Kelly Frederick Mizer
Traces & Threads
October 29 – December 21, 2018
When Kelly Frederick Mizer's youngest son was four, he asked, “Mom, you know that voice in your head? Who is that?” Her work is an attempt to answer that question, exploring the idea of memory and identity as they relate to relationships—particularly the relationships that must change in order to grow. For Mizer, drawing and painting give voice to hurt, intrigue, and betrayal, examining those parts of the past that continue to reside in the present. The images that repeat themselves (bobby-pins, cherry pies, igloos, scissors, string) in her work are all tied to the concept of home: what it is, and how we can ever manage leaving it.
As my children get older and leave home, I have begun to explore the idea of memory and identity, as they relate to relationships, particularly the relationships that must change in order to grow. I am interested in the spaces between narrative and the heart, both the story and the longing it creates when it passes. Being a mom has been core to my identity for so long now that I have returned to imagery from my childhood memories to explore who I am aside from my current role. Drawing and painting, for me, are about finding answers that only appear for a split second and then are gone. They are about giving voice to things that have hurt me or intrigued me or betrayed me and examining which parts of my past reside in me still.
When my youngest son was four, he asked me, “Mom, you know that voice in your head? Who is that?” I suppose my work is an attempt to answer that question. I have been filling notebooks with Venn diagrams and visual lists to record things about me that define me. Under all of this is a need to connect, to feel valuable and heard, and to leave behind traces of myself. I rely, often, on the image of an airplane and on ladders. I cannot be certain of why they appear, but my guess is that I am interested in the idea of heaven and I am scared of dying and leaving my children behind. The images that repeat themselves (bobby-pins, cherry pies, igloos, scissors, string) are all tied to the concept of home, of what it is and of how I will ever manage leaving it.
KELLY FREDERICK MIZER received her BFA in painting and drawing from School of the Visual Arts (NYC) to which she received a full tuition Silas H. Rhodes presidential scholarship. Since 1996, she has been teaching art at Wauwatosa East High School, has served as the Art Area Chairperson for the Wauwatosa School District, and is currently their Art Curriculum Content Team Leader.
She has been the proud recipient of three national Gold Portfolio Teacher Awards from the Alliance of Young Artists and Writers and has received two nominations for the Coca Cola Distinguished Teacher Award. Her portfolio students have received millions of dollars in scholarship offers and many of her students have received both regional and national recognition through both Scholastic and Young ARTS (a competition sponsored by the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts), including two Presidential Scholar nominees and three national gold key portfolios. Her illustrations have been featured in Uppercase Magazine, New American Paintings (Midwestern Edition #59), and in 3x3 Illustration Directory No. 11. She is the author and illustrator of five independent books: Greta and the Angels, Caroline's Wish, Waiting for You, Summer of the Pigeon, and Red Cabbage for Breakfast. She is also an illustrator for the language app, Phrasi. Her most recent endeavors include writing a blog, www.kellyinrepeat.com, that documents her experiences as a working artist and mother of four.
The following questions are intended to provide insight into the artist's process, how they got started and what inspires them.
Was there a person or event that got you started creating your art? Does that person or event continue to influence the work that you do?
When we lived in Springfield, Missouri, my mom had a ceramic “studio” in our garage. My mom didn’t call herself a teacher yet, but she was teaching me anyway … always creating (macrame wall hangings from found objects, thrown coffee cups, dandelion wine with accompanying hand thrown goblets, homemade cinnamon rolls, molasses cookies). We didn’t have a TV. She was always making. She was twenty-three. I was her sidekick. Maybe a silent sidekick. I sewed on my pink sewing machine, painted my first stretched canvas, finger painted next to the kick wheel. She even allowed me, after relentless begging and against all of her own beliefs, to go to a Baptist Sunday school once with the neighbor girl where I got to make noodle art about Jesus on burlap. My mom was my high school art teacher so, formally, she is also my mentor. She continues to influence my work, not necessarily in terms of style or content, but in our shared belief that community is core and essential to a meaningful life.
At what point did you consider yourself an artist?
One way or another, I have always been a storyteller. There has never been a point in my life at which I did not feel creative.
Who or what inspires you and why?
