How Instagram’s Favorite Artist Uses Her Work To Spread Positivity

The chances that you have seen Kelsey Montague’s work are pretty high, even if you aren’t an avid follower of street art. The gifted pen and ink virtuoso’s interactive public art is on display across the US, Australia, Europe, Africa, and Central America. Her work has even been in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. But where it’s really blowing up is on Instagram.

You’ve seen the images of people posing in front of ornate drawings of wings, pretending to hold onto a glorious cacophony of hand-rendered balloons, and miming bubble blowing in front of a wall festooned with illustrations of orbs in flight, right? These are all pieces handcrafted by Montague for the various communities that display them.

It’s not just the images (fun though they certainly are) that deliver the artist’s message. She has also added hashtags to the traditional artist’s signature, calling upon the people who interact with her work to make a declaration about themselves when they post images. She truly wants to make people feel loved and inspired by her art. She hopes that it’s a chance to escape for a moment and consider what really matters. Who wouldn’t gladly invite that into their lives? Sign me up, please.

We spoke to Montague shortly after she debuted her first original Orange County mural at Village at La Floresta in Brea, and she was an absolute pleasure. Up for discussion were her family, her work, and the reception she has received. And, we had to talk a little bit about Taylor Swift. It’s relevant. Promise.

Who is Kelsey Montague?

I come from a family of artists on my mom’s side, so I grew up around a lot of art. My grandfather was a painter, my mom was a painter, and my uncle is a sign maker, so I always loved art. When I was in New York City I got invited to do a rotating art wall with other artists, you know everyone gets invited and you spend a couple months working. I was in New York city and I really had no idea what I was doing, but I knew I wanted to draw angel wings and I put up a #WhatLiftsYou, because I really want my work to be positive on social media. I was absolutely obsessed with dealing with Instagram and technology and how artists can reach other people.

So, I put the hashtag up, and it went viral about seven days in with Taylor Swift and a handful of celebrities. It was pretty exciting. It was exciting to see all types of people that were coming and interacting with the piece and sharing something inspiring about themselves. Since then, my sister and I have been traveling the world creating interactive art murals. Interactive, as in balloons, people can fold things, people can appear to be sitting, anything that puts the person inside of the art piece and lets them become part of the art.

If you came from a family of artists, have you always been an artist?

Yeah, I have. There’s a story my mom told. We were sitting at a baseball game. I guess I was five years old, and I picked up a pen and I drew my dad’s profile. He was really shocked, and he looked at my mom; she’s like, “Oh, here we go … “. So, I’ve always loved to draw; I come from a family of painters, but I love to draw.

You have a coloring book, right?

I do, yeah. I have a couple of adult coloring books. It was a lot of fun to create those pieces. Again, it goes back to interactive art and giving people the chance to relax and step into something that’s outside of their world.

Is your work primarily interactive and/or public art?

It is. I would say 99 percent of my pieces are focused on communities that I draw within to create the piece. All of my work is very focused on the communities that I create the pieces in, so it really is interactive. Depending on what components I add to the piece, it really highlights whatever community I’m drawing in. And that’s really important to me because my work is really driven by people and by different communities.

Were the wings the first public piece you worked on?

No, I had drawn a heart as the very first. That was just drawing on the wall, but the wings were the first interactive piece I’d ever done and my second time trying to draw on the wall. I really had no idea what I was doing.

Wow, and then it became your niche. That’s really interesting.

Yeah, it was really cool. In our family of painters, birds and wings have been a really significant part of our history. My grandfather would hide a bird in all of his paintings, and I grew up trying to find a bird in all of his painting in his studio. My mom also loves drawing wings and birds, so I didn’t really think about it until later that that was like a really strong connection with how I was raised and my family history.

Oh, that’s beautiful.

Yeah, thank you.

I love stuff like that. So, if you started relatively soon with public art and then, like, fell into that niche, why is that so important to you?

I was that girl in New York. I was walking into art galleries, and I was dead broke. I didn’t know how else I could make a living as an artist or how I could make a living as a creative, so I kept hoping somebody would give me a chance, or some gallery would take me in and my career as an artist would start. And the best thing — why I love the intersection of art and technology — is that artists can reach their audiences immediately. You don’t have to go through one specific person at one specific time to have a career as a creative anymore.

I love meeting new people. I love traveling and getting to know different communities, but also, I love this whole interactive situation and using social media, especially in a positive good way. I believe in it, and I believe it’s very powerful if you use it well. It’s really going to give a lot of creatives an amazing opportunity that wasn’t offered before, let’s say, for my grandfather.

That’s true. How did you end up choosing your hashtags?

So, I was staying with my sister and my family was visiting a local diner. We were talking about the mural, and we were about to leave to come to New York and create that mural. I kept thinking, “I want to do something that is positive and I’m gonna do angel wings. It just feels the most natural to me.” And then, we all came up with #WhatLiftsYou because it made sense with the angel wings. Also, I thought it was just super inspiring and a really good fit for my art. My art is very whimsical and organic, and I like making positive pieces. I like people to enjoy my work, even if it’s just for a moment when they’re passing a mural on the street. It all tied together really nicely.

You have #WhatUnitesUs too, right?

Yeah. #WhatUnitesUs goes back to something positive for people and a chance for them to share that with their communities.

Do you get good responses?

