Family Swank: Kemi Mai
The 18-year-old artist talks Photoshop, technicality, and the MoMA.
Name: Kemi Mai
When I first came across this artist’s work on Instagram, I wasn’t sure if her pieces were paintings or photographs. Kemi Mai, the 18-year-old Manchester, U.K. native, takes digital art to a whole new level. With James Blake, Toro y Moi, and Sigur Rós playing in the background, she uses her tablet and programs like Photoshop to create masterpieces that make you do a double-take. In this week’s Family Swank, I spoke with Kemi about technicality, being your own worst critic, and the underrepresentation of women of color in museums. Check it out.
Mass Appeal: How did you become interested in digital art?
Kemi Mai: Before I made it my chosen medium, all I knew of digital art was its standpoint in concept art for gaming and film industries, which was all super interesting to me. The reason why I bought my first graphics tablet, the tool with which I create my work, was so that I could color black-and-white comic book panels. Then, I just ended up using it to paint with, and I haven’t stopped since.
MA: For someone who isn’t familiar with this particular field, could you explain the creative process behind it?
KM: Much like with traditional artists, I think every digital artist’s creative process is different. For me personally, everything starts with an idea. Seeding my work from a conceptual standpoint has always been the first point in my process. I have more ideas than I have time to paint, but it’s usually the ones that linger which get made into finished pieces. When I look back at my work, I’m instantaneously reminded of the idea which brought me to create that particular piece. The process of turning these abstractions into something visual is always something that presents its own unique journey.
MA: What’s the most useful and important skill you’ve gained through creating your works?
KM: Aside from technical things like a grasp on realism and my understanding of color, I feel as though making art has brought me to a place where being my own worst critic is much more positive than it used to be. Now, I can be proud of what I create without necessarily being satisfied with the work itself. I think this is a vital skill, as it’s something I’ve had to work at to learn.
MA: Which artist(s) inspire you and your work?
MA: Do you have a favorite painting or series, so far, that you’ve created?
KM: After spending so much time with a piece, looking over every detail and being hyperaware of every flaw, I usually despise my work when its first completed. I’ll just be glad that it’s finished and take my satisfaction from that. Then, after a few weeks or maybe months go by, it won’t seem so bad and maybe I’ll even like it. So, my favorites are probably older ones, like Overgrown and 321.
MA: From the time you started to now, how have you grown artistically?
KM: My style has evolved, as its now an ever changing reflection of what interests me on both a conceptual and visual level. There’s this quote I love by Ira Glass— and I’m paraphrasing herego look it up, it’s rad— but the general gist of it is that it’s all a question of taste. If you start off with good taste, there’s going to be a gap where your work will disappoint you because it isn’t quite matching up with your taste, but it’s trying.
This was very much the case with me, but I feel as though I’m getting there. I feel comfortable with my style now, it’s not something I spend time considering and there’s no longer an imagined aesthetic hold that I’m attempting to adhere to. With this growth that freed me from self-imposed constraints, where I was so focusing on finding a unique style, I’ve also learnt to express my ideas more freely. Some of the paintings I make now would’ve intimidated me too much for me to even attempt them a year or two ago. But now, I just find a way to figure out.
MA: Can you describe your work in one sentence?
KM: I’ll just go for one word. Ideas.
MA: Overall, what inspires you?
KM: I’m inspired by creativity and random shit that I love, from my favourite cinematographers and directors like Stanley Kubrick and Lance Acord to the music I’m listening to. I’m driven to create by ideas formed from abstract thoughts, emotions, and personal perceptions, all of which are often influenced or sparked by the things that surround me.
MA: What do you listen to?
KM: Such a wide variation; whatever I feel like listening to at the time. Warpaint, FKA twigs, Devendra Banhart, Hozier, Sigur Rós, The National, Frank Ocean, Bombay Bicycle Club, XXYYXX, Fiona Apple, James Blake, Toro y Moi, Childish Gambino, Radiohead, Neutral Milk Hotel, Miles Davis, Pink Floyd, Alice in Chains, Teen Suicide, Cat Power, Earl Sweatshirt, The Shins, Mac Demarco, Chet Faker, King Krule, Flight Facilities and so many more.
MA: What emotional benefits does your art provide?
KM: Translating parts of yourself into the art you create instantly turns the resulting works into something very personal, so the freedom to be honest and creative is very satisfying. I haven’t found anything that comes close to the freedom I feel when I create something which didn’t exist before I made it. Making art makes me happy, so that’s the biggest benefit in itself.
MA: Do you have any advice for other young artists who want to get into the digital painting game?
KM: Get the right tools— a graphics tablet is essential— but you don’t need to spend a lot. I use Photoshop, but lots of people also use Painter. There’s so many misconceptions about the medium that you’d be easily forgiven for thinking that digital painting is miraculously easier than traditional, but you’d also be wrong. So, I’d say try not to have too many preconceived notions about what making digital work is going to be like— just try it and like with anything, give it time.
MA: So far, what’s been the most challenging piece you’ve worked on?
KM: Probably any of the ones where things haven’t gone to plan, or rather, I just haven’t had my shit figured out. This always means more problems, as opposed to the pieces where I’ve started with a clear visual of how I’m going to explore the initial concept. 321 was one of those tricky ones and, respectively, Out There was plain sailing.
MA: Where would you like your art to lead you?
KM: Two years ago, I wasn’t even making art, so when faced with questions like this one, I’m never too sure of what my response should be. So far, the response to sharing my work has exceeded anything I would’ve ever imagined and so have the opportunities that have come from it. So, I guess I’m just happy to wait and see.
MA: What’s the one museum you’d like to have your art hanging in?
KM: There are a lot of contemporary art galleries where a lot of my favorite artists show which I’d love to see my work hanging in, but we’ll see. Definitely the MoMA… I’m half kidding [Laughs]. I just hate the statistics for female artists there and in a lot of museums, and even more especially: artists who are women of color. To quote one of many Guerrilla Girls political graphics that say it all, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Metropolitan Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art section are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” The graphic is from 1989, but a 2011 recount found not much had changed, with 4% of the artists in the Modern and Contemporary section being women, and 76% of the nudes being female.
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