Artist Intervew: Kelly Ording



This week we sat down with Kelly Ording, the Oakland-based  painter who’s work we collaborated with to create the 2015 launch collection.  I had been wanting to ask her some things since I spent so much time looking at her art during the apparel design process. I knew that I was drawn to it in a visceral way, but as always, speaking with the artist reveals many more layers...

Photo of Kelly Ording by Dylan Maddux @d_maddux

Photo of Kelly Ording by Dylan Maddux @d_maddux

Kelly’s work is currently on display at Luna Rienne Gallery in San Francisco through Sept 7th.

Evolution of Style

Rel: A lot of your earlier work that I was drawn to for the Silver Lining collection felt very illustrative, as though you could almost tell a story from the paintings; but now your work is more “abstract”, linear and geometric. So I’m interested to know if there was something influencing you then that made the work different from what it is now, and how that process changed for you to arrive at your current style?


I think that my work changed a lot after having my son (seven years ago). Before he was born, I was using painting as a way to retell a story or remember travel experiences, things I’d seen, natural phenomenon etc.  I wasn’t concerned about exactly re-creating the image, but more the impression of how I was feeling.

One painting that comes to mind is White Drop: it recalls a time when I was sitting in a Japanese Onsen spa;  there was a huge window and I could see that it was snowing outside.  I could only see the shapes of the other women through the steam and beyond them, the snow falling outside.  That experience led to a painting containing a lot of white, blurry shapes with watery line-work.  I was never interested in capturing that specific moment, rather it was about a dream-like impression of my experience.

The goal is to give the viewer an experience of a dialogue with the painting, so that there is a little hint of an idea of what it could be without being literal.

White Drop

White Drop

8-9 years ago, my paintings were much 'looser', with lots of layers. I had more time to experiment, let ideas fail, or be able to start over and re-work a piece. I felt like I was making more decisions within each painting, in the sense that you do one thing and that determines the next thing and that determines the next and so on… so it takes all of those layers of decisions to get to the final piece.

Once you have kids though, every minute really counts; I had much less time to consciously make decisions and build ideas within the paining- to take time to see it evolve. Instead the idea was to have some general concept of the work and then I would go in and work at it in a methodical, meditational way.  It felt more mathematical, as though I was figuring things out within certain parameters. Painting became more of a way to calm my mind down when there was so much going on in my life, rather than amping it up as had been the case before when I was in the studio.

Rel:  It’s interesting that you consider your earlier work to be “looser’ because when I look at it, it seems to actually have more structure and narrative… a boat on the water and house on a wave for example, and that seems like it would be a lot more planned than your later work.

Kelly: No, I never necessarily tried to plan a “story.” Some paintings would have the concept of an experience at their genesis, but essentially I was trying to be more free and make the decisions as I went.  I would paint something and decide that it looked like water, so I would put a boat in it and so on, building to the final image. I would say a majority of the time I didn’t known how those paintings were going to turn out.  

Early Influences on style

Rel:  What about the Asian influence that seems to crop up particularly in your earlier work?

KO:  Well, growing up, we were a very athletic, sporty family, and the first time I went to a museum was when I was 18… so early on the only art that I was really exposed to was the art that was in my grandmother’s house, and that happened to be Asian art. She had lots of Japanese and Chinese prints. So my first and only reference point at that time was Asian art, and I assumed that was what “art” was, and I kind of started to copy it because I loved it.

Beginning the dialogue with paper and paint

I still do a lot of paper dying in almost all of my work, which kind of gives the impression of an older piece of paper, or of an ancient scroll. I’ve tried to paint on white and I just don’t like it. So much of painting now is  about the conversation that I’m having with the paint.

I’m questioning how much control I actually have over the work, in the sense that I feel as though there are varying degrees to which I am making the works and the work is really making itself. Sometimes it is 50/50 or 25/75, but it’s always a dialogue with the work to see how it evolves. Dying the paper is the first step of me giving control over to the painting, it’s a natural process that becomes the start of the work and I’m curious to see what will happen.  Very often the way that the paper being dyed turns out to influence the composition, through the colors. So once that first step is done, it’s like ‘okay now we can begin the conversation’.

Rel: In some ways you are trying to be a conduit for the work to come out. So how often does it feel like it just flows through you and how often does it feel like “work”?

Kelly: It always feel like work, there are times when I do feel like I have an idea of what I’m going to do and so you can just go into the studio and put in the hours and it will turn out as expected. It's comforting when that happens and your problem is solved for you, but it is only some of the time. (Examples of paintings from the current show that were  created this way are below)

But a lot of the work which I find the most challenging, but also the most exciting, is when there are elements of surprise and unpredictability with the materials AND my hand is visible.  There are always five paintings going on at a time because I’ll get to a point where I’m not sure where the painting is going, so I put it away and move on.  Sometimes I’ll pull out one of those pieces later on, and I’ll realize it’s actually finished even though I may not have thought so earlier.

Current Show: the Line Up

Kelly: Gallery shows alway start with some sort of idea of what I’ve previously been working on, whether its geometric or line work.  But I definitely think this last show was very minimal and my hand was less visible.

Rel: To me your last show was an interesting balance between your early, what I would call more narrative style and your later more geometric, line work style. 

Kelly: I tend to group paintings into themes, but often that emerges unexpectedly. For example this last show definitely has some elements of landscape and southwestern imagery, but it came out because I was working on a lot of cutout shapes as part of a print-making residency. In layering those shapes a landscape emerged and then the color of the ink kind of gave it a southwestern impression, but I definitely did not go into it thinking ‘ok I’m going to do a series that evokes Arizona.’ (Images below from The Line Up show)

I do feel now that I am making art full time, that I have a lot more time and freedom to make mistakes and experiment.  So I have actually been trying to move back into that ‘loose’ style process from 8-10 years ago and to incorporate it into my current ‘tighter’ or meditative style that has been the way I’ve painted for the past 5-6 years.

