| On Art

Relaxing Colorful: An Interview with phoebe Cover Artist Kelsey Howard

Melissa Wade 

A few months ago, with #painting typed into the search function on Instagram, I discovered the portraiture of @kelseyhowardart. I was enthralled by her work, these mysterious ladies brushed in acrylics and gouache on wooden panels in vibrant blues and oranges and purples and greens. Phoebe’s art team loved them too. 

Kelsey Howard’s painting “Turquoise Earrings” will appear as the cover image of our 50th anniversary print issue, and it’s just one of her works we are excited to feature. The cover piece is mesmerizing—a bust of a woman with her hair pulled back, her ears draped in turquoise gems as the title suggests, her expression a Mona Lisa quirk, her green eyes questioning and sultry, her lips plump and lined with possible contentment. Howard has colored the figure’s shadows and highlights with various pigmentation, a dark plum under her chin, one eyebrow orange and the other dark green. From my hallway, looking into my office computer, she is naturally cast, but up close, ever more the rainbow. 

Howard is based in Wilmington, North Carolina, where she works as an RN by day and a painter by whatever time she has leftover. About a week ago, I sat down for an online chat with Kelsey, who was kind enough to answer my questions after rushing home from her Monday nursing shift. If she was exhausted, I couldn’t tell, her demeanor humble and upbeat, the working artist’s cheetah-print scrunchie around her wrist. 

Melissa Wade: At phoebe, we’ve fallen in love with your portraits, and we’re curious: online, you say you are inspired by nature, what do you mean by that?

Kelsey Howard: When I say nature, I mean the world that is living—animals, flowers, even people. The colors and patterns of certain flowers and birds, all the things on earth that we admire. Even faces—how they are different and unique naturally. I am always amazed by what nature has to offer, inspired by what I see. 

MW: Would you say the color palette you use is a part of that? 

KH: The color, yes. I thrive off of bright, sunny days and green places. I love visiting gardens, and anyway that I can bring color and warmth into my work, I do, mostly through using warm tones. That is exciting for me, being winter right now. I get bummed out in the wintertime when things are so gray, and the colors of my paintings help me get through that. 

MW: Do you feel like art is a form of healing? Do you use it that way?

KH: Oh yeah. I didn’t paint that much after college. I really started once I began my nursing job. After work, I had this built-up tension that I needed to release, and so I reconnected with making art as an outlet. I just came home and painted every day for a few hours, as much as I could. 

MW: I’m curious about your two worlds—as a nurse and a painter. Do you feel like they are two different worlds, like you are two different people, or would you say they are connected? 

KH: I guess I feel like I’m two different people. In school, I wanted to be a doctor. I tried to get all my science classes done, but I also wanted to get an art degree. As time went on, I really couldn’t focus on the medical subjects as much. I loved my art classes. I had to do what was best for me, which was to switch to an art major. But I had enough science classes to go to nursing school. I thought at one point I was going to do medical illustration, to tie the two worlds together, but it has been fun to have two different interests—medicine and art–even if art is what tugs at my heart strings. It gives me a ton of satisfaction, and nursing does too, just in a different way. I’m still figuring it out. Stayed tuned for how I end up balancing the two in the future.  

MW: Do you feel like you fit into the art world? 

KH: It’s funny you ask that. I feel like I’m trying to. I see so many other makers in Wilmington who are doing their main thing, their creative outlet, all day long. I should feel like I belong in the artists’ group, but sometimes I feel like an outsider because I do have this other job. Sometimes, I don’t know which job to say I do when people ask. Do I just say artist, or do I say nurse or both of them? I feel like I could be better at each of my passions, but not being truly devoted to one or the other has made me feel that I don’t quite belong to either one. 

MW: About these makers in Wilmington, do you feel it’s important for an artist to be connected to their local art community?

KH: Yeah. Connecting to other makers has given me a sense of community. They encourage me; so many of them are sweet and supporting. I have a show this weekend with a woman who owns a vintage shop here in Wilmington. We connected through social media, but then I visited her shop and we decided to work together. The people in Wilmington inspire others, as they are out there making their own creative dreams come true. There’s also a woman who grows flowers and I did a series off of her pieces sent to me in a subscription, and that was really beautiful. 

MW: As an artist, do you feel like your work has a message? Or that it has to?

KH: I remember a few people in college and even outside of college saying that art shouldn’t just be pretty, but I think that art can be whatever you want it to be, especially if it is therapeutic for you. If it doesn’t say anything to anybody, that is fine. Yet I’ve had so many people ask me, ‘What do these women mean?’ And I had to look within myself to figure it out why I was painting so many of them. I think I just wanted to create something colorful and wild and imperfect, especially through the process I used making them. The work never felt too tight or stressful in creation, so it inspired me to not worry about being perfect either, with art and in real life. 

MW: When we first saw your art at phoebe, we debated over the emotions of the women in the portraits. When you’re painting, do you have an emotion in mind?

KH: I think the emotion pours out naturally. I’d rather them look relaxed so that you can look at them and make your own interpretations. I want to be more relaxed in my day-to-day life, braver and more colorful, and okay with not being perfect. Those are the kind of things I’m saying with my work, I think. The artists I admire have a unique way of translating a certain subject on their canvas. Like writers. Writers can depict something in a way I would’ve never thought of and that translates to art. I want to make paintings that make people look at subjects in a different way, and possibly enlighten them. 

Howard has certainly enlightened us here at phoebe. You can find her work on the cover of 50.1, inside the issue, and on her website here

Kelsey Howard

resides in Wilmington, NC. Growing up, she considered many different career paths, both in medicine and art. Now she works as a full-time registered nurse and paints every moment she can. Find her work on Instagram @kelseyhowardart. 

Melissa Wade

Melissa Wade is phoebe’s editor-in-chief and a 3rd-year fiction candidate in George Mason University’s creative writing MFA program. Recently, she’s been awarded the Alan Cheuse International Writers travel grant, as well as the GMU Thesis Fellowship, both in support of her current novel project concerning assisted-suicide in Switzerland. Last spring, she won the Shelley A. Marshall Fiction Award for her dystopian fiction. When not writing and working for phoebe, she teaches writing courses with PEN/Faulkner and runs her own photography business.

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