Kenzie Wells

Artist Interview

February 3, 2021
Kenzie Wells is an artist who currently lives and works in Tucson, Arizona where they received their MFA from the University of Arizona in 2020. Their interdisciplinary art practice warps painting, sculpture and performance into installations that examine the paradox of social, material, and functional binaries embedded in the geology of urban spaces. Guided by their identity as a non-binary queer person, and a fascination with the human psyche, they construct scenes from a contorted mirror-world of our structured reality. In this alternative dimension, material and functional opposites coexist, forming an environment that stimulates spectrum thinking as opposed to binary reasoning.

Hello Kenzie, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Hello! My name is Kenzie, my pronouns are they/she, and I am a Taurus. I am an artist and art educator originally from Knoxville, TN and I currently reside in Tucson, AZ. I received my BFA in 2015 from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and my MFA from the University of Arizona, Tucson this past spring, 2020. I am currently an adjunct instructor for 2D and 3D oriented art courses in both Tucson and Sierra Vista (about an hour and a half south of Tucson). I have a Husky- he is my son, my baby, my pride and joy- named Zeek who thinks he is a human, and I also just recently adopted a kitten that I found under my house and her name is Spice.

How would you describe your work to someone new?

My work exists as sculpture, painting, and performance, coming together as a whole in the form of installation. As a non-binary queer person who is fascinated by the human psyche, I am interested in examining the paradox of social binaries embedded in the geology of urban spaces, and how this impacts thought patterns and processes of the mind. I am specifically analyzing how binaries are displayed in urban and metropolitan design- materials, function, and arrangement all fall within my scope of inquiry. Collecting and manipulating materials and objects are at the heart of my practice. I am often working with opposite pairings of material properties in order to unravel our understanding of them (the pairing of hard and soft for example has been rearranged by casting a soft piece of wrinkled fabric in iron, etc.) My installations often resemble a contorted mirror-world of our structured reality, wherein sculptural forms imply a conglomeration of recognizable functions and patterns from everyday settings, forming an environment that stimulates spectrum thinking as opposed to binary reasoning.

Can you tell us more about your fascination with urban landscape and architecture?

I spent many years as a rock climber and took a lot of geology classes in undergrad, and even considered getting a dual degree in geology/ art (but that would have cost too much money so.. I bailed...rock climbing was also too expensive/ time consuming for me so...I also bailed). Although I did not get the degree or become a successful rock climber, I still remain very fascinated with how the Earth is naturally structured and situated in the universe, and how human design and architecture mimics, interacts with, and obscures its naturally occurring processes. I am specifically intrigued by the slippage between human design and geology as opposed to just geology on its own. In a lot of ways, the built environment is a sedimentary layer to which we understand and relate to, especially in cities where access to nature is minimal, and perhaps in a lot of ways it now feels natural because of the relationship we have to it. The urban landscape is the perfect spectacle for these interests; cement becomes an earthly sedimentary rock in which pipes, cables, and chain link fences are growing out of.

You mentioned that you started painting since you were a child because of your father. How did you get into performance, sculpture, and installation? How does your background in painting affect your work now?

My dad taught me how to oil paint when I was only eight years old. He is a painter himself and I was immediately drawn to the tactile quality and vibrancy of paint sitting on a surface, most likely from touching, staring at, and living with his own thickly painted palette knife abstractions. My mom is a psychologist whose cognitive, behavioral research has been equally as impactful and inspiring to the formation of my practice. I mainly only worked within the realms of drawing and painting until I started taking sculpture classes in undergrad. That is really where my work began to change. My professors encouraged me to experiment with new materials, and my paintings slowly became more and more tactile, and I gradually became less interested in them being on the wall. Painting I think will always be the lens I see and understand my work through, even if it is more floor-oriented and sculptural in appearance. I often create a structure that begins its life on the wall, but ultimately ends up on the floor because it has a stronger presence in-the-round. Because of this, I am often tasked with putting a “back” on my sculptures. I feel like most sculptors don’t necessarily see their work as having a “back” or “front” as it was always intended to be viewed from all angles. However, my background in painting formed my visual lens of interpreting compositions in a two-dimensional format, and a lot of my sculptures are really “paintings-with-backs.”

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Can you tell us more about your recent work, Gradience?

The word Gradience is a linguistics term that means the absence of a clear-cut boundary between one category and another.

