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Art & Art History
University of Mississippi

Q&A with MFA Painting Student, Kelly Adkins

Introduce yourself and tell us where you are from?
My name is Kelly Adkins and I was born and raised in Mobile, Alabama.

What attracted you to the graduate program at the Department of Art & Art History?
I moved to Oxford to earn a Master’s in Philosophy at the University of Mississippi. It was a two-year program. The summer between those two academic years, I reclaimed my passion for painting. Although I did complete the Master’s program, I decided I did not want to pursue a Ph.D. in Philosophy. Instead, I thought it would be a wiser use of my time to learn more about art. I had grown to love Oxford, so I looked to see if Ole Miss had an MFA program, and it turns out they did. It felt like a shot in the dark only applying to one program, but sometimes God answers prayers.

When did you start getting into art?
I did not start considering art as a serious career path until I was 24, but I’ve been developing my skills in painting since I was 8 or 9.

What type of artist do you consider yourself?
I will always be a figurative painter, but specifically, I consider myself an abstract realist.

What type of artwork do you create and can you explain your process?
I create oil paintings on wooden panels. I prefer oil paint as a medium, as it is slow to dry and allows for more working time. A cradled wooden panel is my surface of choice because it provides more resistance than a stretched canvas, and I also do not like the tooth of canvas. It carries the paint differently. I usually build my own panels, and I really enjoy this process as well. Whenever I build my own surface, I feel like I care more about the painting I am about to create. As far as the content of my work, my process begins with taking reference photos of my subjects. From these photos, I create “sketches” in Photoshop. This allows me to easily explore different arrangements and color palettes. I prefer working from photos than from life because I enjoy the process of translating an image to a painting. I never intend for my paintings to perfectly replicate my final reference image. When the painting reaches a certain level of completion, I often put the reference image away.

Which artists do you look to for inspiration?
My biggest artistic influences are Ridley Howard, Jen Mann, and Pablo Picasso. Ridley Howard has taught me how to approach a cliché subject-matter. In the majority of his work, he paints his figures intimately interacting with one another, but he places them in graphic, abstract spaces. In doing so, he takes his subjects out of the every day while simultaneously drawing attention to the flatness of the pictorial plane. By drawing attention to the flatness of the space, he emphasizes the formal qualities of his work. Furthermore, to mystify the obviousness of his subject-matter, Ridley Howard often arranges his figures spatially in ways that make them not so easily discernable. He also makes use of tangent lines to heighten this confusion. Jen Mann’s work taught me that I can paint my figures realistically but abstract them through color. In doing so, it allowed me to portray my subjects through a new way of seeing. Eventually, this led to using color as a way to communicate psychological space. As a cubist artist, Pablo Picasso painted his figures from multiple perspectives and simplified his subjects into geometric shapes, interlocking planes, and collage. Studying his work helped me figure out how to approach the areas where my figures overlap. The way he sometimes used both a profile view and a frontal view of a face to construct a single view helped me arrange my figures in a way where they seem to be creating one person.

Has your artwork changed during the coronavirus?
During the quarantine in Spring 2020, I had to switch from working in oil to acrylic due to lack of ventilation in my home, but I quickly returned to oil in the proceeding semester.

Did you take an online, remote, or hybrid art class? Did it change your way of creating art or learning experience?
In Fall 2020, most of my interactions with my professors were remote via Zoom. In some ways, it was better because I feel like everyone was more accessible since they were always on the computer. When I look back on those remote meetings, I do not feel like they were less personal. Lectures from art history classes were also recorded, so I could go back and review the lessons if I needed to, which ended up being extremely helpful.

What has been your favorite class during your years here?
I really enjoyed Figure Drawing I & II with Prof. Robert Malone. He really pushes his students to understand the figure. Aside from the hours spent drawing in class, I spent hours studying human anatomy. The figure is really important in my work, and without his classes, I’m not sure I would be where I am today. He also taught me various tools and tricks for achieving correct proportions.

I took most of my art history classes with Dr. Kris Belden-Adams. Through her lectures, exams, and assigned essays, I’ve achieved a knowledge base that I’ll use for the rest of my life. Even more important than knowing who artists are, Kris taught me how to talk about art. Her teaching has equipped me with a new language for appreciating and analyzing art. Her classes were also equally fun as they were informative. I think she’s made me laugh more than any other professor here.

