“Itʼs funny, itʼs playful, itʼs kitsch,” says painter, Kelly Gilleran, about her series of paintings entitled Food! While going through an artistic identity crisis Kelly found herself pining after advertisements in old mid-century magazines. She would look at traditional media illustrations of idealistic scenes, & sheʼd feel nostalgic for an era she never lived in & a job that no longer existed. So Kelly pretended she had the job of nameless illustrator & started painting food, but not just any food: perfect food. What started out as a catharsis & a temporary escape from “serious paintings” has been going on as a fairly exclusive habit for a year & a half now. Kelly Gilleran is still shooting for that immediate response, because food elicits a reaction from everyone: itʼs comfort, yet nostalgia for something that doesnʼt exist.
Kelly Gilleran grew up in Redding, CT & stayed there until she was 23. She attended Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT because “my dad worked there and I got free tuition. It was actually an excellent small school.” She left with a Bachelorʼs in Art & Design with a double concentration in painting & illustration. Before she graduated she started working as an artist assistant for a commercially successful painter, which “paid well but made me hate myself”. Painting is her way of controlling the world, & after graduating she felt as if everyone was trying to take it from her. So, in June of 2013 Kelly ran away to the mountains of Colorado. She currently works as a table games dealer in a casino four days a week, & she paints three days a week. She plans on returning to school in June for a Masters in Art Education, so “I can hang out with actual kids all day instead of gamblers, and I get more time to paint.”
Laura Knapp: I think it would be best to start with the birth of this project. How did your “Food!” paintings come to fruition? How long ago did this obsession with food begin?
Kelly Gilleran: I think the obsession with food came when I became a fat kid as a child. The visual obsession started with Cheeseburgers. I had a project my sophomore year of college where we had to do an editorial illustration about eating disorders, domestic violence or war. After my concept of “military use of dolphins” was turned down, my next thought was obesity because I wanted to paint an obese person in a power chair & a giant cheeseburger. Usually when I was given an assignment in college the first thought was, “What do I want to paint?” & the second thought was “How can I make this fit into what I’m supposed to be doing?” After struggling with paintings that were very material driven, I wanted something that I could feasibly turn into a collection while holding down a day job. I was looking for something that would be leisurely to illustrate, that I could do more efficiently, & not get bored or frustrated with. I had dabbled with food before and thoroughly enjoyed it, so I decided to go in that direction. Food is very fun to paint because it has lots of textures and colors, it’s easy to paint convincingly, and everybody responds to it.
LK: I’m a huge fan of the kitsch, playful food work, but I’ve always wondered if you had a secret stash of completely different paintings that a viewer might not recognize as a Kelly Gilleran. I suppose my question is, do you exclusively create food paintings or have you dabbled in other subject matters?
KG: I don’t exclusively paint food, food has just been something that I have been able to produce a lot of without getting bored or frustrated. Prior to the food illustrations, I primarily painted in oil, & I painted on a much larger scale. I was working on a collection of layered epoxy resin painting/collages that featured ferris wheels, people & space symbolizing existential issues & one’s authenticity. Those paintings are for sure more personal, narrative, and conceptually interesting. The problem with those paintings is that they take a very long time to produce, I don’t have the facilities to produce them (pouring resin requires a well-ventilated dust-free area & use of a respirator, & being highly allergic to it doesn’t help either) & when they are finished, they are damn near impossible to photograph.
I love painting big, & I love complicated images; but I’ve learned that being prolific can be just as important as being conceptually thought provoking. As fun as it is to be completely in your own head & entirely self-serving with your artistic ventures, there’s still that part of me that wants the recognition of knowing if someone Googles “Kelly Gilleran” you can see a lot of different works. The food is accessible to a wider variety of people, & you don’t have to be an artist to understand or appreciate them. I ran into the problem of having a lot of people who were fans of my artwork, but were not in a place where they could afford to buy a $2000 painting. With the food works I can paint more, reach more people, & ultimately get the name recognition. The big plan being that when I do have the time & facilities to paint the bigger ones again, hopefully there will be a following who are interested in those paintings too.
LK: What’s the process for creating one of these paintings? How long does it typically take to finish a piece when you factor in the idea process as well?
KG: If I have an idea, the first part is finding images; I scour thrift stores to find old cook books or magazines with bright Kodochrome pictures; etsy & ebay are a big help too. You really have to find a perfect picture.
