An Interview with Kelsey Montague

Kelsey Montague is a social media phenomenon. Not long ago, the only outlet for her art was late night doodling in coffee shops. Her subject matter—flowers, animals, whimsical patterns—is familiar to most of us as the stuff of adolescent notebook marginalia. Not surprisingly, the world of high art wasn’t interested. Then something remarkable happened, something that a few years ago would not have been possible. Kelsey’s large drawing of a pair of wings on a public wall in New York City became an Instagram hit. Posted with the hashtag #whatliftsyou, the wings attracted enthusiastic participants on the street (including Taylor Swift) and hordes of online admirers. Montague suddenly found herself propelled off of the kitsch margin and onto the world stage.  I spoke with her during one of her numerous commissioned stops around the world, in Salt Lake City for the Alt Summit blogging conference.


How did you start drawing?

I guess to be honest if I go back far enough I think in coloring books when I was a kid. I would do dots and lines—I didn’t just want to fill in the different parts, I wanted to do something different. But the biggest thing was, you know I finished art school in London, I came back home and I felt like any recent graduate, like, ok, what am I going to do now? I ended up going out to LA to work in film, but at the time I started drawing this type of really detailed art, primarily because it was a nice escape, and it was a nice way for me to just kind of lose myself in something. So I did that at night. And then over the next decade it was kind of a night thing. I would draw in coffee shops and I knew people liked my work. I loved taking a main image and filling it in, kind of like contained chaos, as some people have said.


How do you invite people to interact with the work?

They just come by. It was like that when I worked in coffee shops. I would work in coffee shops on the weekends and at night, cause that was the only way I could share my artwork. I was that girl, the girl that had the sketch book and went into galleries in New York and I was really trying… I thought, people like what I’m doing… but it just never panned out. So being able to build an audience on social media and instead of just sharing it with a couple people passing in a coffee shop, taking it online has been a really amazing experience.


Do you also engage with negative feelings in your drawings?

What I love about this detailed of work is that I really can control it and I can lose myself completely in it, which is nice because literally I’ll get down (I wish you could see me draw—I’m like this [puts nose close to imaginary surface]), so for me it’s pure enjoyment. If there’s a topic, like a political topic that I’m really passionate about… I haven’t done a lot of that yet, but when that does strike it does get a little emotional for me. But for right now I love what I’m doing with #whatliftsyou, I love spreading more wings and more uplifting messages.


Are your ideas right now mainly for commissions, or for independent projects?

Both. It started though—you know the wall in New York City, it’s an artist wall it’s constantly changing I think every two to four months—so what was great about that was, I just got to do whatever I wanted. It was like, I’m going to do this and I hope people enjoy it. I’ll be going back to do the same wall—it’s nice having these walls where it’s not a specific client and I just get to test, so I’m doing that, and there are wings that I’m getting specific commissions for. I’m going to be doing other interactive type art that’s not wings which I’m really excited about. I’m pretty open as long as I feel comfortable about it. I really like the interactive component. I love drawing something and making it public, where anybody can come and interact with it and they become a piece of art. You know, to be honest, I kind of walk away and it’s not mine anymore, it’s whoever passes, which is really cool.


What advice would you give artists trying to promote their work on social media?

Instagram for me has been my favorite channel, and that’s just been something that I’ve focused the most on just because it’s so easy and so quick. There’s amazing talent on Instagram. Amazing. I collaborated with some much larger artists than myself who do different kinds of styles, and that’s what helped me get out there more, and that kind of support structure is so important. With street art, there’s a ton of street artists, and I think a lot of them are beginning to realize the benefits of using social media and different  avenues like that. So I think just going on and commenting and liking and just being part of a community, and just keep building up that way and expanding your network. Cause then, if you can do that and if you can prove that you’ve got something that people like and you can prove that you’ve got an audience, then it’s like yeah, this is something that I’ve done and this is what I have to offer with my artwork.