Rel: So you’re consciously trying to bring back the process that was more iterative, and elements built on each other; and as a result we are seeing a bit of a return to these pieces where the viewer can perhaps draw out more of a storyline or literal image impression.

Kelly: Yes, now everything has become so geometric that its like I’m trying to just allow myself the freedom to try to say create a ‘not so perfect leaf’ and just see how I feel about that.

Rel:  Right; so  the sunset image (California by Day) is interesting because its something where you can’t really paint an exact representation of the sunset- because it’s just too natural, and ephemeral, it’s like ‘why bother’- but if you deconstruct it in an interesting way it can become this icon that represents something to almost everyone. That everyone has a memory around and can relate to. But its in your style now of this geometric lexicon. So it still gets you to that place.

Kelly:  Yeah it’s so interesting to me that that piece became really popular because I almost pulled it from the show. I felt like it was just too bright, too many colors.

Rel: What are your favorites?

Kelly:   “The Sun Also Rises (Madrid)”.  I love that one.  The line work is so intricate and tight, yet, the yellow circular shape is so natural and imperfect.  I love those two together.

The Sun Also Rises (Madrid) 2015

The Sun Also Rises (Madrid) 2015



Tools of the Trade

Kelly: The fan shape that always reappears in my work is something I found very early on. There are so many variations that you can do with that shape, and I love it because it is really made up of all straight lines but it becomes something circular, so it’s that mix of super-straight and also not.

Rel: So it’s like this little friend that you found early on… does one of them appear and then you decide to put more in?

Kelly. I think sometimes I’m just like “oh yeah’ I gotta get that guy in there.

Rel:  Does it have a name… like a pet-name?

Kelly. I don’t think so… I’d have to make one up.

Rel:  You don’t have to tell me…

Kelly. Maybe the ‘coochie-coo’.  Like ‘I’ll just stick some coochie-coos in there and we’re done!’

Painting Titles

Rel:  Are there any names of your paintings that have a significant meaning ? The reason I ask is because when I looked up the name ‘Vera Rubin’, which was a painting that we used for Silver Lining, I learned that ‘Vera Rubin’ was one of the first female astronomers… and I was wondering what that had to do with a boat on the water, but at the same time I was happy to have been able to learn about something or someone new through your choice of title..

Vera Rubin

Vera Rubin

Kelly: I think Vera Rubin got its name because when I was done with it, I though oh, that’s just a little boat out there on the ocean... it must be so lonely in the dark by itself, that’s so scary.  I think Vera Rubin was one of the first female astronomers, so, I thought being in a field dominated by men must be difficult and lonely, so, it resonated with this piece.

It’s important to me to have titles because the paintings are like little ‘beings,’ so to send them out into the world without a name is kind of sad. And they take me so long, that I want to give them a title.  Lately the titles have been based on books that I’ve been listening to or reading while I was making them. For example there is one in the current show (pictured above) was called Marco Polo, since I was reading a biography of him. There's also one called Pilar because that was Hemingway’s boat and I was reading one of his books at the time.

If I remember right, Kusama was one of the first inventors of fireworks.  Those circles in the sky represent fireworks to me, so, I named that piece after him.



Mural work

Rel:  You seem to be doing more and more large format murals these days.

KO: I have been getting a lot of mural commissions lately. Mural work is very different because I can’t do them the same way I do paintings… there’s a feeling that if they are going to be on the street, they need to be bold and bright.   But as I continue to create more murals, the more I feel like it’s okay for them to be minimal or moody.


It’s interesting because you are out in front of everybody and everyone has opinion that they freely share with you throughout the day.  Sometimes I’ll do murals in people’s work or office space, so that’s interesting because it opens up a conversation with someone who may not have a lot of exposure to art. That really is the purpose of murals: to bring art out of the gallery so that everybody can interact with it, and get more comfortable with art.

Rel: You recently did a commission inside the new facebook campus building designed by Frank Gehry, how did that turn out with so many different styles and artists working on large format murals in such close space?

Kelly: the idea behind the curation at facebook was “systems” so they really wanted artists who work with systems and who’s work reflects that. Mine was in an area where the engineers sit, so it totally makes sense to have these shapes made from lines that are laid down in such a systematic way. It’s really cool to have all these different styles together because it just breeds conversation about which ones people like and why, so that’s really great.  There was a cool super psychedelic drippy rainbow by Jen Stark and Rachel Kaye painted a beautiful wall of flowers.

Coming up

Kelly: Lots on the horizon: I am working on a proposal for a mural on Telegraph Avenue that references a historical significance to the neighborhood. My husband (Jet Martinez ) and I also have some mural-sized canvases at the Kaaboo Festival in Del Mar September 18-20 which is going to be fun, in the company of so many other cool artists.

I'm in a group show at FFDG  Gallery in Sand Francisco, the opening is on Sept. 25th.

I’m also working on a commission that is 30 paintings in 30 days, which is actually great timing because I’ve been wanting to do that just to get better at moving faster and not being so precious about every little line.  That project should be interesting because I feel like now I have built up a little dictionary of elements that define my style, like the fan element and lines and others; so it will basically be like pulling everybody out from the stables and just letting them get together and party.


Kelly Ording’s work can be found online at

Follow on Instagram @okellyording