Once I have an image I really like, I usually do a layout in Photoshop, which is usually where I experiment with different legs if it’s going to be a lady. I do a sketch from the layout where I can figure out the rest of it; everything gets changed a little. I then take the sketch & use a projector to get my outline onto the board, so when I’m painting I can focus on just the illustration & not proportions & drawing stuff. Then I paint the central image first; this is the most enjoyable part, some artists struggle through this part just to get the final product, but I genuinely just love illustrating sitting and painting. Then I cover up the whole board with frisket film, (basically a big, clear low-tack sticker) draw out my background and then cut it out with and xacto-blade, paint, and peel off the film. I scan the finished piece, and then I get to do all sorts of fun computer work of editing, resizing, isolating, formatting, sometimes reproducing a background digitally, or making it into a pattern. The computer stuff is my least favorite part, but it makes the image available for consumption on a lot of different products.
All in all, I would estimate maybe 8-12 hours from conception to finished painting, give or take a little depending on what the image is & how complicated the background is. I usually have 2-4 going on at various stages at any given time. On a good week, I can get about two done on my days off from work. It’s really sustainable which is why I’ve been able to stick with them for so long.
LK: Since you lived in Connecticut for the majority of your life, how has your move to the opposite side of the country been for your artwork? Have you found a community in Colorado with similar artistic values & interests as you?
KG: I moved to Colorado to protect my artwork, but not specifically for artistic inspiration. I was working as an artist assistant and it made me miserable, & the whole NYC/East Coast art scene jaded me. I didn’t see myself or my artwork finding it’s place in that scene, & I didn’t have the fight in me. After graduating you have everyone telling you what you should be doing & what you should be painting. I was extremely depressed.
Painting is my way of controlling the world; it’s one of the only things I consider to be mine. So when it felt like everyone was taking that control away from me, I ran away. Where I live in Colorado is woods, mountains and lots of guns. The artistic aesthetic is Native American arts & Landscapes. It’s beautiful, but no, not really an artistic community I relate to. The idea was to isolate myself for a bit, get my bearings on the whole un-fun “adult” thing, & then relocate closer to Denver where the art scene is more contemporary and fun. For now I focus primarily on social media & the Internet as a means of getting my artwork out there.
LK: Who and/or what are your biggest inspirations for creating artwork?
KG: A lot of what I do is reverence for old school illustration. Particularly with the food illustrations, I do a lot of collecting of old advertisements, cookbooks & the like. There used to be an incredible amount of illustrators who had the job of creating these little vignettes and perfect fantasies, & for the most part they are completely nameless. Those artists knew a lot, & there’s a lot that can be learned from their techniques & applications. Now everything with advertising is done with either heavily edited photography or digital illustration, the warmth is taken away & so is the sense that someone made this.
I feel a lot of guilt if I’m not working on art. It makes me happier than anything, & it’s what I’m meant to do. I fear my ability getting atrophied, & a day where I get nothing done seems like a waste. I think most artists chase the desire to be immortal in some capacity. I wouldn’t mind being nameless so long as the artwork I make, these little bits and moments of me, are important enough that no one would ever throw them away.
In terms of artists that inspire me that do have names: I adore Shigeru Kotomatsuzaki, John Berkey, and Cheslie Bonstell. All three fall into the color explosion mid-century sci-fi space-age illustration category. I’ve probably got some space painting in my future. I’ve been told my aesthetic is “visual pornography for children” so basically anything that falls into bright, toy-like & mid-century category inspires me.
LK: I noticed that some of the paintings feature a larger-than-life American food on a colorful and fun background, but then the project completely shifts to include sexy pastries with female body parts. In your case, what came first the chicken (food with zany backdrop) or the egg (saucy female food)? Do you enjoy one subject more than the other?
KG: Food came first. I was working at an art store & one day I was sent home with a set of gouache (which I had never used at the time) to make a little painting for a store display. I love cheeseburgers, so two hours later I had painted this cheeseburger. It was this moment where I was totally up my own ass like, “Look at this fucking cheeseburger I just painted. This is the perfect cheeseburger.” That’s when I discovered food was really fun to paint, & didn’t have all the stress of the concept-heavy stuff.
Lady foods came while I was working as an artist assistant. My boss painted “pun paintings” & made the mistake of taking off one day and saying “do whatever you want,” which really meant “work on one of the 20 that we got going on right now”… but I was just starting to get into painting more foods outside of work, so a few hours later we had a “Cake Walk.” I stared at her & thought, “This is my spirit animal,” I also immediately regretted painting it under the name of another artist. So I painted some of my own anyways.
I had an older co-worker say in passing “I now look at a delicious sandwich like I used to look at a sexy woman.” Americans covet and consume decadent food in excess & our culture completely objectifies women, so the two work together & have a similar sentiment about them. Food can be very sexy on its own, but I find it hilarious that adding legs to some food can entirely change the perception. My boyfriend was looking at the Wonder Women when I was painting it and with complete sincerity goes, “The one on the left is definitely the prettiest one.”
“…Nick, she’s bread.”
The girls make me laugh, there’s definitely a little something more to them, so I definitely prefer them over just food.
To see more of Kelly Gilleran’s current work please visit: