Kimmy Quillin is a painter whose work can be seen on the walls of Good Move as well as in the New York Times, Elle Decoration UK, Domino Magazine, Elle Decor online, West Elm and at Uprise Art. She presented her solo shows 10OX (2018) and Many Moons (2019) at Chinatown Soup and at Philadelphia gallery Spite Haus in January 2020. Quillin was honored to stay at the Pocoapoco residency in Oaxaca, Mexico in February 2020 and returned for "The Language of Making" workshop led by Mariana Garibay-Raeke in April 2023. Read her interview with Wonderwall Studio here. Listen to her conversation with Katie Dalebout on the "Let It Out" podcast here and here. Quillin lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.
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Q&A WITH UPRISE ART AND KIMMY QUILLIN
Where are you from and where do you reside?
I’m originally from La Crosse, Wisconsin and have lived in New York since 2006.
What’s your favorite part of living in New York?
I love the peeling paint and ripped paper of layers of posters. I love the graffiti mustaches on subway ads, the urban color palette, and the respite of city parks (those life-saving oases). I love walking everywhere. I love running into friends in unlikely neighborhoods at all times of day and night. I love the physicality and lack of comfort of grocery shopping. I love the disgusting rainbow of rust water trickling down the wall of the subway platform. I love New York’s unapologetic reality.
When did you begin your current practice?
I began painting with acrylic on canvas in 2016. Prior to that I painted on lumber, furniture and clothing, and experimented with watercolor, colored pencil, spandex and thread.
How do you choose your materials?
Primarily, I let the colors lead the way. I always start with acrylic paint, opaque or as a wash. From there, I might reach for a pencil, china marker, gold leaf, paint chips or oil stick.
Have you always worked as a painter?
I have not always been a painter. Most of my life I made objects using my hands: figurines in clay, clothing, silly gifts to amuse my friends. I began painting on a lark using some old acrylics and extra boards that had previously been shelves. Painting made more sense to me than drawing because I think of images and life as layered shapes of color rather than outlines. Drawing is actually quite challenging for me by comparison.
What kind of silly gifts?
I’ve made rats out of radishes (rat-ishes), I’ve custom-wrapped a gift box to look like it is wearing a tuxedo. I made a up a monster hero named “Power Poo” to help my nephew potty train. His career lasted through several aquatic adventures that were psychedelically illustrated, as well as a plush iteration. One of my favorite gifts was sewing clothes for and repackaging a Barbie doll for my sister to reflect her Instagram handle “kimonobarbie.”
What necessities do you require when making your art?
I paint during the daytime only, because sunlight is vital to reading the colors. Music is playing either in my head or on the stereo, amplifying and reflecting the mood, ranging from instrumental psychedelic electronic to classic rock. And I drink lots of coffee.
What’s a day in the studio like?
Work begins with coffee, signaling it is time to turn fully towards creating. I am usually working on two pieces simultaneously - one in preparatory stages and one in the middle of action. This creates a sense of continuity and influence between one work and the next.
Where do you feel you create your strongest work?
My studio is in my home, so I feel a positive anchoring and level of comfort there. I travel frequently, and though I am subconsciously influenced by my destinations, I don’t always recognize a one-to-one inspiration as a result. To be honest, some of my strongest ideas are ones that pop into my head just before falling asleep. I think you can’t force creation, but you must constantly cultivate a positive mental environment for it to arise into.
Where do you find your day-to-day inspiration?
Recently my palette has been all about warm tones related in part to the various shades of brownstones I live near in Brooklyn. They are earthy while retaining an urbanity- something I can deeply relate to.
How does your choice of color inform the final piece?
Color tends to come before I begin a work. I am obsessed with color combinations and keep a file of inspirational palettes on hand that I add to regularly. Before beginning a new piece, I will consult this file to see what colors I have been drawn to most recently. From that jumping off point, a palette of five or six colors will usually populate organically.
How related are the works you work on simultaneously? Do you find they have more in common or more in contrast?
To my eye, there is a definite visual chronology being told through my body of work, whether it be in color or form. Typically, I feel out a palette that reflects my current phase of life and let it run through a few paintings before finding something else to relate more honestly to where I’m at. Techniques, too, come in phases, and I will often discover a shape or stroke in one painting that shifts and is carried over into the next.
What led you to this process and how did you know it was the right one to pursue?
Knowing you’re on the right path with a work is tricky, because the excitement of pushing boundaries actually feels pretty uncomfortable. I start by getting kind of loose and letting something spontaneous happen on the canvas to give me a jumping off point to work from. My creative mind loves a challenge, and working around a spontaneous swoop of paint or drizzle of color sets my mind on fire with possible next steps. The whole process is kind of a wildfire start leading to much honing in.
