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Kelly Taylor Mitchell Displays Care for Ritual, History, and Diaspora

Kelly Taylor Mitchell is an artist and educator. Previously bouncing from Richmond, Virginia, and Philadelphia, Kelly is now as an Atlanta-based artist in residency at The Atlanta Contemporary, and currently teaching at Spelman College. First, let’s start by saying Kelly’s work is not painted on a canvas. She uses performance, paper-making processes, scent, and textiles as a form of art, to encapsulate and evoke the sense of memory, history, and often the Black diaspora experience. When describing herself as an artist, Kelly tells me “[I] don’t identify as a print-maker, even though I love printmaking. I’m an installation artist, and I feel like, inside that umbrella, paper-making, book arts, printmaking, and sculpture show their faces in different ways.”

Kelly Taylor Mitchell's artist studio
Kelly Taylor Mitchell’s studio, where her art supplies rest on her work table, and her photo collage is organized on the wall.

After studying printmaking in undergrad, Kelly shifted her practice to more installations, where she had more freedom to experiment with printmaking as a sculptural and performative medium. Kelly knew she wanted to make fully immersive installations that stimulated all the senses. Still, Kelly uses traditional paper-making techniques, by making paper from pulp, using letterpress printing, and creating artist books with them.

Within her studio, at the Atlanta Contemporary campus, are buckets of paper pulp, and thick, drying sheets of paper. Directly across the entrance of her studio, is a collage of images, on the wall, with clusters of photographs with snippets of different places Kelly has been: Rhode Island, where she did an art residency, Virginia, North Carolina, and Brazil–all culturally tied together by Kelly’s experience of Blackness. “ Well, I guess the common denominator of all those places is me, right? Even though they absolutely perform their own iterations of Blackness in these different spaces, I am always this kind of [constant]. Not to say that I don’t shift or change, or that how I perform my own identity doesn’t shift, but I’m a constant”, says Kelly. She elaborates how during her time in Virginia and Rhode Island, she wasn’t responding to place as much as she was responding to her experience of seeking growth as an artist and finding her own Black voice in a predominantly white institution, “Whereas in Brazil, I definitely feel like I’m still reflecting, responding to an incredibly visceral, raw experience.” she recalls.

It seems Brazil made an immense shift to the perspective of Kelly’s work. It’s repetitively referenced in the fine details. She goes even deeper, saying “I think it 100% impacted me just as a human being, trying to navigate this world. It gave me a lot of clarity in terms of my practice, which I feel like are one and the same. I don’t feel like I’m an artist who’s life is here, and artist practice is here. They definitely intertwine, and I think I was able to identify this thing that I’ve been calling ‘diasporic magnetism’ when thinking about being in Brazil, and this sort of intense magnetic draw to a place, a people, and an experience, even if that place and those people aren’t yours. Then trying to understand the sort of malleability of this word ‘kinship’, which has nothing to do with biology… Still, in the work I’m doing right now in the studio, these objects that you’re seeing are about me trying to process that magnetism, those relationships, those sort of spaces where I see similarities between autonomous Black communities where I was able to spend time in Brazil, and the autonomous Black communities here [in America]…It’s just trying to figure out my own way to self-heal, process, navigate ritual, and seeing a lot of shared moments in those elements.” Those experiences inclined Kelly to do research on her own family’s diaspora.

An array of handmade paper stained with railroad rust on one of Mitchell's studio walls
An array of handmade paper stained with railroad rust on one of Mitchell's studio walls

Among all the collage of images on her studio wall, many of which are from Brazil and images related to the paternal side of her family are in the center. They are from a small farm in a small town in Garysburg, North Carolina, 45 minutes away from The Great Dismal Swamp, which straddles the coast of North Carolina and Virginia. It’s one of the largest communities of former slaves escaped to, and were members of Kelly’s family escaped enslavement at Ransom Plantation during that time. The Great Dismal Swamp became an area of curiosity and care for Kelly’s family’s past through her creativity. From visiting that swamp, Kelly distinctly recalls the smell of the wet land. She decided to tap into the area of scent to create art and generate memory. “[Smell] can encapsulate something, or be reminiscent of something…That sort of memory wasn’t about that place, but it also felt like it was a place that I’ve never been, but have also been many times.” instinctively, she collected water from the swamp and created a fragrance combining it with Florida Water, a fragrance that combines essential oils and is often used for spiritual purposes. This fragrance-making, although not a visual piece of art is an intentional form of curious processing, generating memory, care, and respect for the past. “Of course, whoever is spraying this, or using this has no sort of context of where this comes from. So that also was part of the thinking. That disconnect and access, was based on my context. Creating the perfume was a way to grant access without emptying myself.” Kelly continues, revealing how oftentimes, in art programs Black artists and artists of color are pushed to relive unpleasant experiences “I think there’s just a lot of expectations for people to work without compensation. I think there’s a lot of expectations, especially for Black artists, artists of color, and queer artists to put their trauma on display…I want to protect myself from that, and be able to maintain boundaries, so using [scent] as the foundational substrate for these pieces felt important…With my textile objects, smell is still functioning but in a different way. You have tactile objects that you can touch. But for me, the smell is very much about the healing process.” She explains.

