Interview: Kelly Anna
06.12.19 Words by Wrap / Photography by Ollie Trenchard

Interview: Kelly Anna

The joyous curves and vibrant colours of Kelly Anna’s high-energy illustrations have us totally enthralled. In this excerpt from Wrap #12, we discover how she approaches her craft, how living in London inspires her, and what a huge part her family have played in fostering her passion.
06.12.19 Words by Wrap / Photography by Ollie Trenchard

You live and work in Peckham, south London – what’s the vibe like?

It feels to me like east London did when I moved there 12 years ago. It still has its own rhythm and character and I love that. London’s energy inspires me daily, mainly because most people – whether born and bread here or immigrated – are working to make something of themselves. I really admire that in people. Peckham also has a really great art scene, with lots of new artists’ studios popping up all the time.

Elsewhere, do you have any favourite hangout spots?

I love hanging out in more leafy areas! It’s nice to check out spots like the Hampstead Heath ponds, or any of the big parks – we have great parks in London. I feel really free in these open spaces, which makes me relax, and to create fun work it’s better to be in a relaxed state.

What would a typical day be like for you?

Each project varies, so I don’t have the luxury of a ‘typical day’. However, I do make sure that I have some sort of routine, with a workout most mornings. I grew up doing gymnastics and dancing, and have always believed in the importance of exercise, especially with the pressures of city life, which can be incredibly overwhelming – it’s vital to stay mentally and physically healthy. I came to London by myself aged 18, and have worked since to pay rent and bills, which has been relentless. It’s tough to come here with no family or friends at that age, it can take years to find your feet. Now I’m starting to get the right work-life balance; working freelance helps find ways around that.

Whereabouts is your studio?

Just down the road from my apartment, which is really handy. I’ll walk there in the mornings after getting my morning coffee. I’m generally there about 4-5 days a week. I love it, I get to share with a good friend who is also an artist and director. She runs a really cool place called Blue Shop Cottage. We’ve got loads of plants and colourful things in our studio. I call my space the ‘Tree House’ – I have to climb a ladder to get to it, and feel like a kid every time I climb up!

We read that your dad is an artist. How did he inspire you?

My dad is my favourite creative person. He owns a glass and conservatory business, and isn’t exactly the picture of your typical artist. But behind his hard exterior, he’s the most elegant ballroom and Latin dancer, and an incredible artist! We always laugh because he seems like the most unlikely person to dance and paint when you meet him. When we used to sketch together he always taught me to look up and focus on the subject. If he caught me looking down at the paper for too long he would take the paper away and tell me to start again. I get my love of colour from dad too. Whenever we went away with the family, we would go off to markets and dig out colourful works. My parents travelled a lot doing dancing, so dad would also bring back lots of peculiar sculptures and bits of art.

And has dancing had an impact on your work?

My whole family are dancers – it’s how mum and dad met. Dad was a dance teacher and mum was his student. I started aged three, along with my siblings, and it has had a huge effect on my work. Everything in dancing is about movement and feeling, and I hope that comes across in my work. But not only visually, mentally it’s been important too. I grew up with this respect for a discipline, a craft – to be able to focus and practise for years on a passion is an invaluable life experience. From a very young age I was taught that if you stick at something, you’ll get better...but only after years of hard work. I definitely wasn’t born with the skill of drawing, as I believe my dad was, but I had the passion and motivation to build on my love for it. I’m still not where I want to be, but that just excites me.

"I grew up with this respect for a discipline, a craft – to be able to focus and practise for years on a passion is an invaluable life experience. From a very young age I was taught that if you stick at something, you’ll get better...but only after years of hard work."

At what point did you realise you wanted to go into a creative career?

From a very early age. I was always making something, from weird clay sculptures to live sketching at dances. I ended up going to London College of Fashion to study illustration, and while there I won a competition to live illustrate front row at London Fashion Week. I ended up doing this four seasons running. This is where I really fell in love with print design. For the past six years I’ve been working in various fashion houses, in footwear and apparel, as a print designer. Then about two years ago, I decided I wanted to push my own work instead of continuing to create work only for other brands. I felt like I had something to offer, and started working on personal projects on the side. I then started drip-feeding it out into the world, and after a short while began to get a number of commissions, one of them being Nike Women.

You have such amazing energy and confidence – where does that come from?

If you met my family it would be easy to see! My mother’s side is Italian/Sicilian, my father’s is Irish. My mum is one of the strongest women I know, very feisty. Dad has such a passion for art and life. My uncle, Nino, has played a huge part too. He coached the late British Number 1 women’s tennis player Elena Baltacha. He has a very strong mind, and was one of my greatest role models growing up. He was like my second dad. You had to think quickly around him, he wouldn’t let you get away with being inefficient or unresourceful. I also think it comes from working in teams as a young kid in sport.

Can you tell us about your current work and inspirations?

