'There's power in having people step into your art'

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Theres power in having people step into your art

International street artist Kelsey Montague talks about influencing brands and changing communities with just her pens - and how social media can actually be used for good


Karen Ann Monsy

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Published: Fri 2 Nov 2018, 2:57 PM

People look at walls and see barriers. Kelsey Montague looks at them and sees... canvases. It comes from a 'go big or go home' attitude that the international street artist can trace all the way back to her school projects as a six-year-old. All of her work is like that now too, she admits, a touch sheepishly: equally huge and just as unapologetic. The 33-year-old is perched on a bed next to her latest life-size mural: a black-and-white giraffe with a multi-patterned body inside one of the pocket rooms at the gorgeously-designed Zabeel House MINI in Al Seef, Dubai. The creature's long neck stretches downward just above the headboard, presenting those with vivid enough imaginations with any number of picture-perfect photo opportunities for the 'gram. It's one of scores of interactive street art projects the New Yorker has undertaken around the world - and they've all got one goal: to get the community involved.
From giant angel wings (a most ubiquitous design across Kelsey's portfolio) to mermaid tails, hot air balloons and tree houses, the artist has been working her way through a 'mural dream list' over the last four years - and managed to check one more off the roll during her trip to Dubai last month: camels! "I've always wanted to draw them - but it needed to be in a country that was relevant. What better place than Dubai?" she asks, happily, as she shows off a train of two she was putting finishing touches on in the hotel's courtyard. The end of a rope connecting the camels has been sketched suspended in thin air, clearly begging for someone to grab a hold of it and pretend to lead the single-humped mammals in single file.
It's typical of the kind of public engagement Kelsey's pieces have been evoking since she started. All of them can be identified by the #WhatLiftsYou hashtag she now signs each artwork with and she's managed to garner a solid fan club in the process, with people actually planning their travels around her work as a sort of game to find them all. Then, pop star Taylor Swift posed with one of her angel wings last year and, just like that, Kelsey got propelled into the spotlight. Overnight, there was a queue of people down the same street in New York, all wanting to pose with 'the Taylor Swift wings'. She started getting approached by corporate brands and city councils alike, all willing to fly her out across the US but also to far-flung countries like South Africa, Poland, Australia and others she'd only ever dreamed of. Today, her schedule is packed so tightly, she's only home about 2-3 days a month.
Which is why it's still with a sense of wonder that Kelsey recalls the days she struggled to make ends meet, drawing in coffee shops as a fresh art graduate and juggling a variety of jobs while trying to figure out her purpose in life. "I've found it now," she says, referring to the current positivity campaign she's on. "There's a real power in watching people 'step into' your art and then share what inspires them through the #WhatLiftsYou hashtag. I think what draws people to interactive street art is the knowledge that it was created for them. You can see the impact on communities too, because the amount of foot traffic in the area increases and small businesses suddenly see a spike in sales... It's been great."
If nothing else, there's definitely something to be said for the way her work completely lifts the face of a public space. Bland walls suddenly have character, and public spaces that once looked unapproachable take on warm personas, inviting people to pose against them and become 'living works of art', as it were. "As brands and businesses grow, they're beginning to see the power of interactive art, and I'm obsessed with it," gushes Kelsey. "Instead of saying, 'I'm going to do what I want to do', it's become about how I can speak to a community through a particular piece of art, and that really inspires me creatively."
Surprisingly, each of her works is crafted from scratch using nothing but acrylic pens. "I know spray cans would probably go a lot faster and I have a lot of respect for artists who use them, but I personally don't like them, as I don't feel like I have control over them," she explains, adding that she's still able to finish her work in a couple of days. "The pens allow me to get really intricate with my designs."
Kelsey, who comes from a family of artists (her mom's a watercolourist, as was her grandad, while her great grandfather was a painter), hopes to inspire more women to take up street art. "I honestly feel the scene is currently very male-dominated," she says. "I've nothing against the boys - I've even met a few and they're lovely - but I do think the industry needs more women."
She understands why the latter may be hesitant to go that route. "It's very physically gruelling. Plus, being on the streets is sometimes confronting and, as a woman, you sometimes feel more vulnerable because you can't always control your circumstances... For some reason, people feel like they can come up to you more freely if you're a woman - and those engagements may not always be positive. A lot of people live on the street," she explains. "Many are quite nice but, every now and then, you also get folks who may be highly inebriated or cars honking at you. So, it's not that being a street artist isn't doable - but you need to be smart about it."
The UAE doesn't have much of a street art culture - but a fledgling scene does seem to be picking up, whether in the form of restaurants and cafés inviting street style artists to design their interiors, or the ongoing 'I'm Loving Street Art' celebration taking place at Boxpark every weekend till November 10. Part of the reason for its practical non-existence here is because of an age-old debate that's still very much alive and questioning whether street art really is vandalism or vice versa. For Kelsey's part, she's never done anything illegally or without a permit - but she can also see why artists may want to push the envelope in getting a community to accept their work. "It's a very grey area," she laughs. How would she suggest working around it? "Bring in more artists! The more businesses recognise the power of working with creatives, the more the culture will grow. So, yes, initially, folks might look at you a bit oddly, but before you know it, the place turns into a hub, and more brands start taking it on - it's a snowball effect that turns places into really cool creative spaces that the public love."
In true Kelsey-style, her next dream projects are all #Goals with a capital G, ranging from wanting to work with Beyoncé to drawing underwater on a reef. She even pitched to NASA last year about sketching on the side of their next Rover to Mars. "They had to explain to me that it doesn't work like that and there are many health and safety factors to take into consideration," she says, a bit crestfallen. "If you ask me: it's not enough to reach for the sky - you have to aim for outer space!"

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