“I just want to create art that celebrates the female figure and nonbinary figures without that sort of pressure that comes from how the patriarchy and history tells us to.”
Ari Kelo is a junior here at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studying Theatre, Political Science, and Environmental Sustainability. They are a multidisciplinary, nonbinary artist whose work blends music, color, and the celebration of bodies. They care deeply care about portraying people at their best and using an intersectional lens to showcase queer bodies and faces. Through psychedelic colors and music-inspired visuals, they depart from the male gaze and reimagine feminine and non-binary figures from a new perspective. They want their art to remind viewers that there is infinite color and patterns in everything. They hope their viewers will step away from their art feeling more wonder and care for themselves and others.
Q: When did you first get into making art?
Ari: I was very artistically-minded before high school and did a lot of doodling and a little bit of painting back then, but I was mainly focused on performance art. Most of what I do is theater and creating productions and being an actor in plays—but then with the pandemic, I haven’t been able to be in any performances, and I was craving a different outlet.
I picked up painting again, and I made more progress there than ever before because I had no other medium to go to. Once I picked it up again, I immediately went full steam ahead and started creating a lot in a short period of time. It’s not that visual art wasn’t a part of my life before then, it’s just that I set more intention to it at the beginning of the last semester.
How has your art changed over the past year?
Ari: I only started painting and drawing a couple times a week in August, but I can see the improvement the most in my faces. I’m very drawn toward drawing faces and human figures, and that’s most of what I do. When I sit down and don’t know what to paint, I’ll just start with a person. If you just keep doing it, you will get better. I am by no means an expert, I only started making visual art a priority in my life in August. Anyone can do it, I would say start with just doodling faces in your notebook everyday.
What are you most inspired by?
Ari: The biggest tool for me as an artist is color; that is how I communicate. The drawing and doodling is cool, but it’s the color that is really important to me. When I actually have time to sit down and pick something, it’s just whatever comes naturally in that moment. I’m always a little doubtful of my creativity and a little bit unsure of what to create when I sit down at the table and actually want to get started. But then when I’m walking to class and have no means to create something, that’s when the inspiration strikes. Most of the time, it’s coming from music because I’m obsessed with music. I listen to at least five hours of music a day.
What kind of music are you most influenced by?
Ari: My music taste is very hard to explain because I listen to a lot of different things. I do this thing where I make a playlist every day and put all the songs I listen to that day on it. I try to listen to something new every day and record it through that.
The vibes are so important to me. That’s another thing that gets into my art. We spend so much of our lives worrying about the atmosphere of our environment. What happens in the world affects us really personally, but there are good vibes and good energy all around us. Whenever I feel helpless or I’m having anxiety, I just realize there are good pockets of energy and it’s like, “how can I translate these pockets of good vibes into art?”
What motivated you to start an Instagram dedicated to your art?
Ari: I saw myself continuing to do visual art, so I knew I would start an account eventually—and if I do it now, then I will build up a following for later. I do like my art, and I like sharing it; it’s just nice to be able to share with others, and it helps with me getting commissions.
How has the pandemic and everything going on in the world influenced you and your art?
Ari: I’m always changing. Covid has caused me to be more introspective about my identity and how I present myself to the world. I think that comes across in my art because I’m more brave now with how I’m expressing myself. I’m creating artwork that doesn’t always make sense to others, but it makes sense to me. As long as it reaches one person and they come away with it being like, “wow, that was a cool thing I looked at,” that’s what matters to me.
I’ve definitely had to use art as a coping mechanism with everything going in. The world sucks, and I don’t want to sugar coat that. I have used my art as a way to embed a lot of color and happiness and good vibes, and maybe that’s because I want to distract people—and myself— from the dullness of life in a pandemic. It’s such an overwhelming presence in everyone’s life, so I think about how I can create something that is the complete opposite of that and give people a moment of happiness.
A lot of your pieces focus on women and showcasing a range of body types and sexualities. Why is that important to you?
Ari: That’s super important to me. Being nonbinary, there’s this stigma that people who are gender-nonconforming can’t love or apprecite their bodies in the same way that cis people can. And there’s this belief that when nobinary people do appreciate their bodies, there’s still this element of gender dysphoria to it. I just think that most of the art in the history of art has been so focused on cis people. Most nude portraits of women were created by straight men, and these are still beautiful pieces of art, but it’s like: how can we take the male gaze out of it?
I just want to create art that celebrates the female figure and nonbinary figures without that sort of pressure that comes from how the patriarchy and history tells us to. I paint these figures as a means to celebrate gender and our bodies and all the awesome things our bodies do, without the stigma around it.