Do you see your works as unique or as part of a series?
I love to work on a series but have to wait for a really big idea to provide enough momentum. For my series 10OX, I started with two related works that felt very energetic, and they led to twelve final works on their own pretty easily.
Can you talk more about 10OX, and how you came to that series?
10OX is a cherished series of ten paintings that unfolded to me in 2018. The series was intended to be eight paintings that shared the same color palette and minimal, geometric style. As I was fleshing out these eight works, I was reading a book called Zen Flesh, Zen Bones which included the Zen story of the Ten Bulls or Ten Oxherding Pictures, an ancient metaphor illustrating the Bodhisattva’s steps on the path of enlightenment. Around the time I began the series, I had started painting full time and was experiencing a lot of learning, adjusting and personal transformation. Fortunately my mind was in a place to see the overlaps between the steps in Ten Bulls, the colors and shapes in the paintings and my own quest to become more truly myself through painting. The coalescing of these different layers became more apparent and obvious to me as I arranged the paintings’ order and meaning, which ultimately became 10OX.
What is the most difficult part of the artistic process for you?
The period following a show is particularly tricky for me, when one chapter of work has come to a close and the moment for finding a new direction has arrived. It is an exciting time but also can feel overwhelming, like beginning a new life.
How has your work developed in the past few years, and how do you see it evolving in the future?
My work has vacillated between bold color blocking and organic blending of color. Often the organic work needs some geometry to pull out the logic of the composition, so there is this layer of beautiful chaos organized by superimposed outlines. I liken these layers to a personality organizing the subconscious. In the future, I see further experimentation with layering, adding gauzy veils of color and creating ambiguity between above and below, much as life does. Artist Julie Mehretu’s work is a stunning example of this diaphanous layering.
What themes or motifs are you consistently drawn to?
I love geometric shapes and return to arcs, circles and lines consistently in my work. As seen in the work of Sol LeWitt, a graceful arc or line conveys so much.
Do you admire or draw inspiration from any of your peers who are also working now?
I admire so many of my friends’ work: Kylie Manning, Emily Klass, Christian Nguyen, Colleen Herman. I haven’t yet had a chance to collaborate with these folks, but I will soon be creating a mural with dancer Jules Bakshi, whose colors and movements inspired the shapes and tones of my most recent set of paintings. Look for it at Good Move NYC.
Are you influenced by any artist that does something completely different than you?
I am thoroughly inspired by dancers and movement-based artists. As with music, I am fundamentally awed by the idea of creating art that is purely of an experience in time. Dancers have an additional level of divinity in their work in that their bodies are their sole instruments. Dancers Jules Bakshi, Piña Bausch and Joanna Kotze have given performances that I recall again and again.
Do you remember the first work of art that captured your attention?
The first show I saw that compelled me to come back again and again was the Carmen Herrera retrospective at the Whitney in 2016. Her sharp lines and clear ideas sent a message right into my soul. I couldn’t look at them long enough. I have a similar relationship with Frank Stella’s ‘Madinat as-Salam III’ at the St. Louis Art Museum. It feels like a gravitational force.
Whose artwork would you most like to see in a museum retrospective?
I just finished reading Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel and am dying to see a Helen Frankenthaler retrospective come together in New York. As someone who broke down the walls of painting and went through so many phases in her painting, it would be magnificent to see room after room of her life’s work and passion.
How do you incorporate chance in your creative process?
I love the interplay of control and chance. Rarely have I completed a painting from start to finish without some unplanned or inspiring intercession. Recently, I have incorporated Photoshop into my creative process which allows for much play and imagining to happen before working on the physical canvas.
How important is spontaneity in your art?
Spontaneity is crucial. Many times have I thought I was at a dead end with a painting- because of some mistakenly splashed paint, an errant pencil line or an overworked area. These moments, though challenging, ultimately push me past my comfort zone and into a realm of new imagining.
Is there an example of a resolved work that surprised you or pushed you out of your comfort zone?
The one that comes to mind is “Prata: de Ouro” from 2017. The background felt muddy and trapped, and I didn’t know how to unlock it. It felt like a dead end, but I figured I had to push it to the limit in order to deem it a failed effort. I portioned off a large area and started laying down some gold foil that I had purchased on a whim at the art store. As I moved down the canvas, parts of it became less adhesive and created this beautiful mottling effect that sort of fell apart into nothingness. I loved the spaciousness that came from blocking one part and accentuating another. It’s one of my favorite paintings.