Artist Kevin Peterson Shares His Fascination with Graffiti and How Optimism Informs His Paintings
August 24, 2020
Grace: Where are you based currently? How has COVID-19 affected your work? What’s a typical day like for you?
Kevin: I’m in Houston, Texas. So, I’ve been working on my next show for about the past seven months. That mostly consists of me sitting in a room by myself painting all day long. I’m always fairly isolated. Since this thing hit, my work life has been pretty much the same. The big difference is I have a three- and a five-year-old, and my wife is an essential worker, so with school and camp closures, I’ve had to up my childcare. It’s been difficult. I hate surprises, I’m a creature of habit, and I like to know everything that’s happening in advance. That just hasn’t been possible with COVID. I’m adapting and really trying to cherish and appreciate the extra time with my kids. Overall, we’ve been super fortunate.
Grace: Although your paintings sometimes have been described as post-apocalyptic, you’ve rejected that label and instead have talked about the world being in different stages. What stage do you see us in now, socially, economically, environmentally, etc.? Has the current moment changed the ways you approach your work?
Kevin: It seems like the world feels a little bleaker and darker every day, honestly. I was pretty shocked when all these right-wing uber-conservatives were elected in 2016. In retrospect, I guess I shouldn’t have been. When any sort of social progress is made there is always a backlash. That backlash has been on display the last four years, and it’s been depressing and eye-opening, not to mention dangerous—especially for the most vulnerable people in society. Then the continued destruction of the environment and always increasing division of wealth in the world. I’ve always sort of tried to address these issues in my work, but my fears and concerns for the future feel kind of in fast forward lately.
Grace: Do you see your paintings as a conduit for activism or justice? And are you hoping to inspire a sense of urgency to combat such large, structural issues?
Kevin: You’re asking if art can change the world?! I don’t know. I like to think yes, but it may just be another sound in the echo chamber. I hate cynicism, though, so YES, art CAN and WILL fix the world!
I really don’t want to be preachy in my work. It’s just how I feel about things, and if it inspires someone to get involved or take action in some way, that’s great, but no, that’s not why I’m doing it. I just try to make stuff that means something to me. When you do that, it tends to resonate with other people as well.
Grace: You’ve said that your mind wanders when you’re painting, so you listen to audiobooks. Is there a certain genre or author you gravitate toward? Does what you’re consuming impact the piece you’re creating?
Kevin: Contemporary fiction mostly. Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, Franzen, DeLillo, Elizabeth Strout, Tom Perrotta, Gillian Flynn, lots of others. I think literature definitely impacts my work, but there’s a delay. I’m a planner, so it’s not like free-flowing as I’m painting. I usually know exactly what I’m going to do before I start painting. But what I’m reading will affect future work. It’s funny, too. I can sometimes look at a painting or a part of a painting and remember exactly what I was listening to as I was painting it.
Grace: Can you share some examples of these works showing up in your paintings? And, how do you understand the intersections of visual art and literature, or music or film or dance, more broadly?
Kevin: Brilliant works of art, no matter what the genre, just inspire me to make better work myself. Sometimes, I get a little angry when I see or read some amazing piece of art, just out of pure jealousy, but i try to channel that energy into making the best work I can. It’s no good to compare yourself to anyone else.
Reading is just a good way to see the world through others’ perspectives. I don’t think I can point to an obvious aspect of a painting that came straight from a book. Good writing will put you in another person’s shoes like nothing else can, though, and that’s where ideas come from I think. You can’t make art in a vacuum. You have to live life or just live life vicariously through books I guess works, too.
Grace: The structures in your paintings are in some form of disrepair: weeds surround them, they’re filled with debris, and bricks crumble from the facades. And then, there’s graffiti. Can you speak to the role graffiti plays in your work?
Kevin: When I first started putting graffiti in my work in 2007, I didn’t know much about graffiti, the history or the artist or anything. I used it to set a mood. It symbolized an area of town that maybe wasn’t the most inviting or just not well taken care of or manicured. Since then, I have really learned a lot about the culture and grown to love it and appreciate it. For my work, I like to keep it kind of gritty. I like quick bombs and throw-ups, stuff that’s more prevalent in abandoned areas. I’m not really interested in any legal murals.
Grace: What do you most appreciate about graffiti, and how do you translate those elements or ideas into your work? Are there any misconceptions about the art form that stand out to you?
Kevin: I like how graffiti can be a voice to an underrepresented group in society. Someone who may feel pretty powerless can at least get up and be seen. I like the idea of marking a space as your own even if it’s not actually yours—just writing your name on something. I remember having that urge ever since I was a kid. I don’t know where it comes from. I also like forms of hierarchy that don’t involve money.
Grace: Many of your paintings revolve around trauma, fear, and loneliness, and yet, the subjects often appear to be headed somewhere, giving them a sense of futurity. What types of progress—and I mean in regards to time rather than betterment—do you envision for the worlds you build?
Kevin: I think a lot of my work is about time, and in that sense, change. Mostly, I hate and fear change. I think that’s because change is often accompanied by loss and loss often leads to grief. I’m always having to remind myself that change can lead to good. It can make you adjust your trajectory, reevaluate your priorities. I suppose the kids in my paintings are a reflection of a hope that I have that people will learn from past mistakes and face the future with a sense of calm reason. Part of that is re-prioritizing what we value. The work is a vision of a new generation of kids that will not rule the world like tyrants but will respect nature, other people, and the world we have.
Grace: What are you hoping to convey through inter-species relationships?
Kevin: Sometimes the animals are the kids’ guardians. Sometimes they are a representation of the child’s inner strength. Sometimes they are just companions. Sometimes they are all of those things. I feel like I have a different narrative in my head for each piece. The subdued nature, along with the crowns I sometimes put on them symbolize a hopeful change in our current priorities as a culture. Honoring our children and our environment. I don’t understand why we choose to neglect either one considering how important they are to the future.
Grace: I’ve read that you paint children you have a relationship with in real life, like your friend’s daughter. How does knowing the child influence the works? I’m thinking about the subject needing to endure such a traumatic world, in particular.
Kevin: I was never really very close to any of my models until I started putting my own kid in there! It takes it to a different level for sure. I just finished a painting with my son in it, and he’s in this abandoned lot with a mangy cat and a raven. I titled the piece “Strays,” and I painted him with a black eye. This was a sort of neglected little crew, just trying to maintain. It felt weird, like I gave him a black eye or I had abandoned him. It was a bit unsettling since I cherish this kid more than anything in the world. But at the same time, he’s a great model and I was really happy with the piece.
Oh, and I recently painted a kid and gave her antlers and made her look kind of zombie-ish with blood on her mouth and dress. Her mom was not happy with that one. I felt bad, but I loved that painting. It’s nothing personal, of course.
Yeah, it’s sometimes better when you don’t know the models personally.
Grace: You have an upcoming exhibition at Thinkspace. Could you tell us about that show?
Kevin: The show is called Embers. There is going to be 12 new pieces, fire and smoke will be prevalent themes. It’s taking place at the Lancaster Museum of Art and History presented by Thinkspace. The show is opening September 12.
Grace: Beyond this exhibition, do you have other plans in the works? Or maybe, what ideas, themes, questions are you thinking about currently?
Kevin: Honestly, when I’m working on a show, I don’t think about much else until it’s over. Well, that’s maybe not entirely true. There are things floating around in my head, but I just haven’t had time to iron them out at all.
To follow Peterson’s paintings and considerations of the future, head to Instagram.