I am inspired by cherry pie, airplanes, lemons, and the blitz torte that my mom bakes each year on my dad’s birthday. I am inspired by the premature births of my four kids, by their dreams for the world and their love of me. I am inspired by my children (always). I am inspired by having to let go, to move on, to settle. I recently was inspired when my teacher said that trauma kills the imagination and that has lead me to think about my own mini traumas. I suppose these things interest me because they are all evidence of my experience and it has taken me a long time to figure out that it is worth sharing and that somebody might make the time to notice along with me.
What was the first piece of art you made? Do you remember why you made it? What materials did you use and why?
Well, I already mentioned the Jesus noodle art on burlap, but I do remember, from that same time period, painting my first painting on a stretched canvas in our basement. I had a real easel and I painted the rainbow and the sun and a tree. My Uncle Mike, who was a designer, visited us, and raved about that painting and said he wanted to buy it. That was exhilarating to me.
Are there any programs or learning opportunities that you wish you had as a young artist?
I wish I had taken advantage of the ability to travel abroad when I was in college. Also, I still am a young artist, right? Sigh.
What would you say to a young person to encourage their study and practice of art?
I am the art department chair at Wauwatosa East High School and have been teaching art since 1995, so encouraging young people is something that has become part of the fabric of my identity. I encourage them to go outside of their comfort zone, to experiment with ideas that are initially either curious or foreign. I often hear myself repeating the phrase, "What else, what if, what is next" as I encourage them to dream just a little bit bigger. Making art can often feel scary and necessary simultaneously, so it is vitally important to respect the process and to be true to your own voice. There is room in the world for many different kinds of art. Don't be so intimidated by someone else's style or skill to a point where you abandon your own language and ideals. If you are creating something that moves you, something that you want to share with the bigger world, if you are creating something that is raw, that deals with your heart, that deals with the day to day or the world at large or the universe or God or something as small as a grain of rice, if you are creating something that matters to your own landscape, your own way of being, and if when you create it you feel a release, you feel satisfied, you feel hungry for more, you feel validated, you feel like crying, you feel exhausted, you feel elated, then you are creating art. And if that art does not fit into someone else’s ideal or someone else’s rules or someone else’s SHOULD, it’s okay to let that bruise your heart a little bit. If it does, you should keep creating. It means you are an artist.
The following questions are intended to create insight into the artist’s practice and why they think art is important.
Is this your first and only career? If not, what other jobs have you had and how have they influenced your artistic practice?
I have been an art teacher since 1995 and currently chair the art department at Wauwatosa East High School. Teaching has influenced just about every aspect of my life and especially my artistic practice. Teenagers have a gravity about them that is incredibly sweet and endearing and being able to connect to them through imagination and voice has taught me to be brave and vulnerable within my own work. I think one of the most important lessons that comes from teaching art is that the work we love isn't always necessarily the work we create. In guiding young people to pay attention to their specific points of view, it has become nearly impossible to ignore my own. Every year I have at least one student that just blows me away with their ability and even now I have to look at that and be okay that I have a different set of skills. The other thing that teaching has done is reinforce my core belief that community is an essential component to growth and that art cannot be made in isolation.
Do you like people to see your work/comment on it while it is still in process? Why?
I love to share work that I am excited about and I rely on feedback from artists that I respect and love. I think it is especially helpful to get feedback that is unsettling because it lets me know where I stand with the work and helps me stay true to my convictions and intentions. I am very grateful for local artists Susan Evenson and Mark Mulhern because I am their biggest fans and having them occasionally pipe in as my cheerleaders has given me boosts of confidence when I need it the most. I also listen carefully to feedback from my mom, a fellow painter and art teacher and to my husband, an exhibit designer, because their voices are so distinct and neither one of them are afraid to be honest with me. My youngest son, Quinn, is an amazing artist and he gives the best feedback in the land. If you see a wiener dog in a painting, you can thank him.
Do you have a daily artistic ritual or routine? If so, how does this help you?
I wish that I was the kind of person that had a specific routine, but my life is still dictated by kids schedules a bit and, because I have been painting outside, the weather. Still, there are things I want near me when I am working that help me dive into the work. I want my dog at my feet. I want a glass jar full of iced coffee and a straw. Sparkling water, clean waxed paper palettes, music, are all essential components to a good day. I almost always listen to the Avett Brothers when I work. Tori Amos's, Little Earthquakes has been on quite a bit during this series as well. I love music by storytellers. I see myself primarily as a storyteller (whether it is writing or teaching or creating art) and lyrics can often help me identify the story. Vices (coffee, straws) are there when I need to ponder, to linger with the work while I wait for it to talk back to me.
