Parameters and Play: A Conversation with Neah Kelly

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Neah Kelly. Fodder for Fun series (SRRTt no. 2), recycled screenprint, paper sculpture, thread, plexiglass, 5″ x 6″ x 4″, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

Interview by Harper Wellman

Neah Kelly is a visual artist currently based in Hamilton, Ontario. After earning her undergraduate degree from Concordia University, Kelly continued her formal education at Indiana University, finishing her MFA in 2018. Today, Kelly’s practice involves working within a self-imposed set of limitations, creating both 2D and 3D pieces. Using imagined shapes, Neah configures the shapes into various forms, again and again, in new and exciting ways. The completed works inspire new shapes, and the process is repeated. Within these parameters, Neah has found a sense of play in her practice leading to a portfolio of closely related but ever-evolving work, reflecting the chaos, beauty, and joy that can co-exist within a creative invention.

Could you please tell us a little bit about your personal history and your history in regards to art exposure, education, and career. Who or what led you down the path to being a visual artist? Who were some of your early artistic influences? 

I’m originally from Vancouver Island, growing up in a very small town (with just one intersection) called Shawnigan Lake. I am and was raised a Baha’i, attending a Baha’i boarding school for all of my high school years. These experiences, I think, set the tone for how I view the world and why I became an artist. Both of my parents are in the arts (my dad is a painter, and my mom is a musician), so it was natural to make art. We were raised looking and talking about my dad’s paintings and playing music with my mom. I really think it was the most natural thing for me to end up doing.

I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t exposed to art, or when that first exposure was. My dad used to make these very large-scale hard-edge abstract paintings with only two colours. I remember one that was huge, it took up almost the entire length of our living room wall, and it was comprised of a shape that as a child reminded me of a whale. It was blue and black, flat with no depth, just very crisp, clean edges between the shapes. I remember constantly looking at that painting, even when I was really little, it had an impact on me. Besides that, I used to love looking at my dad’s art books, two books that I looked at a lot were by Rodin (his bronze sculptures), and Rothko. Artists that I think were early inspirations for me were people like Kandinsky, Rothko, and Frankenthaler (their use of colour and colour as an expression of the spiritual really interested me), and Eva Hesse. Hesse is wonderfully strange. She has such an engrossing talent with materiality and just seems to be truly creative. I loved that. I love that her work is so full of creative energy, experimentation, and a visceral reaction that you can almost feel through photographs. I’ve only seen a couple of her pieces in real life, and it was worth the anticipation!

Eventually, I went to art school, and started with the visual arts program at Camosun College in Victoria, then attended Concordia University in Montreal, earning a BFA in Studio Art, with a minor in Print Media. While at Concordia, I was able to learn a lot about printmaking and bookbinding, and I think that’s where my art practice started to develop into what it is now. I started doing a lot of lithography and bookbinding, primarily playing with less conventional forms of bookbinding. After undergrad, I attended Indiana University in the US and earned an MFA in Printmaking. I graduated in 2018 and since then have been exhibiting across the US and Canada, participating in residencies, etc. This year I have shows coming up in Hamilton, ON, at Centre[3] and a two-person show at Martha Street Studio in Winnipeg, MB.

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Neah Kelly. fodder for fun: step 1a & accompanying form MIAAS no. 1, lithograph. Courtesy of the artist.
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Neah Kelly. fodder for fun: step 1a & accompanying form MIAAS no. 1, lithograph / recycled lithograph, paper sculpture, thread, 38cm x 27.9cm / 6″ x 4″ x 5″, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

Your practice today is centered around ideas of play, as you continually play with a series of imagined shapes again and again. Play is something many people can connect with from their childhood. When did you rediscover this sense of play within your practice, or was it always there?

When I began this current body of work, making use of rules was there from the very beginning. And I don’t think I connected rules to play and play to creativity until a while later. For me, rules have played a huge part in my personal life. I’ve lived with type 1 diabetes for almost 24 years. Although it was an unconscious translation into my art practice, I think learning to function within strict parameters is something that has been a huge component of my daily life for almost as long as I can remember. So, initially creating a premise like this for a project didn’t seem unique in any way or that it would potentially lead to anything in the future. It was more that this type of thinking was just a way of existing in the world that I am familiar with.

But, the play aspect, or realizing that play was an important aspect in my work, I think, began to evolve as my process did. I see the idea of play as a way to generate ideas, and the rules establish a criteria and set of parameters guiding that play and what I’m doing/producing. When I was completing my MFA I read a lot about play and games, and game theory, and at first I saw rules as being really important, but the more I read and learned and thought about what I was doing and how I was thinking about things, I realized that really everything I was doing fit very neatly into game theory, and how children often play. The play of children is so cool. It’s imaginative, the rules are flexible, they change and develop as the game goes on. The rules are most often used to establish an objective, but they also serve the purpose of maintaining the play and allowing the play to continue for as long as possible. I realized that this was very similar to how I was using rules as a way to continue the action of creative invention. Through this research, I learned that play has huge impacts on our ability later in life to form friendships, establish intimacy or not, ethics of fairness and justice and establishing relationships. And all of these attributes are developed through rules and play, ultimately you can’t have play without rules. And rules very often (if you’re open to it) can lead to play.