Gradience is an ongoing series that comes together as a sculptural installation, and was intended to exist as my MFA thesis exhibition this past spring. However, due to COVID-19 the show was canceled and will take place this June (about a year later than originally planned), thus allowing for the series to be worked on for almost two years now, and expand to include performance and video. Gradience imagines a metropolitan scene from the distorted side of our universe, contorted within a wormhole of warped space and time. Each structure within this series gives form to a physical gray area of jumbled materials and objects from everyday settings. Commonplace expectations are defied, leaving viewers traversing through a new dimension. Domestic and industrial objects have become petrified into rocky, stony slabs, leaving their functional qualities amiss in a condensed and crystallized state.

This series probes the constraints of our perception and directly questions our need to categorize our surroundings in a binary fashion. As a queer, non-binary person, I exist in the gray areas between and outside of the binary framework, and seek to expose the delusional, idealistic qualities embedded in twofold systems, and make the concept of uncertainty more comfortable and welcoming.

As an installation, Gradience is an urban space subsumed by properties of various planetary anomalies where opposites coexist. The icy, blazing surface of the exoplanet Gliese 436 b seeps into structural material layers of the built environment, forming a gradient between human-design and naturally occurring processes. The materials, textures, and colors present in each conglomeration simultaneously call to mind lava and ice, hard and soft, or liquid and solid, blurring the line between these supposed opposites. Bodies intimately perform with and around these conglomerations, suggesting a readily comfortable relationship despite their uncertain purpose.

Your work is a constant flux that refuses categorization, instead of the binaries, it draws attention to the spectrum in between. Why is that important to you? How did this come about?

Looking at the spectrum between binary categories has become increasingly important to me, especially upon discovering that I am non-binary this past year. I have always felt a sense of anger and dread towards the categories of gender, and never felt like the structure of male and female made any sense to me. Growing up in the South, I wasn’t exactly exposed to a lot of queer or gender non-conforming culture, and upon discovering it I have really “found myself”- as cheesy as that sounds. My sentiment towards the system of gender that our society is built upon is that it is inherently flawed and overall delusional. Gender is not scientifically real by any means- it is simply a construct that humans came up with, which further divides us by molding behaviors and placing expectations on people based on appearance, and anyone who does not fit into this construct is made to feel like they simply do not belong. It is simultaneously hilarious and mortifying to me that humans have taken this construct (along with many others that are similar) to the extreme polarization of folks that it has.

My biggest intrigue is analyzing how the binary system of gender is embedded in the design of how we are required to navigate space. Bathrooms, store aisles- from clothing and soaps to tampons (not everyone who has a period is female) and even things like socks- are gendered. I am interested in cross combining these elements and exposing that they are not all the different- in fact they are really the same thing. Toilets are toilets. Soap is soap. Gender is just a form of capital that companies thrive off of. This has even gone as far as to contort something as sacred as color into a gendered format- toys, party themes, stories, and the classic blue and pink for babies. WHY!! It makes me want to scream.

Binary thinking is proven to have a negative impact on the mind as it over simplifies super complex ideas and concepts, and also provides a false sense of certainty in situations, when in fact there usually never is. I believe that in general humans should work towards feeling more comfortable with uncertainty, especially if the situation is not life threatening. The alternative to binary systems and patterns of thought is called Spectrum or Directional thinking, which are ways of thinking that consider the multitude of options and possibilities in the gray zone between categories. Nothing actually really exists in a binary fashion, and I seek to help people see more readily through a spectrum lens even if that is in the smallest sense, such as seeing the multiple uses for an object if you let go of the idea that it only has one intended purpose.

We are very impressed by your teaching portfolio and your students' work. Where do you teach? What does teaching mean to you?

I currently work as an adjunct instructor at Cochise Community College in Sierra Vista, AZ as well as the University of Arizona in Tucson. I am in the process of applying for full-time jobs and ideally would like to move back on the East Coast to be a bit closer to family in Tennessee, but I am not picky. Regardless of my location I absolutely love teaching art. Being an art instructor is in a lot of ways like being Hagrid in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone when he reveals “You’re a wizard, Harry.” It literally feels like I am introducing students to magic that they didn’t know that they were capable of, and I particularly enjoy being able to flip that switch on for people. Teaching also makes me feel closer to my own work. I have a really fun time designing projects for students that tap into certain aspects of my own practice, and I like to be able to show students how playful and experimental creating can be.

What is your process like? Can you walk us through some of the processes of your work?

