We spoke with Kelsey McDonnell, SAGE Member from Buffalo, Wyoming. Kelsey works in acrylic and ink, and began a project in 2017 called "Four Years of Flowers" in response to the 2016 Presidential Election. Kelsey also creates acetate and brass jewelry under the moniker "Wyoming Creative."
Tell us about your Four Years of Flowers Project. How did you get the idea to start it?
"I remember sitting in my studio, sometime in early 2017, and 'trying' to paint. Note the word 'trying'. I felt so low and lost. My body of work at the time was surrealism and feminist in nature: trees and women. I painted my anger, my hurt, my confusion, my joy every emotion possible in these paintings. I would sometimes tell stories with them. They were, and remain to this day, to be my most vulnerable and honest work. I sat, unable to paint these pieces anymore. They became forced and fake.
Back to the 'trying' in the studio that day, I painted a white raven. "Okay, now what?" I thought. I added a tomato (for no reason), and then flowers along the edge of the painting. Like a lightning strike, I thought, "I'll just paint flowers for the next four years."
And I did. I occasionally returned to my beloved tree women but for the most part I have spent the past four years painting flowers. I have painted 265 to date."
What inspires you to keep painting your series?
"Some [paintings] are reactions to current events while some are simply just flowers. At first they served as a lifeline for me, some control in a world that I felt was rapidly spinning out of control. Some beauty in a nation I saw turning more and more against itself everyday.
2017 brought with it a president who spoke for the people who elected him. And he spoke homophobia, transphobia, fear of immigrants, racism, sexism, and discrimination of multiple kinds. His speech was justified by those I loved and defended by those I respected.
I felt we were losing the goodness of humankind. I was hurt. I was angry. I was also an introvert. Up until this point, I was able to use my art as a means to express my emotions, and tell my stories in a completely safe way. No one ever asked 'what do they mean?' -- they interpreted my art as they wanted to. Perfect. The introvert doesn't have to engage.
When I started this series in 2017, I was very honest with what I was doing and I found not many people asked 'what do they mean?' -- they just saw flowers. The great equalizer. The symbol that we give to both those who are suffering and those who are celebrating. I shared the story of my series openly. Did people not care? Or did people CARE? I will never know. Most likely they saw something that resonated with them and they wanted it in their life. For that, I am grateful.
I kept painting. Flowers. Through Neo-nazi rallies in Charlottesville and school shootings in Florida. I painted flowers."
How did the idea to grow Four Years of Flowers into a community project come about?
"As I entered the final year (2020), I wanted to make this a series something that anyone could be part of, a platform to share with anyone who wanted to have their voice be heard, in a safe way.
I was asleep in early 2020 when another idea hit me, so big that it woke me up and I knew I had no choice but to pursue it. I needed to make this series something that anyone could participate in. Flowers had saved me, kept me going, I needed to make them for everyone -- not just those who purchased art.
I purchased an antique voting booth off Ebay; I needed something that would be portable, and I found one in Florida. I love that it was actually used in elections. It came to me as a metal suitcase that popped up into a voting booth; it could not have been more perfect.
I painted wildflowers around the plastic canvas walls and started to plan places I could 'pop up' my voting booth to collect people's stories. COVID-19 stopped this idea in its tracks. I am now focusing on mailing people participation materials."
How do people participate in telling their stories for the project?
"I ask people to answer one of four questions by writing their responses directly on a 5 x 7" flower painting I send them. I include a prepaid self addressed envelope for them to be returned in. I photograph and number every piece and they become a permanent part of the series. I am really wanting diverse voices from around the United States; this is a bipartisan series.
I have received many that come with handwritten notes that elaborate on their responses or share more of their personal story. This was the idea in the dream. 'Share your platform, give people a place to be heard in a safe way.'
They then give it back to me and I will photograph and number them and they become a part of the series as well as be included in my 2020 Year of the Woman show at the Nicolaysen Museum in Casper, Wyoming (aka The Nic) in October, 2020.
Participating can remain anonymous or not. I will never share the personal information of participants. I do, however, plan to donate the collected stories to the National Archives or Wyoming State Museum, so I ask participants to keep that in mind."
Looking back on the last Four Years of Flowers, what has the experience been like overall?
"As I look back on the past four years, I am humbled by the beautiful things I have experienced amongst the political and societal unrest. I have two daughters who have grown into phenomenal young women who love and trust me, [I have done] an artist residency in France, and I've sold almost every painting in this series.
Ultimately, the series gave me a body of work that has been received with open arms by my community and nation. This is a dream. I am grateful. I have however also experienced great pain on a personal level. I have experienced more sorrow than I thought I could handle. Divorce, health issues within my family, and loss of trust which, for a brief moment, made me feel the loss of goodness in humankind, again.
I made it through. I painted flowers. I kept painting flowers. I have gotten responses from all across the nation, all varied in political view, but every single one of them is unique and beautiful in whatever they say, some are reactions to fear, some to anger, some to hope. How beautiful that I get to collect them, a beautiful bouquet of American voices."
If you are interested in participating in Four Years of Flowers, please contact Kelsey McDonnell below:
Kelsey's available paintings and jewelry at SAGE can be viewed at the gallery or online.
If you are interested in helping Kelsey collect stories please let her know your mailing address and she will send you the materials.
The views expressed above are solely the artist's and not SAGE Community Arts.