You could say Kelly Parsell, Room & Board Design Associate, is a jack-of-all trades. When she’s not helping customers in our downtown Chicago showroom create homes they love, she’s designing some of her own pieces to share with the world, from greeting cards and silk-screened onesies to fine art.
Kelly’s an interdisciplinary artist and the woman behind Nerd Press paper goods and novelty gifts. Originally from Chicago’s southwest suburbs, she received her M.F.A. in Interdisciplinary Book and Paper Arts from Columbia College in 2010 and her B.A. in Psychology and Studio Art from Albion College in 2007. Her artwork has been exhibited nationally and internationally and can be found in numerous libraries and collections, including those of Yale, Indiana and Duke universities.
Kelly has been employed with Room & Board for two years, which has given her the opportunity to “flourish both in and out of the showroom.” When asked what she loves most about the company, she said, “My incredible coworkers, how I feel so valued even as a part-time employee, and the amazing work-life balance I am able to achieve with my three-day-a-week role.”
She lives in an apartment full of collected treasures with her husband Luan and two giant cats Atlas and Tito. Take a peek at their Humboldt Park home here, previously featured in The Chicago Reader. We connected with Kelly to learn more about her inspirations, influences and aspirations.
1. Have you always had an interest in art & design?
I was a drawer for as long as I can remember, copying children’s book characters and Disney movie covers. I also wanted to be an architect/designer for a period of time as a child, drawing designs of my future dream home. In elementary and middle school, I had a very inspiring art teacher, Mrs. Washburn, who taught us sophisticated techniques and really piqued my interest in art. These hobbies only became more serious when I was in college taking art classes as electives and noticed my work was just as strong as that of the art majors.
2. What fuels your creativity?
Writing (with pen and paper), reading (especially poetry), listening to music, watching films, going to art shows, talking with other artists, exercising, going to the spa, traveling, reflecting, being observant, having a deadline.
I think that being creative for me is somewhat innate, but actually creating work and sustaining a productive, creative life, is hard work. You have to commit yourself to your practice, take on many different roles (e.g., editing, marketing, documenting, etc.) and be willing to put yourself and your ideas out there. Most importantly, you need to be open to criticism, especially from yourself. Being creative means sometimes you will make 100 pieces and not be satisfied with any, but you keep making because you have to; you have to create, and if you keep doing so, you will be rewarded.
3. Where do you seek inspiration for the work you do?
My own history, my generation, my gender, the Care Bears/My Little Pony/Rainbow Brite/Lisa Frank color explosion of the 1980s and 90s, teenage culture, psychology, sexuality, feminism, fine art, narrative, fiction, as well as other forms of contemporary art and culture.
4. Where do you create? Describe the space.
I take notes wherever ideas come—the bus, the bath, concerts, my mother’s pool, my backyard. Most of the making happens in my home studio, which is a medium-sized room with a large, vintage dining table that I use as my work surface to draw, cut, print, paint, silkscreen, and do computer work. There is also a large set of vintage lockers used to store all of my supplies. One of the major reasons we moved into our current apartment was because I said I needed extra space to work so I spend a lot of time in my studio and try to use it to its fullest potential. Plus, working from home means my cats can hang with me!
5. Who influences your art?
My art is influenced by many great artists, including writers Anne Carson (Autobiography of Red and Nox), Jeffrey Eugenides (The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex), Beth Bachmann (Temper), and Judy Blume (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret); filmmaker and writers Miranda July (The Future) and Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture and Girls); and visual artists Alessandra Sanguinetti, Mike Kelley, Peregrine Honig, Jennifer Linton, Shary Boyle, Kyoko Okubo, Gillian Wearing, Clare Rojas, Betsabeé Romero, Karen Lederer, Julia Pott and, of course, Nick Cave (for whom I worked for two years).
6. Which artist do you admire most?
While the work of many well-known artists move me, it is hard to admire people whom I’ve never met or to whom it’s difficult to relate. The artists I admire the most are my friends who are maintaining their art practice, while living regular, fulfilling, creative lives. They are people who are motivated and hardworking, and manage to find clever ways to continue making art. A few of the many talented people I admire are Colleen Toledano, Marnie Galloway, Angela James, Jordan Martins, Laura Beyer, Joey Knox, Laurie LeBreton, and Kristi O’Meara. I think the idea of the “starving artist” is unproductive and deflating. I know many people who are living very successful lives as artists, who are not “famous”, but who also are not in a constant struggle to meet their everyday needs. These artists are the most inspiring to me, and I feel as though their stories should be told more often in order to give young people more realistic and achievable ideas of success.
7. Which piece of work are you most proud of and why?
I’m probably most proud of my work from my recent show Muddled Dreams. In particular, my collection of six poems that accompanied the show as well as the piece Rupture, which consists of wallpaper created from an original drawing and a hanging piñata that has burst open. These pieces are a reflection of what it means to be a young woman in contemporary culture. I feel as though these works are able to subtly draw the viewer in with their sweetness, but then confront them with some really complex issues that create an important dialogue about girlhood, womanhood, and feminism.
8. Describe your design style.
Globetrotting, art-loving, vintage, color explosion! I love to play with mixing color and pattern to create a bold, unexpected, and whimsical look. My style is creative, artsy, and unapologectically casual. I enjoy filling my surroundings with handmade, used and worn items I’ve collected over the years that tell stories—stories of my own as well as those of others. My first rule in designing is to find pieces you love (or rather, let them find you) and make them work with what you already have. And for the most part, they do!
9. I collect:
Alebrijes (colorfully painted, wooden creatures made in Oaxaca, Mexico) and other animal figurines and folk art objects, masks, textiles, art books, art (especially pieces made by my friends), vintage dishware and clothing. I also still have my stuffed animal and sticker collections from childhood.
10. I understand you’re a big traveler! Which destination tops your list and why?
My favorite places I’ve been to include: Istanbul; Rio and Bahia, Brazil; Mexico City and Oaxaca, Mexico; Berlin; and Montreal. My top places I haven’t yet been to are: Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, many countries in Africa, Iceland, Guatemala, Belize, Bolivia, Peru, Chile, Patagonia, and many places in northern Brazil.
I’m drawn to places that are colorful, down to earth, and rich in history and art. The most interesting places are the ones that feel a bit gritty and the most foreign to me. I find myself intrigued by the very urban as well as the very rural, and I constantly seeking out strange natural wonder.
Kelly’s creations can be found at a number of retail outlets in Chicago, including Paperish Mess (Ukrainian Village), Kooky Kids (River North), Art Effect (Lincoln Park), The Red Balloon Co. (Bucktown), and two Foursided (Lakeview), on her website and Etsy shop.
Photos from Kelly Parsell