Kelsey Westphal is currently the guest artist at the Villa San Francisco (aka VillaSF). Her presence reflects the support VillaSF brings to the local art scene during the pandemic.
To our surprise, we conducted the interview half in French, half in English as Westphal is the most French culture impregnated artist that we have met at VillaSF as you will discover all along with the interview.
How would you describe yourself?
“I would say I am a visual artist or just an artist. Comics have definitely infected every kind of art I try to make… I’ve recently been making big, complicated panoramas of scenes with pen/ink/paint, as well as some short animations and music, but I can’t help but try and insert a narrative and/or humor into my paintings and songs, which I guess you could attribute to my love of comics”.
What’s the driver of your artistic quest?
“I want to make life more interesting, meet people that seemingly have nothing to do with me and listen to their stories to discover what we share in common and what I can never understand, see underneath the colorless veneer of life. Life is so often full of pain and confusion. I want to transmute that into something delicious or at least funny, that makes people feel less alone.
I use comics to remember my life, to tell people how I feel, to capture life and the exquisite silliness of humans without disturbing the moment in the way that taking a picture does. I have a hard time speaking words out loud for some reason, so comics have become my true voice in a way, while also they help me be able to say what I feel. It’s a positive feedback loop. Communication and memory I would say, are the two most prevalent forces in my “art practice”.
Why having accepted this program at Villa San Francisco?
“The researches for my Ph.D. involves the city of San Francisco and the Bay area but I have never spent more than a day or two here (I’ve always lived in the East Bay)… So I wanted to explore it more in-depth, experience it on a more drawn out, day-to-day scale to complement the more sensational stories I have of exciting moments in music and cultural history”.
You are an American artist, what is your connection with France?
“I did an exchange with a French family when I was 11, then studied abroad in Bordeaux while at UC Berkeley where I majored in French. Finally, I did a comics master’s at EESI in Angoulême.
Speaking French felt like a superpower when I first learned it and it still does – I can communicate with a whole subset of the population that I wouldn’t be able to communicate with otherwise!
Having gotten to travel and see how people can live in places with socialized medicine without the constant fear of going bankrupt, where the government sort of cares about its citizens… makes this country just seem so, so cruel. But it explains why we have such a “vibrant arts scene” – it’s a way to survive! To keep hope when hope seems impossible and when there is no guarantee of tomorrow if you are under a certain income bracket”.
How will you engage the dialogue with France through this residency?
“V.Vale who I work with for my researches, and who I consider as my mentor, cites the surrealists, Dada, Comte de Lautréamont, situationists as huge influences in his life as a publisher and punk anthropologist as he calls himself. I’m also enrolled in a Ph.D. program with the same French university (Université de Poitiers and École Européenne Supérieure de l’Image)… it’s all going to France eventually! As am I!”.
How do you relate your work and the current topic of the residencies? How do you take on the most pressing challenges of our time?
“There are so many pressing challenges right now that it’s hard to choose, and I guess mine involves something that has become forbidden… People gathering in space to reject/escape the crushing blandness of the business-oriented world the status quo. How do we maintain our feisty spirit when the reality is so depressing? My project is multifaceted because I am a flibbertigibbet and an omnivorous citizen – the standardization of experience and the society of the spectacle are two sides of the same coin, and I think people deserve more.
Standing up is the same as standing out – and when surveillance becomes internal, fear takes over and thwarts any attempts for people to speak truth to power. This city makes no sense to me!!! People sleeping in tents in front of empty buildings, the corporatization of hippiedom and the commodification of counterculture in general…but it’s so beautiful, and there are still weird people here, they’re just an endangered species. It makes me sad because all of my research makes me love this city for what it has contributed to art/civil rights/counterculture, but all with such struggle against real estate, white supremacy, segregation which hides behind a smile and a gate.
I guess exploring the city and trying to have a dialogue with residents of San Francisco will help me come back down to earth and stop panicking that everything is done for”.
What’s special about the residence? Describe one detail that you find really inspiring about the VillaSF?
“BIRD WATCHING POSSIBILITIES! Skylines usually leave me cold, but the view PLUS the sky from here are really nice. I’m much more into the sky than I am into cold, phallic high rises. San Francisco is so beautiful though….the sunrise blew my mind. Great colors that play off the colors inside the space. It’s really special”.
How did you live the Covid stay-at-home
“Painfully and creatively. I lost all my jobs. I went on a lot of long sad bike rides listening to music. I kind of just draw all day….which is great. I started learning animation and am slowly making music, really connecting with the friends that matter to me, writing letters to some in France, Canada, Tokyo, my uncle in Oregon. I’ve never had the chance to make art all day. And I got really obsessed with bird watching – animals are the true counterculture, they don’t play our little symbolic power games! Or they do but in ways that make more sense to me”.
How do you envision your art post Covid?
“I want to travel around interviewing people and drawing comics, tattooing! I want to do murals, make music, animate some stuff too. More seriously, I want to finish this book with V.Vale, get my Ph.D., translate that into whatever comes next…teaching? more books?”.
Who is currently your favorite artist in San Francisco and why?
“San Francisco is kind of a dead zone to me as far as living artists go… They have all moved over to the East Bay. Dimebag Darla (aka ALRAD) is my favorite graffiti artist in Oakland… Ronnie Goodman was an artist suffering homelessness whose work really inspires me. He passed away this year, which I find tragic – he had gallery representation but still had to live on the street”.
Villa San Francisco was made possible by the collaboration of the Cultural Services of the Embassy of France in the United States, the Institut de France, the Consulate General of France in San Francisco, and the French American Cultural Society (FACS) but also supported by local partners such as UC Berkeley, and generous donors.