Recently, the earthwords art team, Chloe Tharp, Salman Yakub, and Mikey Waller, spoke with Kenzi Rayelle (she/her/hers) about her work and artistic process. Her piece You’ll Be Fine It’s Gone Now was published in Issue 39 of earthwords. Since then, she has been highly involved in the Iowa City art and music community and is currently working on her spring BFA show.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
earthwords art team: First, we’d really like to talk about your preferred medium and how you ended up with that.
Kenzi Rayelle: Yeah, for sure. I ended up beginning as a graphic designer, and my career started when I was 16. I did photography and some graphics for local bands. When I transferred to U of I back in 2017, I ended up taking an intro to printmaking class, and a couple grad students were like, “Hey Kenzi You’re really good at this. Hey, dumbass, pursue printmaking.” [Laughs] And, I still am professionally a graphic designer. I still do stuff for bands. I’ve done stuff for Lizzo and Open Mike Eagle. However, my heart is really set in stone in printmaking. And that’s a big thanks to the faculty here at the U of I and because of that I’ve been focusing more on fine artwork. I also do a lot of sculpture as well on the side but I’ve been all over the place.
AT: I would imagine that the graphic design helps with printmaking, thinking about how things are layered and laid out. And so, how much of the skill set transferred over?
KR: Oh, quite a bit. You know there’s a lot of similar dynamics when you’re looking at specific [projects]. You’ve got to think about color theory, especially in screen printing when you’re dealing with layering specific colors on top of each other. And that’s very similar to creating posters. And similarly, if you’re using font in your printmaking work as well, that’s going to be very dynamic if you know exactly what you’re doing with that. So I would say a lot of skill sets transferred over, and I’m very thankful that I have, you know, being proficient in multiple mediums for sure.
AT: Yeah, and to go off of that, I wanted to ask about the graphic design aspects as well as illustration and sculpture. And I would like to know how that ties into how you describe yourself as an artist because I really like your email like sign off, “Printmaker. Designer. Human.” I think that’s the greatest thing and it sums it all up. I want to know your thoughts on how you identify as an artist and how that can tie into using multiple mediums and not necessarily putting a definitive label on it.
KR: Totally. There was a former printmaking grad. He also used to be a designer and we had a conversation once about what it means to be an artist, and why a lot of people don’t see graphic design as an art form. And we had a really great conversation about what we are creating, and why it’s not just to portray a certain business but we create simply because that’s what we’re wanting to do. We’re trying to promote our thoughts and emotions and feelings.
I see myself as an artist because I have this platform to voice my opinions, and a lot of people do that through music, through writing, as you guys know. It’s just like, that’s my brain, being able to blurb this word vomit, and say, “This is what I’m trying to say.”. And I thank a lot of my peers for being able to allow myself to really flourish as an artist, you know?
AT: You already touched on this with your history of making stuff for bands, band posters, but just how much of your work would you say is interconnected with the local music scene of where you are.
KR: Totally! Yeah, I do, primarily, I do commissions for local musicians. [I did a] T shirt project with Jim Swim recently. He is a local rapper. I’m very much intertwined with a lot of the music scene here, thankfully. It’s a shout out to SCOPE productions for putting me in that loop with the local scene as well as playing a lot of house shows as Tooth Ivy.
AT: And when you’re making art for musicians and bands, is that process different than making personal art? So, do you listen to the music, and get the sense of what this band looks like visually? Or, how do you do it?
KR: It’s a hard line to walk especially as an artist. I have a very specific style, and you have to be able to create a product that speaks volumes about the musician, as well as what they’re trying to say with whatever design I’m trying to produce. For Lizzo, when she came to homecoming, I had to really listen to her music to be more familiar, and her design team was really wanting something that was not my aesthetic. But that’s something you find a lot in the design field, too. When you’re working for others you really have to have an open mind about what they want as an end product. So yeah, it’s definitely a loop. There’s loops and interconnected systems that you have to jump through.
AT: And to jump off of that, as an artist I think there are two forms of your creation of things that you make for you and the things that you make for others or for other projects. I’m really curious about the work that was on your website. I enjoy how you describe all of those separations and the flesh of things. It’s about collective experiences. When I saw it, I really enjoyed the way that you play with this idea of disconnection and how things can be taken apart and put back together. I wanted to know your thoughts on that.