The following steps are required for baking a Kenzie artwork:

Step 1.) Collect: I always begin by collecting. The collecting process takes place in multiple ways: going on walks and collecting an inventory of formal elements within my surroundings by taking pictures (both in my mind and on my phone...which has way too many pictures on it), picking up discarded objects, and going to thrift and fabric stores and purchasing items that spark my interest.

Step 2.) Manipulate: I then bring the collection to the studio and begin experimenting with the ways in which I can manipulate the materials and objects. In many cases this entails transformations to the physical qualities and their arrangements in order to discover what the most extreme change could be. With fabrics, I spray paint, dye, bleach, and cut in order to achieve this, and with objects this step usually entails completely taking them apart and putting them back together in new ways, or with other objects.

Step 3.) Marinate: The next step is to allow said manipulations to marinate in the studio for a while. The marination process is very important as it allows for these changes to sit for long enough to present themselves to me as boring, thus starting the process all over again. The process repeating itself helps me land on something that really WOWS me- it is exciting, new, I have never seen or thought of it before.

Step 4.) Communicate: The final step is to make sense of and communicate with the marinated form. Usually this entails adding subtle details to it to make it appear as though it has an intended function, of some kind, even though the piece itself is an amalgamation of functions. This is also me just playing with the structure, and often involves me or friends of mine to literally climb around and through the works in as many ways as possible, as well as taking the work to different locations to document. This step is the most fun and absurd part of the process, and allows for the work to become site-specific and interactive.

You are a co-founder and member of SYZYGY, an artist collective with Katie Hubbell and Danni O’Brien. What is your favorite part of being a part of a collective? What advice would you give to artists forming a new one?

My favorite part about being in a collective is being able to Frankenstein my ideas and sensibilities with that of other artists. It is both a challenge and a reward to be able to concoct one seamless installation that speaks to the ideas of three different artists. Danni, Katie, and I all met at the Wassaic Project Artist Residency in New York in 2019. Our studios were all next to each other and we also lived in the same house, and we quickly realized that we all have a VERY similar approach to making work. From collecting and experimenting to material manipulation, we all have a very playful approach to our studio practices, and we all work within the realm of sculpture and installation. It was a very natural decision to become a collective because of this. We have only exhibited together once so far at the SPRING/BREAK Art Show in New York in 2020, and right after the pandemic hit, so it has been challenging for us to continue making together and applying to things since then. Another challenge is that I live so far away from them (they are based in Baltimore and Philly). My advice to people seeking to form a collective is to take location into consideration when thinking about the ways in which you want your work to intertwine. For SYZYGY, the distance is hard (because financially it is quite expensive for me to get to places like New York) but ultimately it does not impact the way that we create our work together. Our process as a collective is to create installations from modular materials that we have all independently made (or hoarded) in our studios, meaning that we could come together and create something special at any given time.

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Are there new ideas or themes you are interested in exploring next?

I have another iteration of my Gradience series underway with the working title of Habitable Zone. The term habitable zone refers to the zone around a star in which an Earth-like planet can possess water in the form of a liquid on its surface and potentially support life. The habitable zone is the perfect distance between hot and cold- too close to the star and it is suddenly too hot, and too far away makes it ice cold. Earth falls into the perfect zone between two polar opposite entities, and I am excited by how this term can serve as a metaphor for my interest in examining the spaces between and outside of binary systems. Thematically, I am interested in exploring outer space and planetary geology more thoroughly, especially the freaky parts of outer space like wormholes and black holes. This was mainly brought upon by spending way too much time watching outer space tv shows (there are lots) and I also tapped into these themes a bit when doing research for Gradience. I have also begun exploring the potential of video with some sculptures from Gradience, including performances while wearing a green screen body suit.

Do you have any bad habits? How do they affect you?

My worst habit is definitely my sleep schedule. I am almost 100% nocturnal and I have never quite been able to change that. I cannot focus well during the day- I think I get too distracted just knowing that other people are awake. Thus, all of my work gets done at night. And when I say I stay up late, I mean actually late- like 8:00 the next morning late. Because of this I have days where I sleep until 4:00 pm, which is really embarrassing and disappointing because I will miss stores being open a lot of the time. I do really like to go grocery shopping at night though because the store is less crowded. I also, being a Tauraus, really like to take my time and am somewhat of a perfectionist (...that’s not really true I am a high-key perfectionist.) If I were an animal I would be a sloth for sure- efficient and detail-oriented but excruciatingly slow.

For more of Kenzie: | @kenzie_whitworth