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Meet Gillian Keller - Female Artist Interview

This week favorite female artist is Gillian Keller (@enlightenmentbarbie), a painter and mixed media artist based in San Francisco.

"Over the years I’ve been creating these sort of psychedelic dreamscapes, and a lot of the imagery is based on things I’ve seen in dreams. Basically my paintings are little windows into what goes on in my mind". Let's meet her!

Gillian Keller -  painter and mixed media artist
Gillian Keller - painter and mixed media artist. Pic by Vera Gushansky

- Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do? I’m a painter and mixed media artist. My artwork started as collage, where I used my own photography to create digital collages. Then I would translate them into large scale hand cut collages. Since losing my large studio space last year, I had to scale down my practice and figure out new ways of working - Now I create digital collages and I paint the compositions instead! The new way of working is really exciting for me, since it gives my artwork even more texture. Over the years I’ve been creating these sort of psychedelic dreamscapes, and a lot of the imagery is based on things I’ve seen in dreams. Basically my paintings are little windows into what goes on in my mind. I have bipolar disorder, and the way I see the world is evidently somewhat different because of this! There are moments when I can see as beautiful, and lovely things as entrenched in pain…I try to put this forth in my artwork. The full spectrum of experience seems available to me to tap into and feel, and my artwork explores that. - When did your journey start? I have been making artwork ever since I was a kid - I started drawing cartoons when I was in elementary school. I used to doodle all the time in class as some method of concentration. In 6th grade when I moved to a new school, I got picked on all the time for being this weird eccentric doodling new kid. Stuff like cracked out Easter bunnies, and disturbed, stinky alley cats, and messed up dogs smoking cigarettes. My 6th grade teacher actually regularly made fun of me and mocked me in front of our class… real mature! Fast forward to my early college years, I’d continued making artwork and got married at 18, to an emotionally abusive young guy… my grandfather (who was an artist) passed away in my second year of college, and I felt like I needed to do something to carry on his legacy, so I decided to study fine art in school. I started drawing and painting more outside of class than in my classes, and started visually documenting what was going on inside my head (in regards to my unfortunate marriage) and it took off from there. I got divorced at 21 and finished my degree, then I moved to San Francisco the day after graduation.

Pic by Vera Gushansky

Here in the city, I worked various jobs until one day in 2013, while I was hungover and sitting at brunch, I had this extraordinary sudden spiritual revelation. It was this massive shift, I suddenly saw reality for what it really was - I called it the Big Zing. I started writing and making artwork in this big bold new way following that shift. It made me see that I had nothing to lose, that I was everything and everything was me, that everything was connected. Pure ecstasy! The experience comes off visually in a lot of my artwork, and the experience also gave me the fire under me ass to actually create again, and to do so boldly, without fear of failure (because the experience taught me that there is NOTHING to be afraid of…) 2014 was my first exhibition of my new artworks and the birth of my persona “Enlightenment Barbie”. Years later I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and I wonder if the experience that I had was a “genuine” spiritual awakening or simply a function of my bipolar - maybe it was just a manic episode. Either way, it doesn’t take away from the meaning of the experience to me, the quality of it was still enough to slingshot me into getting into what is now a beautiful and happy art career!

- What’s the idea behind your work? I guess I touched on this already, but basically it is the spiritual connectedness that we all have to reality, one another, and all the strange little dark corners of ourselves… there’s a lot of angels and halos and rainbows in my artwork. I guess this comes from these wild spiritual experiences I have had, as well as spiritually significant dreams. Ultimately my artwork explores the push and pull and flow of experience, as seen from inside my own mind. For the past year I have been practicing self portraiture, as a means of trying to explore and understand myself and my ways of experiencing reality, since my bipolar diagnosis.

