Over the next few weeks, Punknews is running a series called Rad Women Who Do Rad Art. The series is a string of interviews with some of the most exciting female visual artists that have connections with music, today. You can check out the previous entry with Nation of Amanda, here. Today's segment is with the wonderfully, whimsically, wicked Kristen Ferrell!
Kristen Ferrell makes incredibly awesome, highly detailed, trippy art that just completely scares the bejeezus out of me. She painted a picture of a hummingbird nailed to a Boston Terrier. She makes cupcakes with human fingers and dentures stuck inside of them. She sketched two birds (with Chimneys coming out of their heads) fighting over a severed finger. She has a Chiweenie that she treats like a child. You ain't gonna see that on the Bob Ross show, that's for sure.
What got you interested in the visual arts?
I was a pretty unruly little kid, which earned me a membership to the Ritalin Kids Club in the '80's. With medication comes therapy, and that's where I was taught to draw what I didn't want to talk about when I was upset or angry. So, it's always been something that I've done as a form of venting and coping. It was never so much something I was interested in- but something I have to do to keep from going into berserker mode.
How did you improve your technique? Did you go to formal training?
I went to art school at the University of Kansas. I actually started as a jewelry major, but we were required to take classes in all mediums and I quickly fell in love with printmaking (intaglio, woodcuts & linocuts) and got my degree in Intaglio printmaking. Because I didn't have a printing press after I graduated, I started painting to be able to still produce work for gallery shows.
One of my favorite things about your work is how you take innocent and sweet looking creatures and either put them in nasty situations or graft things to their body. Can you talk a little bit about this theme?
Two things I am completely enamored with are classic symbolism and the juxtaposition of horror and beauty. The horror/beauty infatuation has been there since I was little. I recently found an old drawing I did when I was eight of a pretty, tropical beach scene with a mermaid peeking out from behind a rock- and when you look closer there's a shotgun pointed at her and she's crying. [Editor's note - We have included a picture of this photo to this article to give you insight into the mind of eight-year-old Kristen Ferrell.]
I was raised with intense juxtapositions, so they are in everything I make. I was born to teenaged hellions and adopted and raised in Kansas in a calm, conservative world of farmers and school teachers. I was a violent and rowdy little girl obsessed with sci-fi and explosives who was forced to sit quietly and wear pretty dresses. I spent years in a Southern Baptist group home and all it taught me was how to be a well-educated atheist… and on and on. So the pretty and the gory collide in all my workâ¦ even when I don't intend for it to.
The things that I chose in my paintings (like the body parts and such) come from my obsession with classical and religious symbolism. In the master's works, every object in their paintings had a very specific meaning, and when you put the whole painting together it told a story, like a beautiful secret code. So I take those old symbols and "rework" them. For example- a swan meant devotion. If I show a severed swan's head attached to the top of a birdcage, it relays the message of being trapped in a bad relationship/situation that it has dedicated itself to. If I put keys in this severed swan's mouth - keys symbolize freedom - it means it has had the option to leave but doesn't because of its unfortunate circumstance of having had its head cut off. If you know what the old symbols mean, you know the story.
That's interesting. See, I should think two people could come up with completely different interpretations of your work. Does your work usually have a specific message, or is it more open ended?
All of my pieces have a very specific story behind them, but since I use so much symbolic imagery I don't think that anyone would ever be able to figure out what the stories are. But I like that. I don't need for people to know my stories- its more fun for me to hear what stories other people see in my work, or what they can relate to in it. If everyone knew the stories behind the pieces - then they would just be MY stories. This way, they are everyone's stories.
Those severed fingered cupcakes you made were so awesome. Can you talk a little about them?
Those little cupcakes are so much fun to make! I had a little mini-series of tiny paintings of "unappetizing treats," and cupcakes with severed fingers in them were in the series. A friend taught me how to make super realistic looking "fake pastries" with clay and spackling, and I decided to make plaster molds of me and my son's fingers to put in them, mainly for our own amusement. I have another dreamy friend who is a mortician and she started sending me bags of dentures from her funeral home that they just would have thrown away. I decided those needed to be fake cupcake toppers as well. I didn't expect for them to be of interest to anyone one- but whenever I make them they sell like crazy…. which makes me giggle tons!
How do you see punk rock, or music in general, and the visual arts intersecting?
In the past, there was a heavy intersection between music and the visual arts. Bands would have their visual artists friends do album covers, flyers, shirt designs, et cetera. But now with hand-held recordings being almost obsolete because of downloads, and everyone having Photoshop skills to create their own graphics- the partnership of the visual and auditory arts has dissolved quite a bit, which I find really sad.