(Above: Kelly Taylor Mitchell’s “Performative Object #2”, made of Stretched found fabric, Bahia Popcorn, photo gel medium transfer, hand sewing, popcorn kernels, hand-strung popcorn, ceramic beads, and smells of buttered popcorn, hangs in front of a brick wall in her studio.)

In fact, Kelly created a whole work of art based on Florida water, in which she created a textile from Florida water labels, gel-transferring them to fabric, and adorning the piece with pearls–a symbolic medium often used in Afro-Brazilian healing ceremonies to evoke luck, wealth, and wisdom.

Another one of Kelly’s pieces, entitled “Performative object #2” features another interesting medium…Popcorn, inspired by an impromptu invitation to a Brazilian cleansing during. “When I was in Brazil, I had this amazing experience of [having] breakfast at this woman’s house, and she had other guests over. It was very impromptu. I just met her on the street. They were going to be doing a cleansing ceremony after breakfast, and they invited us to join them. Part of that process was being cleansed by popcorn. It was really incredible and felt very timely and meaningful. …one of the other attendees, who was lovely, told us the history of this popcorn and how it reflects this biblical story of Lazarus…Mostly in this piece, I was reacting to the one-on-one experience I had with the person who sort of held the popcorn over my head, crushed the kernels, and let it all go.” In fact, in many South American cultures, popcorn is a symbol of letting go, changing form, one food blog called The Holy Enchilada, describes its symbolism as “Life trapped inside a seed, just waiting to pop out. It is energy flying in all directions, in the shape of tiny white doves.”

(Above: Masks #1 , #2, and #3, made by Kelly Taylor Mitchell.)

Kelly made the textile elements to the popcorn decorated piece by gel transferring images from Brazil’s “Festival of our Mother of Good Death ”. An eye-catching element of this piece was the iridescent copper clay beads. “I really love beadwork and clay because it’s real evidence of the hand. Also, I love sewing. Seeing these round stitches are one of the only things, other than the hand-sewn popcorn, that really show evidence that there’s a person here…I wanted to have elements that reflect the human quality of [the artwork], and the idea of labor. It takes a long time to make these beads. This sort of healing process takes a lot of labor and time.” says Kelly.

It’s clear Kelly puts a tremendous amount of thought, process, and her own forms of ritual in creating her work. As an original print and paper making artist, Kelly takes her thoughtful approach down to the pulp, using fallen railroad parts as casts for the shape of the paper, resulting in thick, textured sheets adorned with rust-colored flecks. Kelly later uses this sheet to make books in collaboration with other artists.

Lastly, in the tour of Kelly’s studio, performative masks hung on a wall. Against many of the earth tones in much of Kelly’s work and studio, the contains sequined shapes with bright colors stood out. Unlike common masks, there are no cut-outs for eyes and a mouth. She explains she uses them for private art performances in her studio with a combination of smell, textiles, and print on display. Much of the visual inspiration for the masks are attributed to the traditions and experiences Kelly had in Brazil. The masks take the form of shapes and decorative patterns she kept running into in Brazil that stood out in her memory.

Whether Kelly Taylor Mitchell’s work takes the form of masks, large textile installations, paper-making, or tracing her routes through photography, it is clear she not only puts care into her own unfolding, but sets an example into how creativity can be a form of care, and preservation. Her use of performance values the senses: touch through the material, memory through smell, and proof of labor through sight. Although Kelly’s forms may edge on the avant-garde, it’s intensity and care is admirable.

Written by Naya Clark

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