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Kelly Witmer

Tell us about where you are from and how you ended up here in the high desert area?


I’m originally from Pennsylvania, and went to University of the Arts in Philadelphia. I moved to Los Angeles a few years after college, purely to be somewhere warm. I had planned on Miami, but a guy in a bar told me there were too many bugs in Florida, and I should go to LA. I landed in Echo Park, and loved it. I still live there part time, renting my house out on Airbnb to pay my bills.

About five years ago I was kind of at a crossroads… I had moved to Boston for a few years for a relationship, and then it didn’t pan out. I had grown apart from friends while I was gone, and wasn’t sure what I would do next. I had bought a house in Landers back in 2004 with a boyfriend, but we split up in the year it took to close the sale, and he got to keep it. Then I was priced out of doing it alone. But by 2011, prices had dropped back down, and it was the right time for me to come start a new life out here. I bid on two trashed foreclosures a mile apart on the Mesa, and ended up getting both of them. I had a big dream of building an artist’s residency split between the two places. I moved out with my two dogs and four chickens ( I had just raised them from chicks in my 2nd bedroom in LA), and started trying to fix up both places by myself. Both are still a bit of a work in progress. To say the least.



I see your work really covers a broad spectrum of mediums from Painting, to ceramics, sculpture and public works. Can you talk about your curiosity in materials and process? Does the work connect as it shifts in different materials? Or do you see them as separate bodies of work?


I used to try and fight my wandering attention span and stay focused, but now I mostly just give in to it. I’ll go through phases where I’m burned out or blocked with painting, and pull out the clay. Then it’s something new and exciting, working my brain in a different way, which I find very inspiring. I acquired a medium sized kiln after moving out here, as a trade from a friend who owed me some money. It’s been a lot of trial and error learning how to use it (and then fix it when the elements burned out). Thank god for the internet and library books - these days you can teach yourself almost anything!

I think there are similarities in the different works, as they do somewhat feed and influence each other. I have a hard enough time linking my painting together, since I bounce between figurative and abstract subject matter. I’m trying to move them closer and tangle them together.

I was actually a photography major in college, just as digital stuff was coming on the scene. When I first moved to LA, I had a darkroom set up in my closet, and rinsed prints in my bathtub. I moved into a smaller space and had to pack up the darkroom, and that’s when I started painting instead. My photography had been a combination of observation and creating scenes, with a lot of darkroom experimentation. I think a lot of that transferred into my work with other mediums. What always fascinated me about photography was the magic of it…. capturing that punctum, that fraction of a second that you didn’t really see when the shutter clicked. And that exciting moment when you would pull out your film after the final rinse, or when an image would slowly appear under the amber light as you rocked a print in the developing tray. Now that everything is so instant, it just doesn’t have the same allure. Photography has become more of a tool than a medium for me. Recently I had my dad’s old medium format camera repaired and starting shooting film - it feels completely archaic.

Printmaking can be a happy medium between photography and painting, and it’s another process I love.

Public art is something I sort of fell into about 15 years ago, when I applied to do a bus stop mural in my neighborhood of Echo Park. That led to being asked to be in a shortlist of artists hired to put together proposals for a big playground project downtown. This was something completely new to me - designing shade structures, fencing, benches, the works. I made it past the first round, but my proposal came in second. Since then I’ve just done smaller projects, but in the past few years I’ve been applying to a lot more. The application process can be brutal - especially when I do tons of research and work to come up with a proposal, only to have it rejected. But I’ve been learning a lot by doing them, and I love the challenge of having an “assignment” of sorts, or a problem to solve. It gets me out of my vacuum.


Can you tell us about your influences, your conceptual framework, and the context in which your work fits in to a larger painting/sculpture dialogue today?



Many of my influences (or heroes) are the artists who also (like myself) explore various mediums and/or subject matter, such as Kiki Smith.

A random list of favorites: Pierre Bonnard, Georgia O’Keefe, Michael Borremans, Peter Doig, Neo Rauch, Eric Fiscl, Luc Tuymans, Marlene Dumas, Eva Hess, Terry Winters, Lee Bontecou, Henry Darger, Anselm Kiefer, John Baldessari, Joan Brown, Robert Arneson, David Hockney, Louise Bourgeois.


