers.

* You’ve been on the COMPAS roster for about four years now, what’s it like to be a COMPAS artist?

 I love getting to meet people all over the state, share my art forms with them, and see what they make. It’s a dream job. I also really like that the people at COMPAS have my back. Before I was on the roster, I was getting teaching artist gigs on my own. I landed in a few tricky situations where I wished I had had the support of an organization behind me in validating my requests, whether it be for the equipment I needed to do the work or for financial negotiations. I also really enjoy getting to meet other COMPAS artists. When we get together for our annual meeting, I can feel the experience and creativity bursting out of the room.

* Why do you think arts education is needed in our community?

 Like I said in my bio earlier, I studied music in junior and senior high school. That was awesome, but I also really wanted to take fine art classes. There simply wasn’t room in my academic schedule for more than one art elective, though, and I always felt extremely frustrated with that. For me, the arts are vital to how I relate to the world, how I input and output information, how I synthesize information and ideas, how I engage as a citizen, and so forth. I see arts as the center point of academics - all other disciplines can be mediated, experienced, explored, and digested through the arts. As if other academic disciplines created a multi-pointed asterisk/star and the arts lie at the center focal point. I think that arts education has the possibility to open up a space to consider our ecological, social, economical context by working to reveal the complexity of our belief systems and the emotional responses that inform the decisions we choose to make. And for that reason, I believe it is indispensable.

 * In addition to your work at COMPAS, you also work at the Science Museum. Do you see benefits in teaching the arts and sciences simultaneously? What are they?

 My own art practice encompasses thorough research into historical and scientific topics as the starting point for most of my projects. Because of that, I really see art as a way to encourage community-dialogues about pertinent topics, using art to synthesize complex ideas into a digestible, thought-provoking package. I have never put much stock in the idea that academic disciplines are as separate as they are constructed to be within our current educational model. I think that the natural inquiry we all have about the world around us (aka “science”) is as vital to art-making as the skill of holding a brush or a pencil.

 * Does living in Minnesota have any influence on your work?

 Throughout my youth, my family relocated numerous times from coast to coast and throughout the Midwest due to my father’s job in the resource extraction industry. As a result, I have never been able to determine where I am actually “from.” During 2012, I worked at the Minnesota State Capitol as an historical interpreter, and while there, I learned more about Minnesota history than I had ever before been able to retain about any other place. That immersive year suddenly gave me a way of looking at this place, a lens of history with which to understand the present.

Recently, I started to integrate some of that research into my work. Starting in 2014, I began developing a three-channel interactive video installation Where Do We Go From Here? that explores the possibilities of what our planet, specifically Minnesota’s Upper Mississippi River Valley, will look like 150 years from now. Using scientific research and historical analysis, Where Do We Go From Here? combines hand-drawn animations with high-definition video of the Minnesota landscape and field recordings to imagine what the future may hold. I focused on the Upper Mississippi River Valley because it is a place of rich and stirring juxtapositions. At the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, sacred Dakota sites such as Mni Owe Sni – Coldwater Springs – stand alongside the nearly two-century-old Fort Snelling and the contemporary landmark of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Many places along its shores are still relatively wild, yet the river also serves as the location of two nuclear power plants and the largest coal-burning power plant in the state. In this work, I’m asking questions like Will the waters rise? Will the invasive species proliferate? Will the endangered survive? And what might be the ramifications of all this change?

* How do you practice creativity in your everyday life?

I think that making things and responding creatively to challenges is completely innate for me. I am a very intuitive artist, and I think that follows as well in my everyday life. I listen to my gut, I try to recognize the complexity of situations, and I create multiple possibilities for solutions or responses to the challenges I face. I think that way of thinking comes from being an artist, particularly from working as a conceptual artist.