An Interview with Kelsey Wickwire

Kelsey Wickwire is a freelance-freehand graphic designer currently based in Olympia, Washington. When she's not out exploring nature, she spends her free time creating one-of-a-kind art. Check out our conversation with Kelsey about her creative process, nautical inspiration, and what's next for this caffeine fiend Pisces.


Dust Empires: Hi Kelsey! Tell us about yourself.

Kelsey Wickwire: Oh gosh… I’m a 24 year old caffeine addict currently living in Olympia, WA with my wonderful partner and the cutest little dog that ever existed. I’m a freelance-freehand-graphic designer. I am becoming obsessed with my cactus and succulent garden, and I’m an avid home baker. Oh, and I’m a Pisces.

DE: Where did you learn to draw? Have you taken many classes?

KW: My mother was always painting or redecorating or making something while I was growing up, so I was always around creativity. I took classes in high school and a class for like a week in my brief time in college, but I knew that it was never something that I wanted to study.

Really I learned to draw from observation and experimentation. I love science, especially ecology, and learn a lot about how to identify species by drawing them over and over. And you learn a lot about how to use a medium by just messing around, and probably fucking up a few times.

DE: Who are your favorite artists? How do they inspire you / your work?

KW: Oh I don’t know… There are so many painters and illustrators that I appreciate the work they do. I also love bold photography with lots of color, and fashion, especially vintage. I love seeing what people I know are making. I think people simply putting work out there inspires me. I’m inspired a lot by music even though I can’t make it. I listen to a lot of Bob Dylan (which I leave sitting on the record player all the time), Animal Collective, and I love almost anything bluesy. My boyfriend has got me back on listening to a lot of Modest Mouse, which was showing up a lot in my work for a while. Art of all these social movements is really inspiring and I think it’s an exciting and important time to make art, no matter what it is.

DE: You had your first art show at 18. What do you remember about it? How did it come about?

I was hanging out at Golden State Goods a lot and one of the guys that worked there found out that I made art and talked to Amy about it and somehow she decided it was a good idea to let a teenager have an art show at the shop, which worked out pretty well for me (She also ended up hiring me later on). I was using mostly pen and ink with watercolor at the time. A lot of people liked my surf-centric stuff and ocean scenes so I had a lot of that. Then I had a wall of my grittier angsty stuff. The surf spot paintings sold really well. The social commentary… not so much.


DE: What are some major themes in your work?

KW: Water. Even in my desert scenes there’s a lot of fluid imagery or patterns. I’m super obsessed with fish. Nature in general could be a bit of a theme. There aren’t a lot of people. If there are it’s usually just bones, but I guess I’m phasing that out too.

DE: How has your art evolved since moving to the Pacific Northwest?

Really it’s mostly the fact that I’m making art again. I didn’t for a long time (it was a pretty dark time in my life). I started drawing again right before I moved here but it felt more exhausting. I kept trying to do what I had done before and kept saying to myself, “This is just frustrating… I used to be good at this.”

I think I’ve finally gotten to the point where I’ve started allowing myself to just do what I want and stop worrying about who it’s going to appeal to and how is it going to look on a t-shirt. Of course, I still have to do that sometimes because that helps pay bills, but it’s not a personal focus of mine anymore. I’ve also started experimenting with lots of different mediums and learning what I like and don’t like. And I’m just an overall happier, healthier person now and I think that shows in my work.

DE: How have you managed to combine your Southern California surfer and PNW explorer identities in your work? Do you feel like you have?

KW: I don’t know that I really feel like either of those things are my identity. I’ve been in a bit of an anti-identity crisis. I do know both of these places have influenced me a lot and they are both definitely present in my work in a lot of ways.

DE: What’s your main medium?

KW: I feel like I still think of myself as a pen and ink illustrator. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what I do the most or all the time. I go through a lot of phases. I was painting nonstop for a few months. I just started relief printing on fabric, so I’ve picked up sewing and that’s been my obsession for the past couple weeks. I haven’t really been drawing much at all. I have two different blocks I’m carving, I’m always taking photos, and I might spend twelve hours embroidering one day… So really I’m all over the place.

DE: When did you start relief printing?

KW: I guess about a year ago now. I was really interested in ways to print my own designs. I thought printing would lend well to my drawing style, and I like using tools so I started working with linocuts and got pretty hooked.

DE: What are the biggest challenges that you face in your work?

KW: It has been a challenge feeling like my work is cohesive across different mediums. Or I get so wrapped up in a theme or subject matter it feels weird to do something else. I guess my biggest challenge is just giving myself time to make things that are just for me and not being hyper critical.

DE: Ideally, where would you like to see your work go? Is there anything new you’d like to try?

KW: I’d like to try screen printing. I’d really like to be able to design and produce my own apparel and home décor. Coyote West is a concept that has been under constant evolution in my head for a long time now as a kind of “Hey, I’m a graphic designer, but I do a lot of other stuff too!” Overall I feel like I’m pulling from a lot of different directions and hoping that when it comes together it will all make sense.

DE: What’s the last book you read?

KW: The last book I finished is The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang, which I recommend fully because it’s adorable and made me cry, but that may partially be because I had just lost my favorite little rebel hen (RIP).

DE: What’s your favorite animal?

KW: THERE’S TOO MANY. Some sort of marine life, but it depends on the day…

DE: Finally, what’s your favorite art you’ve done? Why?

KW: Like my favorite piece? This is also something that changes all the time. Right now I think this watercolor of a weird kind of x-ray of a sperm whale that says “I was dreaming I was drowning, so I learned to swim.” It’s odd and kind of clunky, but I like it as homage to moving forward and staying hopeful even in dark times.

Kelsey Wickwire is a self-taught artist and graphic designer. She was born and raised in Seal Beach, CA where her art career began to blossom. She has since moved to Olympia, Washington where she continues to grow, change, and constantly experiment with her technique. Her PNW life and adventures can be found here, on her personal instagram. To buy her unique art and homewares from her Coyote West shop click here. To see what Kelsey is currently working on and items that will soon be available in her shop, click here.