The Unholy Sea Siren of Inebriated Ecstasy

- Do you have a personal life motto? “Life is but a Lucid Dream” :) I got it tattooed onto my arm last year. It turns up in some of my self portrait paintings. This is the essence of my “big Zing” spiritual experience from 2013. - What kind of music drives you? I love rock and roll, psychedelic rock, things that transport you to another place. I guess my favorite bands are things like Spacemen 3, Spiritualized, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Syd Barrett, the more psychedelic era Beatles… the Black Angels, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club… And I love old blues music. My husband and I collect records of all kinds. - Do you have any favourite film and why? You’d think I would have seen a lot more psychedelic art films! I feel like I never have time to sit down and watch films anymore. But I very much enjoyed “Lucifer Rising” because of its occult-type symbolism and the music. I really like documentaries and especially films about cults. The psychology around cults is very interesting to me. I HAVE to see The Holy Mountain, and I can’t believe I haven’t yet…! - What’s your favourite piece that you’ve created? It’s really a tossup, since most of the time the most recent piece I finish becomes my favorite… it’s like, finishing a new piece can feel revolutionary, like you’ve hit on some wonderful new way of expressing yourself. Aside from that, each piece has a really interesting unique quality, so they all hold a special place in my heart. That being said, I guess if I had to choose, I’d say my latest piece “Vulnerability”, along with “Guru of Radiant Disbelief” and “Reclining Buddha” (those last two are from 2016 I believe?) are probably my favorites at this moment.

- How do you find inspiration on an average day? Do you have any rituals? I’m not going to lie, it can be hard sometimes! If I am really feeling blocked, I go for a walk, or sit for a drink and do some writing, wander around the world till something clicks. With bipolar, it can be extra tricky since some days the depression is basically crippling to the point where I feel like I can’t move. But luckily I stay busy enough with deadlines, projects, commitments that I make when I’m on the “up” end of it, to where I am forced to get myself moving and live up to what I’ve set out to do. Looking at other artwork is also a source of inspiration. So is Tarot. - Who’s your favourite contemporary artist? This may be a weird choice, but lately I have had a fascination with Jeff Koons. His artwork is really funny to me - it can be so garish, yet so lovely. I think there’s something about it that I love to hate! He seems to have this vision about making people happy, but it’s so funny that the imagery he is using to make people happy is also consumed, and it feeds into a consumer culture… his artwork is a true commodity, especially since it’s manufactured. It’s ironic and it tickles my fancy. Aside from that, for some reason I cry when I look at cubist paintings. - How do you advertise yourself as an artist? Instagram mostly, and Facebook! I’ve had great success selling my work through Instagram this past year or so. My following doubled in 2018 which has helped print sales quite a bit. Aside from that, just sheer visibility has helped me sell my artwork. A couple of years back I decided to just tried to show as much art, as often as I could. Wine bars, cafes, venues, pop-ups, art fairs, and of course open studio events at my former art studio building. The more eyes were on my art, the more people remembered me and recognized me, and came back to buy my artwork. Now I am a member of an artist coop gallery called City Art Gallery on Valencia St. in San Francisco, and that has been great for me. Lots of little print sales add up, and a few originals have sold for me there too. Visibility!

The Romance of Death

- How did social media help you to promote your art? It’s amazing. It’s just amazing. People have access to this vast visual catalogue on their phones. I post a link to my online shop in my Instagram bio, and suddenly people from all over the US and the world are buying my prints! I have a lot of followers from San Francisco and LA, so when I have a show or a sale, people will inevitably notice. I’ve actually had people come up to me on the street or at music festivals, and say, “Hey! You’re that artist!”. It’s a real trip, it’s incredible to just suddenly meet such wonderful fans! I have a much larger reach into an expanding target market of new/young art collectors than I would have without instagram… and I have a feeling that some of them will turn into people who buy my originals. It’s a really cool feeling.

- Do you have any advice to give to the new female entrepreneurs? The most important thing is the cheesiest thing, if you believe you can do it, you can do it. One thing that helped me was to see myself as the “greater” more successful version of myself that I hadn’t actually become yet. If you see the potential in yourself and move in that direction like a bat out of hell, that forward energy is massively useful. I’m into dreaming big! And then, once you dream that big dream, you have to just full-on commit, every single day, even when you want to die or stay in bed, to doing something to get further. Even if it’s one stupid little thing, one seemingly insignificant thing. Sometimes it can feel really hard to see the way through a situation, but one small step in the right direction can often clear things up. OH! And don’t bother with people who want you to be lesser than what you want to be. The worst most toxic thing is surrounding yourself (intentionally or unintentionally) with people who are going to be jealous of our success. When you start to shine a little brighter, it’ll be clear who those people are. Don’t dim that shine for anyone. Be your badass grandiose self, be successful, and own it. The one last thing is, don’t tell people your plans, show them the results :)

Thank you Gillian :)

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