I do. I really do. I think, #WhatLiftsYou has close to 80,000 uses now. It’s surprising, I was worried that media was too personal and people wouldn’t want to share something publicly about what lifts them or what unites them with other people. But it’s amazing because people do want that opportunity. They do want to share the positive and inspiring with the people in their lives. And that’s probably been the biggest thing I’ve seen with my art.

You mention that Taylor Swift had a lot to do with your first piece becoming popular, what happened?

About a week into that first interactive mural, a photo popped up on her Instagram page. I think the day before, Vanessa Hutcheons posted. It was amazing to see a creative support another creative like that. Her randomly stopping and standing in front of my mural and understanding what I was trying to do and the whole message behind it was amazing. It’s always exciting when other creative’s support creatives, and I’m a huge believer in that. That’s really important in today’s society. So, it was amazing, and it inspired me to keep going.

Has that continued? Do celebrities frequently stop at your murals?

Yeah. I’ve had Kendell Jenner just recently. Jessica Biel has been in front of one of my murals. I have it all over my Instagram. It’s cool, and it’s always great to hear. But people are people, and anybody that enjoys my work and stands in front of it thrills me.

What is the process of putting one of these together?

Well, my sister’s great because she has been with me since the very beginning. It is a two-person sister team. She handles the business side of it; she loves working with clients and different people. And we work with a lot of great people from city councils to agencies to specific companies, to specific people. You travel the world and create these interactive pieces that are very specific to the community you are working with. We go in and have an idea of what we’re going to draw, and we draw it. Then, we leave them and see it on social media.

How long does that take? From the discussion to creation?

I usually will draw within a day to two days. We did a mural in Poland that was 75 feet tall, and that took a good six days. I’m a pretty fast drawer. I get into a groove, and I just go for it. I would say normally a day to three days.

How do you take something that’s small and make into something that’s big, but it’s also to scale?

With the wings, I’ll usually draw one side of the wing on the ground, so that I can flip it. I can really control the sizing and make sure each side is equal. If the mural gets much bigger or more complicated, it really comes to measuring. There’s a lot of time that goes into the very beginning of these murals before I even take a pen to it. And it’s all measuring and taping and gridding it and standing back and seeing how far people can stand back and interact with it. I think there’s a lot more to it than stepping up to the murals. There is a lot of prep work and a lot of measuring, let’s say.

Okay, you are breaking it down on the grid, rather than printing out pieces and putting them up and using a stencil or something?

I hand draw everything. And even the grid, I’ll use a tape measure and I’ll draw it. I’ll create measured space, and I’ll draw a piece on that. Then, we can use that later down the road.

Why opt to hand draw everything?

It feels more natural and more creative for me. I feel more a part of it, which is really, really important for me and my work.

You just unveiled your first Orange County mural. Can you tell me a little bit about what that is, and what your intent was?

It’s exciting. Especially given this is my first Orange County mural, and my first time working with La Floresta. They were all so amazing, and it’s always inspiring to have a client you who comes to you and believes in what you’re doing and wants to offer their community a cool opportunity or something that’s inspiring.

I was really excited to come out, and the weather was amazing. I had just flown in from Boston and it was pretty nice to be in 100-degree heat. And this mural , I really love it. It’s very organic. It’s bright. It’s flowers. I don’t usually work in a lot of color, and I’m always excited when I get the opportunity or when it’s the right opportunity. And you know, Brea especially is such a great family oriented outdoor themed space. It’s beautiful; the colors are vibrant. It seemed like it was a hand in a glove the mural in that community and that space. I’m excited with how it turned out; I hope people love it.

What have you heard so far? I’m sure people are loving it.

It’s great because I got to stay a little bit longer than I usually do; I got to interact with a lot of the people that were passing the mural. I got to be a part of a couple really great events. That meant a lot to me because I am usually on to the next city pretty fast. I get to see what happens online and on social media. But it was cool to actually be there in person and to interact with people. Hearing people say, “It’s beautiful” or “Oh, this is perfect for this space” was really cool.

What kind of events?

There was a night event. It was kind of a cocktail event. It was kind of the unveiling, and I had just finished the piece. And then, the next day, we did a really cool event with kids and their families who were recovering from cancer, and it was like a coloring book type of an event. It was very creative. It highlighted the piece and brought people together to have a good time.

What impact do you think your murals have in the community? Or do you hope they have, I guess?

Each piece that I create, when I walk away from it, I really walk away from it. That’s it. It’s not really my work in some ways anymore; it’s the community’s piece. You know, it’s their mural. It’s part of their community and society, so I just hope people come out and they enjoy it, even if it’s for a split moment. Whether they step in front of it and take a photo with it or they just smile for a second, that’s worth it in the end for me.

You said that your calendar is pretty booked up; what do you have coming up in the future?

So, I’m gonna be in Detroit, and then, I’ll be back in Denver. Then, I am off to New York City. It looks like December might be a crazy month. I’m still confirming, but there might be Chicago, San Francisco, Texas, New York City. Then, I might end up working on a piece at Art Basel in Miami. I think it’ll be five or six cities in a seven or eight-day period coming up. We’ll see. A lot of travel and a lot of drawing.

Follow Kelsey Montague’s work on Instagram and on her website. And, if you can’t access it in person, you can use her app to add animated wings to any image.