What I have seen growing is the punk show / gallery show collaboration- which I think is fantastic. One night only flash art exhibits in a venue with bands have been a really fun way to keep the two art forms together.
A little while ago, you and I had a conversation about this video. I said I was surprised the other students were so cruel in their commentaries, but you said that the young lady needed to toughen up if she wanted to make it in art. So, do you feel harsh criticisms like the ones in this video are valuable, or at least, necessary to grow as an artist?
I think harsh criticisms in every aspect of life are necessary to grow as a person. Of course, they are vital to grow as an artist. The greatest thing I learned in art school was the ability to handle having my artwork shredded in front of a large group of people in critiquesâ¦ and to grow from it instead of taking it personally.
Not everyone is going to like what you do, most people aren't going to understand it, and if you put it out there for the public to see- especially online where people can anonymously say the MEANEST things- there will be negative responses. People will write harsh reviews of your gallery shows. People will talk shit like crazy on blogs. People will tell you to your face at an exhibit that they think your work is a joke. If you have learned to roll with it - and even embrace it - it won't make you fearful of making more art. I love when people hate my work- those are the people I want to talk to most because I want to know WHY so I can maybe see where I can improve.
The harsh criticisms don't only allow you to grow as an artist, but they teach you to really be able to vocally justify why you create what you do. If you listen to criticism with open ears but still don't see the validity in what they are saying, then you have the strength to defend it because you weren't affected by the critique. You have to confidently and intelligently stand behind what you bring into the world. In art school I left MANY critiques in tears and every time my work improved like crazy. Make the pain your friend.
There is a good deal of conversation about whether it is difficult for women to exist in the music community. Do you think that it is easier, harder, or the same to be a woman in the visual arts? Why?
The art world is still very much a "man's world," but it is getting better and I think the visual art world is evolving more quickly than the music world is. Existing in the art world isn't difficult, but being seen as more than just a "female artist that talks about female issues" is a bit of a struggle because it's still viewed as a bit of a novelty… especially if you're a loud and screaming soapboxing feminist like I am. It's because I'm a soapboxing feminist, I have a love/hate relationship with the "All Girl Group Show." I love seeing an exhibit that is great art created by ladies, but it makes me sad that we're still at a place where we're enough of a specialty-act that we're thrown together in our own show. You'd never see an "All Guy Group Show"… that's just called a "Group Show." I'd like to get to a place where having a penis or a vagina doesn't dictate whether or not you get to be in any "Group Show"… what gets you in is your art.
Have you ever had anyone use your work without authorization? If so, what did you do in that situation?
Haha! Yes! But it's all been harmless and in most cases pretty awesome. I'm really accessible though "social media"â¦ the fact that I just used the term "social media" just made me puke a little. So, if someone wants to use my artwork for something they almost always just get a hold of me. I've had people send me photos of flyers for shows with my art on it, which I think is super cute. And, there are tons of folks that have my art tattooed on them - WHICH IS AMAZING! Fortunately, my work is a little too gross for any major retailer to try to rip off, and if they do, I have reps with lawyers. But my little tribe of cuties who like my art can pretty much do whatever they want.
Have you found the art world to be competitive, supportive, or both?
I've seen the competitive side of the art world and I refuse to play that game. It's gross and petty and as adults we should all be above it. Because I don't play the ass-kissing shit-talking competitive game, there is an entire part of the art world that I will never exhibit in- but that is TOTALLY okay with me. I will only work with galleries run by awesome people who see the art world like I do - as a community. All of my artist friends are amazing, we get each other shows, work together on projects, get excited about each other's successes and console each other when we blow it… and that's how it should be. We all come up together. I'll take a small new gallery run by great people over some big overexposed gallery run by fucktards any day of the week. Dealing with fucktards isn't worth ANY amount of press or sales that may come.
What do you have in the works?
I have oodles of pieces in a GIGANTIC group show in Berlin right now at the Strychnin Gallery- so if anyone is in Germany right now- it's worth going to see. I promise. I'm in a show coming up in L.A. at the 423 West Gallery called "Oultrepreu Mourning" and I have a solo show coming up in my darling homeland of Kansas at The Invisible Hand Gallery in Lawrence. The exact date of that is to be announced.
Also, Brad Logan's label/distro, Blacknoise Recordings, and I are combining forces and starting an occult clothing line that should be launching in a couple months. Guyâs tees, cute and glammy witchy girlâs clothing and accessories, and it should be hilarious. Who doesn't need a gigantic mirror gold brimstone symbol necklace, right?! For now we're calling it "B+K." But that might changeâ¦ probably a few times. But we'll be updating our "social media" -wretch!- sites on its exact birthdate.