Taking Advanced Painting every semester with Prof. Philip Jackson shaped me into an artist I didn’t even know I could be. I came into this program without knowing a single thing about composition, color, or how to talk about art. All of that changed under his mentorship and the feedback from my peers.

Could you tell us about your MFA thesis?
The purpose of Intertwined is to create a view into the unobservable reality of intimacy and the effects that it has on one’s sense of self. When we become intimately close with someone, it can feel like they are part of who we are. As a result, we might question where one person ends and another begins. I am interested in how a loss of individuality occurs when one becomes so intimately intertwined with another person. I am also interested in how intimacy can blur the boundaries between two people creating what can be argued as a third metaphysical being – who the two become together persisting from one moment to the next. These experiences are not ones we can see but experiences we can only feel. By juxtaposing representational figurative elements in abstract spaces, I create a conversation about the reality we can see versus the unseen realities we feel.

Could you describe a favorite memory here in the department?
I think most of my favorite memories are moments that took place in my studio whether those were joyous, triumphant times spent painting or the meaningful conversations I’ve had with Philip Jackson. Most of my time here has happened in that studio, so that is where most of my memories are held. I’ve also really enjoyed the community of artists. It’s exciting to see how everyone grows during their time here.

Which professors inspired you the most?
Philip Jackson and Matt Long. They know how to balance empathy with tough love. They pushed me in moments of weakness, and this has taught me greater resilience and endurance. Both of those guys really know how to break through to you too. I’ve learned a lot from them. I’m also fortunate in that I’ve learned a little bit about their pasts and everything they have achieved, and that alone is inspiring. They have both helped me realize the possibilities I have for my future, and I am extremely grateful for that.

What does the Department of Art & Art History mean to you?
The Department of Art and Art history is a place that pushes you beyond what you believe you are capable of. The teaching style is inquiry-based which allows for and strengthens creativity and critical thinking. The answers to the questions you receive are not answers you can easily find in a book. Instead, you find the answers in making as much work as you can, experimenting, and analyzing the work of other artists. I think a lot of people think art is easy, and I think I even thought this before my time here. One of my favorite things to tell people is “You won’t believe me, but the MFA program has been infinitely more difficult and challenging than the MA program in Philosophy.”

Do you have any advice for incoming art students? Undergraduate or Graduate.
Never get too attached to any stage of your work because your professors will tell you to try things you may not want to try, but you must try them.

Listen to their suggestions and implement them into your work. That is their entire teaching method. If you don’t attempt to answer their questions or respond to their suggestions in your work, you will not learn anything.

These are extremely busy people. If you want more guidance, you have to ask for it and seek it out. Do not be afraid to bug the professors.
Art is not entirely subjective. The things you choose to make and the way you make them speaks. When the faculty and your peers tell you what your art says or is doing, listen to them. If you don’t like what they have to say, get back to your studio and try to figure out how to make your art say what you want to say.

What are you looking forward to when things get back to “normal?”
Oddly enough, I never felt like things weren’t normal. I’m pretty introverted, so coronavirus has actually created a situation that is more suiting for me, haha. I have missed seeing certain professors though, and whenever my favorite restaurants were shutdown, that was pretty disappointing.

How has the pandemic affected your life as an artist?
I wouldn’t say it has.

Can we find you on social media?
You sure can. Follow on Instagram.

Has social media helped you more during this time?
I wouldn’t say I’ve been on top of using social media to promote myself as an artist. I will probably put more energy into that after MFA.

What’s your favorite thing about Oxford?
It has better weather than Mobile, AL. It also feels relatively safe. As a small town, the short commutes are nice as well.

Do you have any plans after graduation?
My first priority is to find a studio space or create a home studio so that I can keep painting. I should also probably try to find a job. For anyone reading this who might be able to help me with this, please reach out to me.

What type of music do you listen to while your creating art?
Elton John, Norah Jones, Louis Armstrong, M83, Modest Mouse, The Beatles. Any classic rock, indie rock, 2000s alternative, or bluegrass.

What’s your favorite thing to watch while being a couch potato?
I don’t watch much TV. I usually just go down a rabbit hole on YouTube. It’ll usually start with looking up a review for something I’m interested in buying, then two hours later I’m watching a video about uncontacted Sentinelese tribes or how to give a pregnant woman the Heimlich maneuver.