KR: My current thesis for my BFA is in regards to childhood trauma. So I’ve been working a lot with how to tie in my experiences. My way of doing that is through my printmaking at the moment. I’m working on a 48 inch by 27 inch fabric print. I’ve just been trying to portray those emotions through quilting fabric sculpture. And I haven’t released all of the the works yet for that thesis as well, because it is kind of a grandiose show I’m doing, like a full like 5′ 7″ person made out of fabric, so it’s a pretty big ordeal and it’s been over a year in the process of creating that show as well.
AT: Along with flesh and disconnection and taking things apart, you also use a lot of animals in your work. That’s one thing that I noticed from the first time I saw some of your work. Would you want to speak to that? That kind of animalistic theme that seems to run through a lot of your stuff.
KR: Yeah, I get asked it a lot to be honest and it’s something that’s just always been inherent. There’s surely not a big meaning for the animals in particular, I just have always gravitated towards a natural sort of aesthetic. I really appreciate the natural forms and I always tend to do animal forms, especially when it comes to band posters, but in particular, there’s a print on my website that is a goat and a pig. And for that, in particular, has a similar meaning to my thesis at the moment with using meat and flesh, as a representation of my trauma. Overall it’s just like an inherent thing. It just happens.
AT: Going back to your BFA show, and just your creative process with that. Where do you find your inspiration? I know you’ve talked a lot about your childhood trauma, but, how do you go from inspiration to turning it into actual physical objects?
KR: That’s a good question. I know I’m bringing up trauma a lot but processing those memories in a way that turns into a physical form. That really helps being able to work through my PTSD. And those memories as well. So, it’s pretty easy for me to transcribe those thoughts and feelings into a physical form, especially because I have an overall point of view of what I’m trying to say. For example, in my advertisements of this “cannibalistic butcher shop” that I am making at the moment drives home this connection of meat and memory, but it’s been [a] pretty easy ride, other than the emotional turmoil I have to face when pursuing these works because it is very emotionally draining having to go back to years of abuse and bringing that back up into a body of work.
AT: As someone who also relies on their pool of memories for work, I always find myself thinking that the more time, and the more distance there is between the memories, the more, the easier it is to give them a visual representation. Would you say that that’s true with your work, the longer it’s been since then, the more memories almost become more like dreams and have more certain distinct visual cues in them?
KR: Totally. I think it helps with having space, too, because then you are able to fully realize why you’re feeling this, why it matters, why you’re representing it this way. It also helps that I’ve had discussions about these memories, these instances and various conversations in therapy as well as passerby conversations but it really helps to have that space, and to allow those thoughts to form naturally, and allow that inspiration to come naturally as well rather than force the issue like, “I have to do this” or “I have to think about these certain things,” but letting it come as it is, I think is a really great practice.
AT: I think in the way that you’re describing it ties really well to when people talk about writing, specifically let’s say nonfiction, there’s always this idea of like, yes, you’re writing about your own experiences but when you look at the piece you are not the narrator, the narrator and you are two separate ideas. Do you ever look at your art and think there’s a difference between like your own personhood, and also your being an artist at the same time?
KR: Totally. I think whenever you create a body of work, once it goes out there, you have no control of what the audience says. As much as you put your effort, write your 10 page thesis, do whatever you can. But as soon as you put it out into the world, you cannot do anything about how people interpret that and I would agree with you, though. It’s like I’m creating this as Kenzi Rayelle, but then I’m also creating from this professional aspect and it’s like I’m walking this line of, well, I’m creating this for a portfolio for grad school, but I’m also creating this for my own personal growth as an artist as well.
There’s so many elements that go with that. Whenever you’re creating a piece, even if it’s like writing or a type of artwork, or even music, there’s always that fine line of, “Am I creating this simply for the enjoyment of myself?” or other reasons too.
AT: Exactly. Shifting the conversation a little bit, what are some artists or art that inspires you?
KR: One that I’ve always looked up to is Mark Ryden. He is an Asian painter. He’s very surrealistic. He also uses a neat motif as well. And we do so in a very similar way. He talks a lot about how meat is the lack of a body and the lack of a life, and he likes to portray that as beautiful and pretty and to showcase that has a lack of autonomy. I forget his name [Claes Oldenburg], but he created the giant spoon in Minneapolis, and the sculpture for the Kansas City Institute. Before he was a large sculpture artist he actually worked a lot with soft sculpture like I do right now and it’s always been great to see his work as well. He created like a giant ass toilet out of fabric and it just is really cool to see how he was able to warp just everyday objects into our reality.