I’m constantly seeking out new ways to express what I see around me by using different mediums. At the moment I’m really keen on transforming spaces. Earlier in the year I decided I wanted to work on a much larger scale, so I’ve been creating lots of murals – in the last four months I’ve painted seven in France, Morocco and London. I’m also about to do more in Antwerp and Australia.

Your work features lots of female figures. Is the representation of women a major theme?

I love being able to express energy and movement, which is probably why the exaggerated female form and abstract shapes are so often evident in my work. I watch many contemporary dance performances, I absolutely love the way they create alien shapes with their bodies, and love the uncomfortable feeling that creates. I worked on a project recently where I collaborated with independent dance company Rambert. They used my forms to create a choreographed piece. It was so rewarding to see the process reversed.

We’d love to hear about how you explored ‘The Nude’ theme for your Wrap illustration.

This was a really personal piece. The nude for me is ALL about confidence. As a teenager – and indeed until fairly recently – I rarely felt comfortable with my curves, feeling that having big hips and boobs made me 'matronly'... which isn't exactly how you want to feel as a young woman in modern society. I will often hear, "You have child-bearing hips", which in itself makes me feel uncomfortable. For this piece I decided to counter that by depicting curvaceous shapes, which to me symbolise the diversity of the female form, which should be celebrated in all its glory. What society holds up as 'perfection' is not necessarily perfect to everyone.

What’s your creative process – how do you start projects, and what tools do you use?

Firstly, I love the feeling whenever I get a new project – the feeling you get when someone you respect asks to work with you is the reason I do what I do. Then my process starts with looking through some of my art books, and any inspirational pieces I’ve collected over the years. These aren’t necessarily anything to do with the project brief, but it’s good to feed my mind visually and get me excited. Next I’ll begin to research the theme, make notes, and start sketching doodles. I won’t tend to use anything digital at this point. Once I have some good material, I’ll start sketching and colouring in the first draft, then move this into digital – I’ll often use my iPad to neaten up and colour in the sketches, and then move on to Photoshop and Illustrator. My favourite part of what I do is being able to merge different mediums, from hand drawing to collage and digital.

"I love being able to express energy and movement, which is probably why the exaggerated female form and abstract shapes are so often evident in my work."

You also work for British footwear brand Sophia Webster. Can you tell us about that?

For the past four years I’ve been lucky enough to work as a freelance print designer with them. How it works is I will look at the mood board created by the design team for the season (which I absolutely love doing) and from that, start painting and sketching prints. These will then be dropped into different shoe silhouettes. Being able to take artwork and turn it into a beautiful shoe with an incredible designer is an invaluable experience.

It must be fun working on different products.

The one thing I’ve learnt as a print designer is how to fit artwork into different patterns and products, whether that’s a trainer, pieces of apparel or a bag. It trained me to look at products and spaces differently. When I had my first solo show recently, I looked at the space and broke it up into sections – I wanted each part of the space to become its own canvas. One of the walls I turned into a mini basketball court with the slogan ‘SLAM DUNK THE JUNK’. I renovated another space with a custom-designed ping-pong table and a wall with 1,500 ping-pong balls featuring the slogan ‘SHE’S GOT BALLS’.

How about your recent project with Nike? Tell us more about that.

I was told they had picked four artists globally to work on this project and that I was one of them. It was one of the most exciting and enjoyable briefs I’ve ever worked on, mainly because they gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted. They didn’t know I worked in footwear and apparel, so I don’t think they were expecting what I sent them as the first draft. I had cut up the trainer and each individual element became its own canvas. The first email I got back after sending that first sketchbook to the head designer was: ‘I just fell off my chair’.

What did you take from working with such a huge brand?

That if you work hard enough and with passion, brands will naturally want to work with you. I really believe a big part of why brands such as Nike have stood the test of time is because they search for authenticity and genuine craft. Every brand that has succeeded has come from a core belief and passion, whether that’s for skateboarding, music, running or the arts.

With these projects, plus others for H&M and Propercorn popcorn, you’ve had a busy couple of years. How do you think you’ve developed in that time?

First and foremost I’ve grown in confidence. Taking a different route, not going straight into illustration, means I’ve come in from a completely different angle which I think has developed me further as a multimedia artist. I’ve been given an advantage with all the skills I’ve learnt from collaborating with sports brands, working in footwear and apparel, and creating the physical end product while working alongside factories. For me, art is about exploring different mediums and having fun. Now, the only question I ask myself when anything new comes in is, ‘How do I break this up and smash it?’

Finally, your work often includes phrases such as ‘Never tame your game’. Do you have a favourite?

‘Never tame your game’ is what I live by. The creative industry is really competitive, and can be really hard at times. Just keep your head down, work hard – but never tame your game.

This interview was originally published in Wrap #12 – 'The Nude', December 2018