One painting that really defines Kezia Harrell is a piece called Americana Hot Momma. Harrell, who regularly centers on her nude self, slumbers soundly upon a hill, her face deeply gruntled in the midst of hibernation. Sleeping figures often dream of the magical world around them, but in this playful scene that landscape is the napper’s reality. Centered is her guide, who is no fairy godmother, nor a mysterious rabbit in a hat, but a spirit baby (lovingly named Munki Burrito). Wrapped in purple fur, this guide wafts knowledge cast as sparkles of pink and yellow light into the midst of Harrell’s daydream. As the viewer, you might wonder if it is you who has fallen down a rabbit hole and stumbled into this fantasyland. If so, you would be so lucky.
Harrell is an artist who has bequeathed herself to the canvas. She lets her mind run free and allows her inquisitive nature and curiosity about the world to flow out from within. It is this light that beams from her imagination and creates the cartoonish worlds that are present in her paintings. Harrell’s practice extends beyond painting to comic book making and paper dolls—a variety of creative avenues that bring her fancies to life. Sometimes these fantastical compositions hide little fragments of darkness, like Such Gatherings where the wretched faces of men emerge from the earth like pesky garden weeds. Harrell’s figure remains unbothered, using her god-given gifts to push them back into the ground.
Harrell admits that even she still finds meaning from the meticulous work that is composed, a constant evolution of uncovering and understanding, as so often derived by hindsight. It might be best for us all to take a step back and not question the nonsense. Better yet, let it blow a little light of knowledge into our faces too.
Shaquille Heath: From following you on social media, I feel you're such a joyful person. How do you take care of yourself to ensure that joy?
Kezia Harrell: That's such a good question! Joy is the center of my creative function because art making has been my main focus since infancy. The other day when my mother and I were sun-bathing on the porch, she told me this story about when I was a baby and said, “I remember you were about four or five months old and I had you lying down on the floor and I was on the floor with you. We had three colors, we had red, white, and black and you were literally mesmerized. I could not unlock you from those colors. I just observed you and I thought that was the most amazing thing, so maybe that was your very first experience in life with connecting to something in life that would be your foundation to being an artist.”
My mother remembers one of the very first times I desired to paint. I have two studio spaces in my home which allow me the space to create; having space to create is pivotal to my joy.
My studio space is my laboratory, an extension of my physical being. I also think my whole life I thought I was a cartoon character. All of my astrological placements prove that I literally am.
We gotta get into that! What are your placements?
I have my Leo sun. Leo rising. And my Taurus Moon.
That is a lot of high energy!
Yeah, it’s very cartoony! But also, I grew up around a whole bunch of goofy people. And I've always been an artist. Before I became an oil painter, I would make comics and I would build my own worlds with paper dolls, and all kinds of stuff. I think being able to look externally and create an object or a world out of that, has always just sparked my fascination. And my life, honestly. I've always seen life from an observative perspective. So I think, I just look at it that way. I also just really love making people laugh because I just come from that kind of family. A bunch of goofballs, for real.
I really appreciate the joyous energy. I imagine some of the little mythical creatures and characters I see in your work are little goofsters?
Exactly! I think that I've just been looking at life more objectively in a spiritual way. I feel like the best way I can explore some of my psychological stuff is to just create and not question it. I went to school at the San Francisco Art Institute and I feel like that experience made me question everything. But now I'm just like… let it out. So I'm often still unraveling the meanings in my work because they have so many different meanings. I really opened up a portal and I can't stop.
I admire the openness of allowing yourself to kind of go to the canvas and just see what flows out. What are some of the meanings that you've been able to see after you finish a piece?
In my piece Hot Momma Americana I really wanted to take on the ancient motif of Mother and Child. What always stands out to me is the removal of the father in these paintings. The cherub is the spirit baby. The life of the spirit baby is about convincing their correct parents to bring them into the physical world. There’s nothing more that the spirit baby wants than to be alive in the physical world with their family but not always are the circumstances correct for that spirit to transition into the world. The spiritual baby is a protector first, but they also can be highly manipulative to protect. So, in my piece Hot Momma Americana, my spirit baby (whom I refer to as Munki Burrito) is tirelessly feeding me energy and knowledge (that maybe goes over my head sometimes). Until this very moment, the painting is unloading more conceptual epiphanies I hadn’t initially acknowledged. Munki Burrito was telling me “You better not get pregnant by that man. I absolutely will not accept him as a father. I would rather stay dead. You may not be equipped for motherhood at this time.” And low and behold, two years after the painting, I found out exactly what Munki Burrito warned me. You have to trust your brain, there are so many memories stored in there. And mind you, I haven’t read one book about Cupid, but doesn’t that make sense though? Communicating with spirits isn’t always direct, sometimes you’ll catch on later. So my approach to painting is similar to that.