AT: The toilet is funny because fabric is like the most disturbing material I can think of for a toilet to be made out of.
KR: [Laughs] Totally. Absolutely. Yeah.
AT: And then in that same vein, are there any artists in particular that you like to follow and keep up with? Even like local artists that you possibly know as friends or acquaintances or even classmates?
KR: Yeah. There’s a great TA that I had, Mary Claire Becker. She was a printmaker and she was actually the first one that was like, “Kenzi, hey, you’re really great at this! You should think of doing this.” A lot of her work revolves around nature and the environment speaking in volumes about how we as humans impact the environment as well. I really look up to her work. She is a phenomenal artist, and another artist that I look up to is Ali Hval. She also is a grad student here at the University of Iowa. She’s a painter as well as sculptural artist and there’s a lot of her murals in downtown Iowa City. She’s just a phenomenal artist.
I just look up to anyone that I know that has accomplished and do what I want to do as well . It’s just always nice to have that in person connection because you’re able to get to know them and it’s so much different than being on Instagram and seeing all these other famous artists when I can actually talk to Ali or Mary. They’re phenomenal people and I’m very thankful to know them.
AT: This is definitely a good place to find inspiration in your classmates. With the strong presence of art, and local scenes, local artists, local music. But going back to your work, what would you say is your favorite piece that you’ve done, and your least favorite.
KR: Oh, that’s a good question. I love it, that’s spicy. Actually my favorite, I haven’t screen printed it yet, but it’s going to be printed next week. It is a 48″ x 27″ signage, and I’m going to be spending all next weekend quilting it, but it’s my favorite piece in the show that I have right now. It’s going to be gorgeous, I keep saying that but it’s going to be gorgeous.
AT: I believe you!
KR: Thank you. I’m working my ass off. I’m very hard on myself and I’m sure everyone is especially when you’re a creator. The one that comes to mind is probably the soccer mommy graphic I did. Everyone loves it, but every time I look back at it, I’m just always like, “We could have done this a little bit better and we could have done the line work a little bit better as well,” but you just kind of have to go with what you got and you always have the effort to continue growing.
AT: You’ll always be harder on yourself than your audience will be on you.
KR: Oh, absolutely.
AT: Because you know what you’re capable of and what you could have done better. But no one else does. So as long as you’re secretive about it. Now, everyone knows.
KR: I know, don’t tell anyone. Oh my god. [Laughs]
AT: What would you consider to be the weirdest thing or like the oddest thing that you’ve ever made?
KR: Oh my god, this is a funny story. Last year I went to South by Southwest, I was in sculpture class. At that time, I wasn’t able to do the woodshop safety requirement, which you need to do in the woodshop. So what the prop was, you need to make something that reminds you of home, or make a house of some sort, like an enclosed space. So, my dumb ass built a seven-foot sculpture out of wood with hand saws and nails in my house, in my little house.
I was literally sawing wood outside on my porch. And you can actually find these photos on my Facebook, but it was insane. I don’t know how I did it. It literally was taller than me. And I even built the house by hand and it actually turned out fucking well, but it’s probably the weirdest thing I’ve ever made, simply just because of how I made it. And I think even when we moved out there were still wood shavings in our carpet.
AT: I love that. Honestly, I love hearing stories like that because whenever you ask people that question they’re like, “Oh, hold on, I got something for you,” and it’s always good, every time. So, I really appreciate that. And also something that I’m curious about myself is that, through what I’ve seen so far of your work, you have such a strong narrative. It’s so consistently ‘you’ and I feel as though it’s the story that you want to get out there, especially when it ties back to your trauma. And so it definitely feels like you’re so hands on with everything. It seems like you’re always elbows deep into what you’re working on. How does that fit into your work ethic and how have you developed that approach to things?
KR: Totally, a lot of it comes from this fear of not succeeding. I love what I do so much that I truly do everything like 150%, 200%. I will always ensure that the work that I’m producing is up to my standards or my quality. It’s always something I’ve just done, even in high school I was pulling seven foot long pictures by hand. But it’s something that you love, and you’ll always find time to do it.
