Artist Kelly Knaga on teaching illustration, not overthinking, and creating work the same way her garden grows
Kelly Knaga is an artist and illustrator, but she's also a muralist, textile designer, design lecturer, and avid gardener – in the evening and weekends you’ll find her working on her dream vegetable garden with her family – and it shows in her work. As our latest amazing collaborator, she’s created a new series that reflects the spontaneity of nature.
It’s hard to look at Kelly’s work without feeling sunshine on your face and the urge to go outside. The Chicago-based designer has a style that focuses on energetic shapes and mark-making, sometimes drawn over photography, but always occupied with the land around her. It’s a fascination that began in her childhood, a time spent often on her grandparent’s farm, “roaming through the gardens, fields and woods” says the artist. These days, Kelly tells us both the meditative aspect of gardening, and the curiosity her garden inspires have translated seamlessly to her drawing and painting work.
For fans of pattern and colour, Kelly's latest works use these methods to invesgate the transitions she noticed this year in spring, while she was working from home.
Slightly in awe of her designs, we dived into the many facets of Kelly’s practice in a chat with the artist below. She tells us more about dreaming up the collection and working with nature, in real life and on paper.
Your new prints with us feel so joyful, can you walk us through the making process?
Oh gosh, yes, thank you for the kind words. These pieces were created after a really long, hard, winter here in Chicago where the days are often so dark and gray. So even before Spring arrived I had been dreaming of warm weather, sunlight, gardens. Basically anything full of color and sunshine is what my soul craves. These are just a few of the pieces that came from that dreaming.
Are there any stories or particular inspirations behind them?
A lot of my work is about the intersection of nature and art, exploring our human relationships to Mother Nature and her land. These pieces in particular are explorations and celebrations of the transition and almost magical transitions I experienced and noted more thoroughly this past spring while I was working from home.
How do you keep yourself from overthinking illustrations?
That’s a great question but I’m not sure I have a great answer for you, at least none that I can articulate clearly yet. Perhaps the closest I can get is comparing it to my gardens. Sometimes they are most majestic when they are slightly overgrown with fruits, vegetables and flowers, overflowing with color and texture, spilling out in all directions. Beautiful chaos if you will. But there is also so much joy and artistry in a row of peas or a single-picked flower. The push and pull and everything in between is what keeps things interesting for me.
If you had to decorate your home with artwork from one artist, who would it be?
My kids. Without a doubt. Nothing brings me more joy than seeing their creative minds at work. And frankly, they take after my aesthetic so that’s just a big plus ( I say jokingly). But it’s more about finding joy and connection to the work itself. If I’m not personally tied to a piece through an experience, shared moment, or relationship of some kind then the piece will hold little meaning to me.
"While I love love love sitting in my studio illustrating and collaborating with awesome clients I also need to carve out a space in my practice to help others achieve their goals and dreams."
What do you listen to when you’re working in the house?
Oh my gosh, this question is absurdly hard for me to answer. Lots of different stuff. From the moment I wake up, I have music playing throughout the house all day and night long. I don’t know how to live any other way. I don’t think I’d want to. One of my mainstays is blues and jazz. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Frank Morgan, Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Red Garland, Coleman Hawkins, Frank Morgan, Matthew Halsall and so many more, too many more really. I listen to a lot of EDM when I run. I’m also a long-time, fan of Built to Spill and Chicago natives, Wilco, oh and Leon Bridges, Brandi Carlile, This Will Destroy You, Eluvium, Jenny Lewis, John Legend, Van Morrison, Tom Petty, Hendrix, Sleater Kinney, Death Cab, Phish, Rolling Stones, Mogwai, Tycho, Sigur Ros, Tycho, Billie Eilish...honestly, I could go on and on. Perhaps it would be easier to ask me what kind of music I don’t listen to? Ha!
I feel like so much of your work would make wonderful children's books! As a kid, were there any books, TV programmes or films you saw that still inspire you?
Hmmm I really didn’t watch a whole lot of tv as a kid. However, when I see what’s available for my kiddos and niece to watch these days I’m blown away at all the offerings. The illustration and storytelling is incredible.
I hear you’re an avid gardener, tell me more! How does creating a real-life landscape compare or help with creating illustrated ones?
Well, it’s 10000% easier to draw gardens than build them. Ha! Much of my childhood was spent on my grandparent’s farm, roaming through the gardens, fields and woods. My grandmother had one of the biggest gardens I’ve ever seen and I spent quite a bit of time with her in there tilling soil, planting seeds, picking weeds, and just learning how to take care of each and every little plant. I spent afternoons on the tractor with my grandfather, nights tending to the animals in the barn. It was truly idyllic. I feel so lucky I got to have those experiences. Years later I could finally speak to the profound love and healing I found on that farm. And today I can certainly speak to the fantastic meditation practice that comes with gardening. Sometimes it’s a fruitful partnership filled with ease, and other times it’s a struggle. But it’s always filled with wonder, curiosity, respect and love for the elements and the land. I feel like a lot of those feelings and moments translate seamlessly to my drawing and painting work.
You’re also a design educator and lecturer, what sparked this path for you?
Dang, you’re throwing out so many deep questions. I dig it. Okay, so back to your question. While I love love love sitting in my studio illustrating and collaborating with awesome clients I also need to carve out a space in my practice to help others achieve their goals and dreams. These days that happens to be in a classroom. I find a lot of joy in building community with my students around a shared excitement and passion for design and illustration.
What’s a lesson you try to pass on to your students, and what do they teach you?
I think I want to instill in them the love of learning. I’m endlessly curious about the world and the people in it. I’m also someone that sees failures as opportunities for learning and growth. That’s a big one for me and I’m pretty sure it’s something I remind my own kiddos of daily.
I love your work as a muralist. Are there any dream spots in your city you’d love to create work on?
I will paint anywhere and everywhere! But some kind of community center or sports park where lots of kids usually are is a pretty common dream for me. And somewhere near a city garden would be rad, of course.
Discover more of Kelly's work here.
Explore Kelly's collection in full here, now available for purchase exclusively from Evermade.