There Is So Much Power in Giving Back to People

Mural artist Kelsey Montague engages her audience on the street and online.

Artist Kelsey Montague’s goal in making art? She just wants people to smile. Chances are, you’ve seen one of her massive installations in the wild: think huge butterfly wings, soaring heart-shaped balloons floating up into the sky, and intricately designed flowers and animals in her trademark whimsical style. We recently chatted with Kelsey about her journey as a muralist and her passion for creating uplifting art that’s meant to be interacted with and shared.

When did you become interested in art?

I come from a family of artists. My mom said I started drawing at the age of five. When I was at a baseball game with my parents once, I randomly picked up a pencil and drew my dad’s profile. “Oh, here we go,” my mom said.

So I’ve always been surrounded by art. It’s an extension of myself, like having an extra arm. I go into a zone, and it feeds all this creative energy in me.

On your website, you say that “the human experience should have a hand in shaping the art itself.” Can you expand on this powerful statement? How does it play into your creative process?

My first interactive piece, in New York City, was life-changing. I was able to see how art affected people, and how I could create something that was not only interactive — letting a person step into the piece and become part of the art — but used social media in a positive way. Having people step into my work gives me focus.

When I introduced the hashtag #whatliftsyou, my sister Courtney and I didn’t know what would happen. We were a little worried that New Yorkers weren’t going to respond and open up. But it was just the opposite — it was amazing.

Some people imagine artists ensconced in their studios for hours alone, but your work is the opposite of that. How does the presence of other people affect your art?

I love creating out in the open. People come up to me and my team and have a whole other experience with the piece. A lot of the time, I’m drawing a mural and people will stand there while I work on it. It’s beautiful and such a compliment as an artist that people respond like this, even when I’m not done.

I love to travel, to get to know different communities and cultures all over the U.S. and the world, and interpret all that into the work I do. To create in a community and get to know the locals who come out and talk. It’s really amazing, and it has a strong impact on what I draw.

I hope that when someone stumbles across one of my pieces or specifically goes to look for one, they know that it’s for them.
Kelsey Montague

You’re in a unique position as an artist: you get to see how people react to your work. Can you share any memorable experiences you’ve had?

After finishing a mural, I’ll always linger for a bit, so I get to interact with people and see their reactions. I’ll also get emails from people who come across my murals. It’s amazing to experience this, especially through social media. One lady, for example, came across my Nashville mural. She was on a cancer remission trip with her mom and sister. She said, “you have no idea how perfect this is for us to stumble across.”

I was creating a piece recently in L.A., and three separate women approached me, in tears. It was so touching: they had such a serious connection to me as an artist through social media. They had traveled to different states and countries to see my work, and had been following me for years and could name all the pieces they visited.

People keep track of what I’m doing online, and they’ll find me where I’m creating. It’s really cool.

When people see and interact with your art, whether it’s in real life or on social media, what do you want them to get out of the experience?

First, I want people to smile. I know that’s simple, but there is so much power in doing something uplifting. It doesn’t have to be dramatic. I just want people to smile and to take a second for themselves.

Second, I create for other people. I hope that when someone stumbles across one of my pieces or specifically goes to look for one, they know that it’s for them. This is me giving back to as many people as I can in the world: it’s a gift from me to them.

How did you make the transition from smaller-scale art to the huge mural work that you do right now?

I was living in New York City, drawing in coffee shops on the weekends and at night after working at my job until 9 p.m. I loved it. People in the community noticed who I was and liked my work. They knew me as that girl, always drawing.

A restaurant owner invited me to draw a mural that would be up for a couple months on a rotating art wall. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing — I just liked to draw! So I thought, “I’m going to do this, I’m going to do angel wings, and then make it socially impactful. I’m going to put my Instagram handle and a hashtag there.” And from there, my work continued to grow.

But I’ll say it didn’t just fall in my lap. There was a lot of outreach — a lot of “okay, let’s go and create a piece in Australia, but how do we do that?” Or, “how do we get paid to do that?” It’s been a process of trying and learning and growing. And my ideas continue to get bigger and bigger — just as my walls are getting bigger!

I once told someone that I really wanted to do a huge wall. But they said, “you do interactive art, you can’t do a big wall.” And I said, “yes, I can.” I got motivated when they said I couldn’t do something.

Courtney and I secured an amazing wall in Poland on the side of a building. We did a huge flamingo: it was about 70 feet tall. These elderly Polish ladies poked their heads out of their apartment windows as we were working and talked to us — it was really fun. But it was amazing because I proved my point: yes, a massive piece like this can be interactive.

I want to prove that girls can do this — not just guys. It’s great that social media has opened up a lot of doors to new talent doing new things.
Kelsey Montague

Beyond scale, are there any current constraints that you want to break through?

I would love to see more women in street art. I think it’s a little shocking for people sometimes to see me and Courtney working on the street because it’s physically really hard work. It’s both mentally and physically draining.

I think it’s the most beautiful and incredible thing I’ve ever done in my life, but it is hard. You’re outside, and it’s long, long hours. And every mural has new challenges.

I want to prove that girls can do this — not just guys. It’s great that social media has opened up a lot of doors to new talent doing new things.

What kind of change do you think art — and specifically your art — can have on the world?

I don’t think enough people realize how powerful a voice they have with their photos — how they interact with or stand in front of a mural — and also the text they add to their social posts. If you search #whatliftsyou, it’s overwhelming.

There is so much power in giving back to people. I don’t want to go into a community and just draw. There always has to be that second layer — that’s what drives me as an artist.

I just hope art continues to open up doors for people. I hope younger generations can see my art and know that they can be creative. They can create their own art site on WordPress and share their work. They can make money. They can travel. They can influence people. They can work with really great brands. It’s possible to live their dreams.

Explore Kelsey’s vibrant, large-scale murals on her WordPress site.

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