I think I’ve spent 30 hours this week carving blocks of women figures, and they’re going to be embroidered and put on to fabric, because another theme I work with is the representation of women’s bodies and, especially me personally, I just get really bad body dysmorphia, because I’m a bigger girl so it’s like you know these typical representations of women are very inaccurate. However, I love what I do and I can’t say that enough. It’s just like, if I don’t succeed a successful quote unquote way. The fact that I’m producing a body of work that I am proud of personally is enough for me.
AT: Yeah, I’m really excited for what you show us, and just to have your thoughts on those processes as well just what you’re into right now, what’s the process right now and what is inspiring you so I’m excited and I think I speak for the rest of the team when I say that.
KR: Thank you! Yeah, I literally work my ass off every day. I saw my partner last night I’m like, “Is it bad that I care more about my work than seeing other people I know?” That’s really bad but it’s what I do. [Laughs]
AT: Oh, no I’m kind of thriving with the excuse of not seeing people because of COVID. Like, I don’t need to be like, “Oh, I’m tired,” instead it’s, “No, sorry, I don’t want to get sick.” But yeah, I think it’s for artists, this is a good time.
KR: Absolutely, good time to recollect on your process what you want to do, where you’re trying to go. It’s a great time. Am I sad I can’t go outside all the time? Sure, but I want to make the most out of my time.
AT: Yeah. And when did you say your show was going to be?
KR: It’ll be in the spring.
AT: So they haven’t given you a date?
KR: No. We’ll figure it out though.
AT: Isn’t it randomized?
KR: It totally is. And it’s so fun when you have a huge, already planned out [project], you’ve been working on this for a year, and don’t know what the space is going to hold but I think that’s a good practice for future shows, you got to work with what you can.
AT: You might get a date that’s like right at the start of the semester, right? So, pretty much has to be done by the end of this semester.
KR: Totally and, I took an extra year of school, simply just for the BFA because I actually want to go to grad school and BFA is definitely like a big requirement for that.
AT: Yeah. Just like knowing that, not necessarily you have to rush, but there is a deadline hanging over your head that you have to be aware of as your approach this semester. Do you think that more than ever you’re working with a sense of urgency or do you just think because you’re such a hard worker and you’re always like kind of going at it that it doesn’t really affect it that much?
KR: So it’s both. It’s definitely hand in hand. I’m always in the studio not as much anymore because of COVID but I definitely have more of a sense of urgency, just because this is the last time I’ll be using a studio until my next internship or until grad school, so I have so much pressure on myself to create a portfolio not only that I’m proud of but like high level printmaking studios in different states will be proud of as well and then accept me to their school so I have a lot of pressure on me right now. Especially because I’m looking at a six month internship in New York after I graduate and hopefully I get it, because a lot of U of I printmakers go there but you gotta work hard to get there.
The date for Kenzi Rayelle’s BFA show entitled “ME-AT” will be on March 15th in the fourth floor gallery of the VAB. There will be no reception but will be open for the public to view.
Kenzi Rayelle is a senior at The University of Iowa pursuing her BFA in printmaking with an emphasis in graphic design and sculpture. She is one of the former graphic design directors for Scope Productions as well as the Senior Design Editor for Fools Magazine. Her current BFA thesis revolves around exploring her childhood trauma through variations of sculpture and printmaking. She uses meat advertising of a human butcher shop as the main metaphor and drive within this series. She sees it as being a self portrait of her collective experiences from her past, because she places herself within these advertisements to be consumed in almost comedic ways. This continues the sense of the lack of autonomy one experiences during the events of trauma. She also is only using soft sculptures and quilted fabric prints to represent the innocence and comfortability of childhood.
However, the disturbing imagery breaks the boundaries of childhood innocence and strips that away from the viewer. This show will be completed and ready for the public eye this coming Spring; however, progress photos can be seen on her instagram. After graduation she plans to continue her printmaking career by pursuing internships and eventually applying for grad schools. In the meantime she is continuing her work as a designer for The University of Iowa while continuously building her professional portfolio in various mediums and can usually be found taking her cat for walks outside.
Want to learn more about our featured artists? Check out our other interviews!