I saw this picture of you on your Instagram, where you were playing with art. Did you know that you always wanted to be an artist?
I come from a family of artists. My dad was a musician. We grew up in Cincinnati and that's the funk capital of the world. My mom was an esthetician and makeup artist. She used to create these crazy doilies. But I've always been an artist and I've always taken an interest in that. They would always support me and never questioned it. I was always that kid who was good at art. I remember when I was, like, five and we had to make a white rabbit mosaic project with construction paper. I remember it was super detailed. I went to Montessori schools so they're very matriarchal, and I’m still great friends with my teachers from when I was a child. It's really nice to still have that connection with someone who knew me from that point. It's almost like having two mothers.
Or maybe three, the way you work with Mother Nature, too. One of the things featured prominently within your work is nature. There are these gorgeous landscapes decorated with magical forests and spectacular mountains. Are you a nature girl?
Heck yes! I have 60,000 photos in my phone, 59,000 of them are of grass. I just love painting grass, I can really zone out doing that.
You have this piece that I love, “Butterflies Are Bows,” which is also this image on your Instagram, where you've made your hair a flower garden. I loved seeing that as a world you literally built out.
Yes! The main photo reference is used as a mirror for me to reflect on the actual painting. I hold the photoshoot process very near and dear to my heart because it is my chance to perform and build the world I envision. The act of gathering materials is so important to my being able to build out these worlds. I have been gathering materials for years and I’ve built a nice artillery of things. I learned that from my mom, she has everything, you name it. And she always told me, “Kezia, get what you need.” No matter how much money we had at the time, we got what we needed. That mindset is something instilled, and it is why I’m able to build sets and have all of these materials, just years of investing in my visions.
What drew you to work on a graphic novel?
I guess I've always imagined making a vault of my memories. I’m the baby of the family so I just look up at everyone with so much love and shine. I want them to see how beautiful they are in my eyes. For this reason, my whole life I’ve wanted to be a cartoonist. What I love about cartoonists is that they bestow a kind of puppeteering. Movement is so important when it comes to illustrating real people, as the different gestures of our bodies speak to the audience. That is so important when it comes to telling a visual story and sparks my curiosity and desire to learn how to do that. As a child, I remember seeing an infomercial that would say, “It takes ten years to build your ability to draw cartoons.” And I always thought that was such a long time, but that's what literally happened. Every single time I showed up to art making, I was becoming a cartoonist, and before I knew it, the energy of that became a chrysalis for my graphic novel “Bananahead-Baby.”
I imagine that working on it has been sort of a lifeline, as far as just having this consistent project that you can always return to.
Exactly. I like having projects that are spread throughout a long period of time and projects that I can complete within weeks or a few months. Because it's such a gamble with time. Just building the panel and preparing it could take two months because of the drying times. So in between those drying times, I work on my graphic novel. Over the last few years, I've been putting together one large-scale oil painting per year.
Not only are your canvases really big, but your work is so. so meticulous. From the blades of grass to all of the different characters. While researching for this interview I’ve been studying your work, and every time I see something new that I didn't see before, like hiding behind a flower or tucked into a tree or something.
Yes! I love those little itty bitty details! It excites me that you bring that up because I kind of live in isolation. So I don't really get to talk to people often about my art. It's nice that you really notice that quality. Sometimes people tell me I should dim down. But those details matter a lot, like one of the details in this piece I'm working on now. A figure is running through the grass and it cuts her big toe and there's just a bead of blood coming out.
And that’s you as the main character in most of the work, correct?
Yes. My perception of the world around me is my art, so I wanted to first place myself in this re-imagined world. Self-portraiture is how I learned how to organically render realism. When I was in high school, I’d carry all of my art materials with me: my giant portfolio with various drawings in it, my clipboard, and my soft-tipped color pencils, which were then my preferred material. I had to have my art materials at all times because at any given moment I needed to fulfill the need to draw, and I’d draw myself. I carried a mirror with me and I’d set it right up in the middle of Biology class and draw myself. Of course, I paint others but it’s just, if not more important, for me to depict myself.