What inspiration/research led you to your current body of work?
I am inspired by anticipation, by longing, by change. This series of work attempts to address the dilemma of letting go as I redefine my role and my surroundings. In doing so I have spent a lot of time tracing my memories and my life. For the last two years I have been participating in community meditations, breath work, and retreats that have encouraged me to center and reflect as I carve out a new beginning for myself. I am intrigued by mediumship, spirit animals/guides, coincidences, and the law of attraction. I have been embracing the unfamiliar and learning how to be comfortable with memories that are distorted or repressed. I have learned to find gratitude in perfect timing. There are really specific songs that hit me in the exact heart space that my work does. Joni Mitchell's The Circle Game, Leona Nass's Ballerina, and Lori McKenna's Fireflies all say pieces of what I am trying to say with my work. I really have needed this type of music in my life to remind me that my story is worth telling. Sometimes it's hard to believe that. There are so many injustices going on in the world, so much inequity and brutality. So when I look at the world at large, at politics, at daunting issues like war and poverty and racism, I can find myself wondering if what I am doing is selfish or worth it or if it even matters in the bigger scope of things. What I know for sure though is that it does. My intimate, narrow scope has a longing of its own and finding connection with artists who have shared that murmur has been hugely inspiring and influential.
What caused you to gravitate toward the materials and processes you are currently using?
When my daughter was a toddler, she finished her meals by saying, "I'm done. I am a mess." She was, too. Always. She is her mother's daughter I suppose because I am messy. For the life of me, I wish I was the kind of artist that could lose herself in detailed pen and ink work for hours, but I just don't have that patience or interest. I like materials that make messes. Coffee tins full of wet paint, charcoal that leaves smudges everywhere, and Caran d'Ache crayons. I am a huge fan of gouache, of twin-tip brush markers, and I am madly in love with Windsor Newton inks, which leave traces of themselves in my cuticles for weeks at at time. I gravitate toward materials that free me. Twenty-two years ago a student gifted me with a full box of W-N inks in glass bottles. His uncle didn't want them anymore. This new series of work has used up the last of those jars, which somehow seems fitting, given the themes behind the artwork.
The following questions are intended to offer insight into the artist’s current work and what they intend their audience to understand.
What role does process have in your work?
One of the benchmarks we have for assessing student artwork in my classes is called process. For me, it's that important. Finished work is perhaps evidence of that "Ta-Da" feeling, but process is all about the conversation that I have with the work along the way. It is about listening and risk taking and trusting. In this latest series I often found myself near the end of a painting and I would sit back and feel dissatisfied. I always ended up asking myself "where is the risk?" This is how the leg of the dog fell out of the sky in the piece, "Greta, the First goodbye," or how the giant pink poodle appeared as my spirit animal piece. Process is about pushing myself far enough that I am willing to jump off the high dive. Getting there is everything. Product is the feeling of swimming out of the water after the dive, but process is the leap.
How do you know when a piece is complete?
When I worked with painter Lucio Pozzi when I was at SVA we had that very discussion. He asked me how I knew and I said, "When I can say Ta-Da." In the twenty-five years since I left New York I haven't changed my mind about that. Lucio described it as that feeling of when your stomach is smiling.
What is the one idea/thought you hope people will have/take away with them after viewing your work?
I hope people feel less lonely.
Why do you create art?
I create art to feel less lonely, to feel part of something bigger than I am. I create art because I often feel like I am an outsider. I cannot bring myself to wear the annual faculty t-shirt for opening day at school. I have insecurities that would be paralyzing without an outlet. I create art to connect, to release, to communicate with a part of myself that never grows old. I create art to investigate traumas and missteps that have caused shame and humiliation. I create art to let go of fear.
What role does the artist have in society? Why do you think art is important to society?
That is a little bit like asking, "Why is breathing important?" Art is the backbone of culture. It shapes and informs and connects us. Being an artist in society is an invitation to others to observe and meditate and be still.
Why do you think it’s important to support the arts?
What is life without movies and pies and beautiful chairs? Supporting the arts emphasizes that we value creativity and the human spirit. Supporting the arts means that the students who have taken my classes can go out into the world and do very different things with their points of view. I have former students who document wars and poverty and politics and others who document high fashion. One is not more noble or valuable than the other, but the support they have received along the way, both financially and emotionally, allows them to genuinely record their very human experience. Supporting the arts means, "I see you. I hear you. You are noticed and valuable and worth it."