In line with that thinking, the first project that really used this idea was a book project that I completed in my first year of grad school. It was an absurdly shaped small book (4” x 4” x 9”) that used three repeating shaped copper plates as its imagery. They have unique qualities that I intentionally gave them so that there was room to come up with a variety of compositions, but it was still a huge challenge! The book has about three hundred prints, and one of my rules was that all the prints that I printed had to be included in the book — successful or not. Without the safety of an editing process, the pressure for creative invention was high, it was another prompt! The objective was that with these constraints, I would be forced to invent original compositions within this framework again and again. The theory being that I would never run out of new compositions if I actually succeeded in stimulating and prompting creativity. In the end, these restraints acted as a stimulus for creative solutions, and the activity that I was engaged in during this process was play, and that’s how I got to the idea of play. From there, the broader realization of my practice is about the creative impulse, stimulating and generating it through activities, devices, projects, so that we can all engage in playful activities, seemed to come about naturally. It felt like an explosion of possibility, with my results becoming more absurd, abstract, and silly, with every iteration and subsequent generation.   

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Neah Kelly. FFF series: Peekaboo no. 1 (BBB …V), recycled drawing, hand-cut/hand-sewn paper sculpture, paper cut-outs, thread, coloured acrylic, 6” x 4” x 6”, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

Are you able to elaborate on what initially informed the imagined shapes, and what they have come to mean or symbolize for you since working with them?

The first time I used these shapes was for the book project that kicked off this entire body of work, and when I started that project, I created those shapes with the explicit purpose of them being abstract. When I started I had goals in mind: I wanted the shapes to be different scales, and I wanted them to be truly abstract (or as much as possible) so that they would be hard to anthropomorphize, additionally I wanted them to have interesting and differing parts like angles, lines with dips, sharp edges, rounded corners, curves, notches, and uneven planes so that when these shapes interacted over and over again in the book, I would be able to create a unique and interesting composition with each print. I invented them through a process of formal consideration, and I settled on the shapes I ended up with when I thought they had the features that I was looking for, I thought they’d work well together, and I liked how they looked aesthetically.

I don’t really think of them as symbolizing anything. For me, the shapes were initially a tool to accomplish an idea –  the idea of perpetuating creativity from a restricted set of source material. Now that they have gone through so many translations and have been used in a multitude of consecutive projects, I think of them more as idea generators. That’s their function, that’s what they do but they’ve also come to mean just that for me: they are the prompters for my own imagination.

Where do you see your practice going in the future? Will your series continue, or is there something different in the works?

It is continuing, but it’s always changing. I’m currently working on an artist book that will be pretty interactive. I’m trying to create it in a way that people can handle it gently and participate more fully. The way things are progressing right now, I have pieces in the same vein that I am still creating, but I also have a couple projects that take these ideas but are more outward-looking and more active in soliciting viewer engagement. I really love the idea of working together at bolstering up our imagination skills, and I think that’s where my future projects are headed.

And in the same vein of more participatory projects, I have a collaboration in the works where we plan to use rules to dictate exactly what we make. And those rules will have a much more direct relationship with our personal lives and lived experience. This will be a project that begins with just two of us, and hopefully — through the use of social media — it will grow into a much more expansive, participatory practice.

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Neah Kelly. Fodder for Fun: Belled Butt Becomes …Visage no. 5, recycled screenprint, hand-cut/hand-sewn paper sculpture, thread, coloured acrylic, 10” x 10” x 6”, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

Regarding the broader art scene, what do you see on the horizon, and what are some issues you feel the art community needs to address? Can you think of any artists or organizations that are helping the arts community move forward?

Diversity, and equal representation throughout power structures within the broader arts community. Recently, I’ve been thinking about who the gatekeepers in the art world are, who decides whose art, where it’s shown, and what type of content is presented and highlighted. It’s not enough to diversify the artists making art, we need to have boards, curators, directors, and leadership that are reflective of our communities. Shifting these power dynamics, and not simply having white boards showing POC artists, but POC communities determining the content and the conversations that we’re ultimately having within the art world is where I think the art world needs to move and is going. A few institutions that I’ve seen actively changing and diversifying their organizing bodies are Open Space in Victoria, BC; Martha Street Studio in Winnipeg, MB; and Trestle artist-run center in New York.

Finally, how can we all incorporate a little more play into our lives?

I don’t know exactly. I think for adults, play is more an attitude than a set thing. If there’s one thing I learned when researching play amongst animals and children, it’s really that anything anywhere can be considered play. One thing that I’ve observed about myself is that rules, deadlines, constraints, bribing, etc. turn really anything into a game. Set a time limit, something that you need to accomplish in a certain way, and it really does turn into a game instead of a chore. I think that combined with a more relaxed attitude, a healthy and robust sense of humour would definitely succeed in incorporating a little more play into our daily lives. The same goes for art, hobbies, anything really. That’s just what I think. Play is incredibly diverse and unique to the individual —there’s no right or wrong way to do it.

Check out more of Neah Kelly’s work on her website and Instagram.

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