Leaning to the Light: Q + A with Portland Artist Sean Kalley
For the last six years, Sean Kalley has been making art, every day. The self-taught Portland-based visual artist began sketching in 2009 while recovering from major shoulder surgery, and has turned his passion into his life’s work.
I met Sean in 2013 at one of his gallery shows, and was immediately struck by the vibrancy and diversity of his pieces. He’s the first Portland artist I’ve interviewed for the blog, and I’m excited to share some of his art and thoughts on life and creativity.
Tranquility (India ink)
Q + A
The business name for your art is Koldshoulder. Where does that come from?
The name signifies how I started making art. In 2009 I had my first major shoulder surgery, and it did not go well. I needed another experimental major surgery, and realized that my life was going to be a bit different from then on. I decided to start sketching one day since I needed something to focus my energy towards. Icing my shoulders came a close second for the amount of time spent during my life through three major surgeries. I still ice regularly and feel pretty good, but it reminds me to be thankful when I do since it could be worse.
Have you always felt a connection to art? When did you realize it was significant for you?
Yes and no. I have always been interested in it, purchased local art, attended art history class, and have been fascinated by many people who have a craft they own. It always seemed a bit like magic to me. But I never thought I would be trying to live as an artist until I started doing it. I took an art class when I was 14. In that class, I painted two acrylic pictures, made some pottery, and completed a few graphite sketches. The other half of the time we studied art history. After this class was over I never thought about art again. I have always been a little energetic, and sitting still to make art just seemed like the last thing I could do. Later in college I attended another art history class, and believe it has a lot to do with my convictions about art in general now.
I knew art was significant for me early after starting. I just always wanted to do it, to make art, to push myself and feel that sense of accomplishment. So many times in life I have been in situations where you wonder, “What is the point of this, and is it fulfilling me?” Once I started making art, life seemed to make more sense to me.
Timeout (India ink)
On your website, you share: “The injury has led to some amazing discoveries about myself, what I want out of life and how I want to live it.” What are some of these discoveries?
First, the injury made me understand time and patience really well again, and art helped me process the things I needed to deal with in life at the present. Involving myself in something positive while dealing with conflict resolution leads to a more complete understanding of my own situation. I had always been trying to accomplish this, but many times in the past felt frustrated or confused about situations.
I also started to look at resources in life differently. What did I really need, what do I need to accomplish my goals, and how do I actually give back? Not just through donation of items or money, but how do I incorporate this into my life every day. A larger sense of conservation became important to me, but at the same time I felt a sense of abundance about life in discovering the opposite.
And lastly, art has helped me learn how to forgive, listen, give, walk away, take larger more defined risks, and love better than I did before. It helped me discover me again.
You’re a self-taught artist. What were the first steps you took in teaching yourself to draw and paint? Any tools or resources that were especially helpful?
Right from the start I decided to just try on my own. I didn’t use classes, manuals, or videos since I never had any intention of making this into anything other than a hobby. Plus I needed a challenge other than my shoulder to focus my attention. But, what I found is that art takes hard work, dedication, focus and repetition to really grow. This is required with anything you want to be good at, and I knew this from my past. But I just never felt that level of passion for something as I had with art. It felt like a part of me.
These aspects helped create my own style from the beginning, and have allowed me to grow to a point where I can convey my ideas vibrantly with conviction.
Cherry (Polychromos pencil)
What materials are you working with these days?
I am working on cross sections of reclaimed trees with either acrylics and pencils or oil pastels. I really enjoy the vibrant colors while using my fingers a bit. I throw a pointillism piece in now and then, but they are a little taxing on the eyes.
What is Your Passion (Oil pastel on Arbor cross section)
What is your daily routine? Do you have any rituals that help with the creative process?
I am up early every day, and allow myself to get started in a positive direction. I really enjoy the time making a coffee through a Chemex, since it gives me time to enjoy the moment while listening to music. Throughout the day I take breaks, go for walks, or work in public interacting with people in the community. My biggest routine is to allow myself to be in the moment and find happiness. Then I never have to think about the creative process, is just happens since I want to do it.
What do you turn to for inspiration? Or conversely, what do you find inspires you naturally?
I love the trees, nature, animals, and people. I really mean that. Some of the most beautiful things in life happen due to humans. We also have a dark side, but this is needed in life and forces inspiration. I just tend to lean to the light, while respecting and acknowledging the dark. But, inspiration is all around us and in ourselves if you want to look for it.
A New Beginning (Oil pastel)
How does Portland as an environment play into your work?
I have been looking for Portland my whole life, but never thought this would be home. I have been here over five years and still love it. I find new things about it all the time. I also believe it is the best and worst place for artists. It is environmentally beautiful and plentiful, but also with artists. With that said, anyone can try to be an artist, but many don’t realize the effort required. You have to understand this ’living here chasing your dream’ or it will drive you to quit. I guess the best part of Portland is you can make it what you want it to be. This doesn’t exist everywhere else and it is a big reason why I am here now.
Portland is known for being an artistic city. What do people need to do to get their work seen and shown?
I have had success by just being out in the community making art and talking to anyone that wants to interact with me. So the biggest thing is be and do what you are. Working this way has allowed me to make connections for venues and opportunities regularly. It is very rare for someone to just be found as an artist, so you have to make the opportunities happen.
Don’t Drink the Water (Pointillism with India ink)
You create a lot of commissioned pieces for clients. How does that process work, and what do you enjoy most about it?
First we have a budget or size in mind, and the client is sometimes drawn to a medium as well. After that we discuss what they are looking for. I ask questions around the idea and ask for imagery to help focus my thoughts. But, most of the time clients let me go with it. I have created art with so many different themes that they ask me to put myself into the piece. Throughout production, I stay in contact with the client updating them and follow a timeline for completion. Plus I get to ship the piece a certain way, write a letter, and add some extra personal touches.
I believe art connects us, especially if it displays something of value or a belief for the individual. Many of my commissions have a lot of depth for people that I know, creating an even deeper understanding and connection. It is why I create.
What are you reading and listening to lately?
My last book was “The Return of the Primitive” by Ayn Rand, and now I am reading the last book in the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini. I have music on all day and night, but for new bands…Boy & Bear, Fink, Polica, and Geographer.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
Annie Lennox and Sarah Mclachlan are two of my favorite musicians, and I sing and dance every day. A lot.
Thank you so much, Sean!
You can see more of Sean’s work on his site koldshoulder and contact him for commissions, live painting and exhibit opportunities at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credits: Lesia Lichonczak Photography. Lesia is Sean’s partner, and he credits her for capturing a lot of his life and what he’s been trying to accomplish in the last 2.5 years. He says, “She helps make it possible, and we are a team.” Check out Lesia’s beautiful photography here and a photo essay her and I created together here.