Q&A: Keltie Ferris, UT artist in residence

I first met Keltie Ferris in 1996, when she started dating my best friend. She wanted to be an architect in those days. And then she discovered painting.

Ferris gave up her plans, upsetting her parents in the process, and ditched architecture for art. She got her MFA in painting at Yale, and already has pieces in the collection of the Saatchi Gallery in London and the Kemper Museum in Kansas City.

Her work is at times a mix of Pollack and Basquiat, Mondrian and Keith Haring, but with a unique visual sensibility that is Ferris' alone. At times the spray-painted oil paint seems to hover off the canvas, creating an almost hallucinatory effect. Ferris writes of her paintings, "The work is non-verbal, more like noise than language, more akin to flashing lights and potential energies than anything nameable."

Ferris is this semester's artist-in-residence at the University of Tennessee, so she's been juggling teaching three classes with completing her own work in time for the Ewing Gallery's biennial artist-in-residence exhibition, which runs until Dec. 9.

This is the first time you've seriously taught. How's that going?

It's been a lot of work. The idea, I think, is to teach by example—to show students that real live artists do exist.

So would you encourage any of your students to make a living as an artist?

For my best students I'm basically running a sales pitch. I like my life, and I think there's room for other people to have that life, too. Our culture systematically discourages people from being artists. Like, when I was a kid, I sort of thought you had to be dead to be an artist. You're up against all this parental advice not to be one with no real picture of how to be one. [The students] also have no real idea of how much work it takes to be an artist.

So how much work does it take? I think a lot of people just think, "Yeah, painting all day, that's awesome."

It is awesome. But, like, I think it'd be fun to play tennis all day, but do you really want to play tennis eight hours a day? Because that's what I do, paint eight hours a day, six days a week.

You're from Louisville originally, but you've pretty much stayed in the Northeast since college. Do you think it's possible to be a successful artist in the South, or if you really want to make it, do you need to move to New York?

Yeah, I've been talking a lot about that. Everyone asks me that. I actually don't know a lot about horse-racing, but painting is a lot like horse-racing, I think—it's alive and well, but just in certain places. Like, you don't move to New York for horse-racing, you move to Lexington if that's what you want to do. When it comes to painting, I feel like a center is Brooklyn. I'm not saying it's culturally superior to other places, just that there are people there to challenge you—it's why people exercise better at a gym than by themselves.

Your work has a lot of urban influences—spray-painted oil paints, for example. It that directly because of Brooklyn?

I started making those paintings when I was in Connecticut still, so it's not like my daily life as a New Yorker is in those paintings. I love New York, but I guess the city is not a primary influence.

I'm curious—would you encourage someone to major in art who didn't want to make a career out of art? Because college is really the only time you can do something like that.

Probably not. I think if you're that easily discouraged, you probably shouldn't do it. If you're an artist, you need to believe in yourself, because no one else will. There are no guarantees.

2011 Artists-in-Residence Biennial • Ewing Gallery (University of Tennessee Art + Architecture Building, 1715 Volunteer Boulevard) • Through Dec. 9 • ewing-gallery.utk.edu