When you look at art by self-taught Trinidadian American artist Kristen Woollery, she wants you to feel love. "I want them to feel loved, seen, heard, understood, and experienced. I want them to know that it is love of self that allowed me to arrive here, and so I hope that is what people take from my art," she told BetterShared over Zoom.
A woman of faith, a mother, and a wife, Kristen Woollery grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Paying homage to her Trinidadian roots through her use of colour, art allowed Woollery to embark on her personal journey to self-love and self-discovery.
Pictured: Kristen Woollery
Tell me about yourself, and anything that you feel is important for your audience to know to get a better sense of who you are.
I’ve always been artistically inclined and interested, but I would say that I took the securest route to where I currently am right now. I grew up in a culture and in a household that praised academics, so I took the academic route. I did all of the right things. Top of the list of careers were doctors, nurses, and lawyers in my culture. I had no interest in being a doctor, although at one point I did want to be a lawyer. I landed at social work and worked as a social worker for 11 years. However, very early on into my career I had this nagging sense that it wasn’t for me. I had made the choice based on the options that were presented to me, I didn’t realise that I was able to choose something for myself, that I could have chosen something that was already in my heart.
Shortly after coming out of grad school, I started exploring my artistic side- painting specifically. I really enjoyed it and had gotten good feedback but then I got married, had kids, and put that on the back burner until more recently in the last 3 years or so. I was immensely unfulfilled and many people who encountered me could see the sadness inside of me. I didn’t know where that sadness came from until I realised that I wasn’t fulling my dreams, and that I wasn’t using my skills to the best of my ability. I finally found my way back to myself, and so here I am doing what I enjoy.
What made you decide to transition to working as a full-time artist?
It was a process. I understood that I wanted to do art, but there was still this grappling. There were things that I had to unlearn that weren’t true about myself, things that I thought were my own ideas that I eventually realised weren’t. They were things that I learned culturally, things that I learnt in my household about what was “important”. Even though I chose art, I still didn’t own it. This whole pandemic, whilst it has been uneasy and unpleasant globally, I would say that personally it gave me space to just stop and regroup and change course in a way that I wouldn't have given myself the latitude to do had it not been for the whole world stopping. I guess I was concerned about the opinion of others. The pandemic allowed me to say that I’m choosing me and I’m choosing not to straddle the fence, but instead put my energy into this thing that really fuels and drives me.
"My art is really about showing up as a strong, purpose-driven woman of the diaspora, and I try to reflect that in my art. Loving myself and being authentically me, all the layers, all the cultural, social, and environmental stuff that makes me, me. I hope that it’s presented in my art and that others are able to see that and see themselves in it."
What influence has your Trinidadian background had on your work?
A huge influence. In Trinidad, Carnival is such a big thing. Look at the artistry that goes into making costumes, from the Moko Jumbies to just the African influence on it all. You see the vibrancy, and in many of my paintings I try to depict that. I try to depict the revelry and the celebration of being Black, period.
Initially, when I started thinking about what I wanted to convey, the first thing that had come to mind apart from my Trinidadian background and carnival and all the other elements, was the African mask. So, in my paintings a lot of them have a lot of syllabary on the faces of my paintings and that is my representation of the African mask. Normally you wear a mask to cover up, but mine is to reveal the beauty, the essence, and the power of the Black Woman.
Is there a consistent theme across all of your works?
What’s really important to me is the connection with Self. We take so much time striving to be, and somehow in the midst of all of that, at least in my experience, I forgot about who I was and who I was created to be. Growing into a wife and a mother allowed me to see that the person inside was the person that they needed from me, that I needed from me. The person inside was the person that the world needed to see. The theme across all of my paintings is self, connecting with culture, connecting with all the elements that make you you, not denying those things, and allowing them to show unabashedly.
What do you enjoy most about your creative process?
Taking these ordinary mundane things: paints, a brush, a canvas, you know things that on their own may serve no purpose, but then putting these things together in my hands and creating a thing that is unique to me. A unique expression of thoughts dreams, desires, images that I see in my head that only I can produce. You know, just being able to sit and create something that I can enjoy and that will hopefully be appreciated by others.
"I could not have arrived at this place without it being spirit led, because for far too long I was listening to others' opinions, my culture, and what my mother said. Before I was disconnected from myself, and the spirit is myself- it lives within me."
What do you think attracts people to your art, and has anyone ever had a particularly memorable reaction to it?
I think just the vibrancy of the colours, and that it’s maybe slightly different from what people might be accustomed to seeing. Although, I also think that they see kinship. Seeing this dormant part of us that’s related to our heritage in Africa that people see, and know, and recognise, even if they haven’t seen it in that specific way before.
In terms of a memorable reaction, I don’t have one necessarily from someone outside of my home, but the thing that really touched me when I initially decide to do this was to see my children really cheer me on and really appreciate what I was doing. I have a young daughter, she’s three now, but I wanted to make sure that she knew that she could live her dreams. It took me too many years to realise the gifts that I had. Being able to give that gift to them, and for them to see it and react to it is important.
Do you think that your relationship with God has played a role in your development as an artist?
Yes, yes, and yes.
I try to pray before starting a piece. I pray that the Lord would lead me to what he is trying to say through me. In terms of my creative process, I try to create a peaceful meditative space because this art is a spiritual work for me. It is therapy for me, and so I have to be open to where the spirit is leading me. That is also why I don’t always finish pieces as quickly as I want to because I have to feel led and inspired. Sometimes there’s too much background noise for me to be able to do that. My faith has really revealed to me who I am, so I have to take it with me to every instance so that I am able to feel like I am able to produce my best work. Living in my purpose has been the most powerful thing that I could do. I show up more confident, I show up more aware, and that’s the woman that I want people to encounter. We as Black women have something to say, we are powerful, we are strong, we are beautiful, we are vibrant, we are all those things and it’s undeniable.
Is there an artistic movement or style that you are particularly drawn to?
The Carnival, Peter Minshall, he’s one of these huge carnival artists in Trinidad who creates the costumes and things of that nature. Watching over the years as a Trinidadian American woman going to Labour Day parade in New York and going home to carnival in Trinidad and seeing how intricate, deliberate, and vibrant everything is is really inspiring to me.
Another thing that inspires me is seeing all the self-taught artists, women artists on social media, finding their voices and doing things their way. Figuring out their creative style and creating techniques and ideas that really came from their heart, and in doing so finding an audience.
What is your dream project?
I want to do all the things. The galleries, Art Basel in Miami, collaborate with other artists, but when I think beyond that I want to see my art in everyday places, like a Target for instance. I want to see my art worn and rendered on home décor items. I want to see that because I want people to see themselves in their everyday lives. I want them to connect with my art and know that there is someone representing them in ways and in spaces that they haven’t seen before. I want them to know that they can go and pick up a curtain and feel very connected to the story that it’s telling.
To buy any of Kristen Woollery's work, please click the link here.