I was really lucky to get an early education in modern art by living close to Washington, DC, where there was amazing museums that were all free. My dad was commuting there for his PhD, so I made a lot of trips there as a teenager where I was set loose to explore the city. I saw a huge Jonathan Borofsky  show at the Corcoran during that time, and it really left a mark on me. His work was somewhat frightening to me, but also so liberating and exciting… there were paintings, drawings on walls, enormous mumbling and moving sculptures. It showed me how limitless the possibilities in art can be. Around the same time was a retrospective of Jim Dine at the Hirshhorn, which blew me away. He is still my favorite artist, I think. Another one that has always explored various pathways and stretched the boundaries.


My brain is all over the place… often in conversations I might space out for a few seconds and get lost (even when I’m the one talking). I say this, because that’s pretty much how I’m following the painting dialogue today. I probably couldn’t get a word in edgewise, so I don’t even bother.

I hope that I’m moving towards something. I just keep making work, and hope that it will eventually meld together and make sense.


How do you feel your work has changed (if it has) since being in the desert?


It was a huge change, in that I had pretty much stopped painting for the whole decade prior to moving out here. I stopped for various reasons - mostly frustration from rejection and trying to compete in the art world rat race. It wasn’t really a conscious decision… I just sort of put down the brush, and years kept going by. I was still making things, but more functional things, in the craft realm. I got a small kiln and started experimenting with fused glass, I took a metal-smithing class, and was making jewelry. I silk screened clothing, I learned to knit. I opened a store with some friends, and we refinished furniture. I helped to build a house with a partner from the ground up, and then did a few remodeling/house flipping projects.

And then, again for no real reason, I just started painting again. How couldn’t I, with these views and all this space? At first it was landscapes, and then I eventually picked up where I had left off. Now I’ve been painting in a frenzy for the past few years, as if trying to make up for lost time.



How do you think the landscape here plays in to your paintings?


At times it’s an entire subject, but for the most part it’s just hanging out quietly, off stage. But it affects me, and I crave it, and adjust my habits around it. And the truth is, my studio has turned into just a room where stuff accumulates - I actually do almost all of my work in my dining room, because it has the best light and the best views. Staring out at the landscape, and watching the birds that live in my back yard are visual valium that I’ve come to rely on. It puts me in a really calm space.


Tell us about your artist residency Rancho Paradiso:


I’ve done a few residencies myself in the past and had such amazing experiences, so I really wanted to create something like that out here.

It’s a small operation - a large two bedroom house on 2.5 acres, and I added three trailers and a plumbed outdoor bathroom. Right now it’s on a break, and someone has been renting it full time. I did four rounds of residencies with small groups of artists, and it was a great experience. A few people from the last group ended up moving out here after it was over, which I thought was pretty cool. But it’s a lot to manage all on my own, and still be able to focus on my own work. And the set up is just too far from what I think would be ideal. I think there needs to be more space so that more artists could be there at one time to create more of a synergy. There’s a few other small residencies in the area - it might be interesting to try and combine them somehow…. maybe just run them concurrently, so that all the artists could gather for dinners, critiques or shows. Half of the experience is the environment and landscape, but the vital other half is the interchange with other artists.



I see you have chickens and goats. I just really want to know about them!


There’s been a lot of chicken tragedy in these years in the desert. The first year, I took on a stray rooster that a friend found in LA, and then 12 chicks were hatched after his arrival. But I learned how important vaccinations can be, when none of them survived. I also lost many to predators - something able to get through small spaces, so I’m assuming bobcats or foxes. I was down to three, and something got in and killed them all a few months ago. I was really broken up about it, as I was very attached to them. Some were very tame, and would sit in my lap and let me pet them like cats.

I plan on starting over again with some chicks, but I’ve been taking advantage of the freedom for now. Trying to arrange animal care while splitting my time in LA has been a huge challenge. I finally gave my two goats away this past month. They’re on “loan” to a woman a few miles away, who already had 15 goats and didn’t mind a few more. It was the perfect situation, as now I can visit them and she’s okay with me taking them back in the future. I raised them from babies for four years, so it’s been really hard to let them go. But I think they’re better off with other goats. They had the complete run of my place, were very spoiled, and their path of destruction was always increasing. Many times I would come home to an art supply delivery that had been trampled, gored by horns, or eaten. And I suffered a few too many horn injuries myself.

What I miss the most is watching the sunsets with the animal crew. I would go sit outside, and they would gradually come gather around me, almost like a Disney movie. Both chickens and goats are very curious animals, which is probably why I feel such a connection to them.

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