Kelly Reemtsen – FAQs

Adapted from Falling  (Fogg Associates, 2013)


1) When did you decide you wanted to be an artist?

I don’t think it was a conscious effort. Ever since I was a kid, I was always making things, doing things. I think I was a pretty quiet little kid and I remember I spent a lot of time doing all sorts of little projects and, inevitably, I would put on different outfits and become different characters. I don’t know exactly why I did it – just because it was fun and I would look at myself in the mirror and have a full conversation. I always had projects and, even though I studied design, I took a lot of painting classes and still was making things the whole time. I don’t tie this into what I do now but I still do the same thing. I will put on an entire outfit and think, ‘Well this would make a really cool painting,’ or buy a dress and put different accessories with it, see how it looks on a person, before I would bring it into my painting.

Right after college I started a job in a company that published art prints. I saw a painting by an artist named Robert Frame. His large impactive painting was in a very small office. It turned my world upside down. It made me realize that representational painting did not have to be dull. I believe my exact thought was, ‘Wow, I really want to do that!’ I was always interested in painting and I knew then I wasn’t going to go into fashion design but when I saw that painting it just flipped a switch in my head.


2) How has your background contributed to your practice as an artist?

Although I studied fashion, I took a few painting classes and I learned some basics. But I think the fact that I didn’t do a lot of basics, I, out of necessity, ended up with this thick painting style because it was the only way I could get it done. A lot of people ask me, ‘How do you use so much paint?’ and my answer is always, ‘How do you not use so much paint?’ I can’t imagine doing it any other way.  


3) What prompted your interest in “retro” fashion?

I think what started it was a specific ad I saw which really started the women holding the tools. It was this ad from a 1950s Better Homes & Gardens. It was a photo of this woman wearing a beautiful dress and jewelry and she was holding a garden hose very gracefully. It was a survey. The survey asked, ‘Should women be able to water the lawn?’ They surveyed men and women and, of course, most of the men said no and all the women said yes. I just thought the idea of, ‘Should a woman be able to water the lawn?’ was such a funny story or theme and it made me laugh so I started thinking, ‘Should a woman be able to cut down a tree? Should a woman be able to trim the hedges?’ It goes into, ‘Should a woman be able to - whatever?’  


4) How has fashion influenced your work as a painter?

I love to see a very female shape because women now wear a more slender, practical style. I like the impractical dresses that make it more difficult to get in and out of cars. Especially with Yves Saint Laurent, it’s that very female, belted, thin waist. Then with the 60s designers, like Courrèges, his A-line dresses are all about comfort and pop colors. It’s all about shape and color through the decades; the 50s and 60s, even 70s, 80s also. I am especially interested in a designer called Arnold Scaasi. He did the bubble dresses, where they have the thin dropped waist and then come out and they bubble underneath. By the way they’re sewn it gave a very bubbled effect, as the one with the all the spots on. 


5) Do you consciously weave themes of gender, sexuality and empowerment into your work?

Certainly with empowerment I think it is conscious but I’m always surprised when viewers find it sexually aggressive. I do like the fact that, at first glance, it is very spring-like and optimistic. Then, the more you look at it, it does seem a bit sinister because of the chainsaw or a very powerful tool. And then, reading the title, the viewer feels a little uneasy. It’s not necessarily social change for women but empowerment in the sense of, ‘Wow, look at her, that’s a beautiful dress!’ and she can have that saw and it doesn’t look odd, it looks empowering instead of out of place.

I think dressing women to look pretty does tend to turn into sexuality even though that’s not exactly what I’m thinking. I think that’s the bi-product of it. 


6) Why don’t your figures have heads?

Yes, I think having a head makes it a portrait of somebody, especially if you see the face. I want the female viewer to be able to see herself in the painting. I like women to feel like they can be a part of my work.


7) How and why do you use repetition throughout your work?

I think repetition is definitely one of my major themes. You know, you’ll see the same dress painted
over and over, not necessarily in the same combination. I think a lot of the repetition comes from, not necessarily dissatisfaction but maybe the need to see if I can do it a little bit better. I fall in love with these dresses and I like to see each one with different tools. I have several different color axes, three different color chainsaws and a couple of different color shears so I think there’s something playful in the repetition. 


8) Do you see a narrative chain throughout your work?

I think my work has a narrative throughout: the figures, the dresses, the pills, the tools. They’re all part of the same story. Every person has a similar story that we all live day by day; my question is what are the tools that we use each day to get through to complete the task. You know, you’re not feeling well, you have a headache – you take an aspirin. If you need to cut down a tree, you use a chainsaw… 


9) What is your creative process like?

I think as far as the narrative, it’s in my head.  It’s a constant story, like a diary but on a much larger scale than something you would keep in your nightstand.

In terms of the physical process: I’ll find a dress that I like then a tool that I like then I get one of my friends, one of my models, to come over and I’ll get them to put on the dress and hold the tool. I will shoot for three or four hours if a model comes over. I will shoot a thousand photographs or more. Of those 1000+ photos, I might have at best ten paintings from that day. After I photograph the model, I edit images for days and I pick which positions and tools and dress combinations work. I start drawing and making studies and then, a month later, I might get one painting from that one day of photography.


10) Why do you use people you know as your models?

I find them beautiful so I want to paint them. I want to make them as pretty as I possibly can and show them in their best light. Not necessarily show them as flawless figures, but how I see them. It is also about their female form and female condition, what we all go through each day. It’s interesting to find out what’s on their mind. I’ll do mini-interviews.  It’s not that I’m interviewing them formally, I’m not sure they realize I’m even interviewing them but I’ll ask them what’s going on in their lives, not necessarily their struggles but what they’re doing to get through. It’s part of that big narrative, not that women have it any harder than men but it’s just my subject. Sometimes it leads to the title of a painting or a new idea.


11) What artists do you admire?

A few are Jenny Saville, Cindy Sherman,Claus Oldenburg, Robert Frame, Chuck Close, Wayne Thiebaud, Mike Tracy, Alice Neel, Kara Walker, Edgar Dégas, Euan Uglow, Patrick Caulfield, Will Cotton and many more.