The musician Townes Van Zandt sang, “Shake the dust off of your wings and the tears out of your eyes” in his song “To Live is to Fly.” Designer and painter Kristen Ramsey uses this line in one of her pieces, but she lives by these words as well. The artist is inspired by her own life experiences and her struggles to stay afloat. “My heart is a work in progress, and I need someone to proclaim messages of hope and courage to me,” she says. “That is what I try to do with the pieces that I create. My art is my best therapy.” It helps her survive and stay grateful and hopeful, she says. Her desire is that it will do the same for those who see her work.
Raised by a family of creators, Kristen has always been around art but never thought she’d be an artist herself. While employed as a social worker, she found herself having to create materials for speeches and educational purposes. That’s where she discovered she had a love for design and opened her business, Sign Me Up Signs.
CommonCreativ chatted with Kristen about her journey as a self-taught artist and her big goal for 2017.
CommonCreativ: You have a background in social work. How did you first get into design?
Kristen Ramsey: I studied Psychology at Berry College and worked in the victim services field for about six years. Honestly, when you work in the nonprofit world, you don’t have money to pay someone to design things for you. In the beginning of my career, I was doing a lot of outreach and public speaking, and I needed materials to give to people to help educate them, so I started creating them myself. Doing that made me realize how much I enjoyed creating things digitally.
That led me to take graphic design classes online to hone my skills. In the middle of that process, my first daughter was born and I left my victim services job to be with her. I continued to study graphic design and started doing that freelance for a few years. Our family moved several times, living in South Carolina, Texas, and Michigan. When we came back to Atlanta my husband was pursuing a different career, so he went back to graduate school and I ended up working as a graphic designer at a healthcare publishing company here in Atlanta. The corporate world was such a huge culture shock for me, and it was pretty brutal to my spirit. That was part of what led me into painting — I needed an outlet from my work life.
KR: I definitely think so. One thing I did in my work was help crime victims process what had happened to them by writing impact statements to tell their perpetrators how they had been hurt by the crimes committed. It’s a painful process to show up to your feelings and express them, but it is so important and can be a huge source of healing.
I’ve found that to be true for me as well. I have been through some personal trauma in the past several years and my art is helping me heal from that. In the pieces that I create, I try to communicate messages of hope and healing and worth. Honestly, the pieces are first and foremost a healing process for me. It’s been amazing to see how my work speaks to others and realizing that there’s a universality to it, that everyone has pain and hardship in some way and we are all on the path together and need hope and encouragement to keep going.
CC: Being a self-taught artist, what made you decide to not pursue a formal education in design?
KR: Honestly, life circumstance. I did take the graphic design classes online through a program called Sessions.edu about 10 years ago. Since then, we’ve moved a few times and gone through huge life changes related to my husband’s career. I never set out to be an artist. I picked up a paintbrush on a whim in 2011 because I wanted to create a piece for my home that would speak a message of love to my daughters and I couldn’t find what I was looking for, so I made it. I loved that process and how the piece came out, and I started making a few for friends and family. Shortly after that, I approached a local store and they started selling a few of my pieces. Then I met Shannon from the Indie Craft Experience at Rev Fest when I had a few very beginning pieces. She was so kind and complimented my work and encouraged me to apply for one of the ICE shows. I started selling more and doing shows and it has just grown from there. I loved making art so I just kept doing it.
CC: How has your design style developed since you began?
KR: When I first started I was primarily influenced by traditional sign painting. I had stumbled upon it and seen some videos and was just enamored by the art of it. I wanted to create signs that were handpainted but that were more than just an advertisement or a decoration, but that carried a deeper message, so I was painting words on a simple background and that was the extent of it.
Initially, my style was pretty simple and leaned more toward a rustic feel, but as I’ve grown and developed I have moved towards using more bright colors and making things with more of a Pop Art feel.
A few months ago I learned how to use a jigsaw, and I feel like that has allowed me to really turn a corner in my work. I’ve moved from primarily having squares and rectangles of wood that I painted on to cutting a lot of different shapes. I absolutely love that part of the process. It’s so empowering to start with a piece of wood, cut it into a shape, and create a piece of art from it. I love seeing the process through from start to finish.
CC: What’s your motivation behind choosing to not use stencils?
KR: I taught myself how to paint lettering by hand and I also attended a sign-painting class in San Francisco at New Bohemia Signs in 2013. I was just in love with the process of painting letters by hand and admired the work of traditional sign painters so much. I never really imagined using stencils. I learned how to create a pattern and transfer the pattern to the sign so that I could paint it by hand. It feels authentic to me. Everyone has their own process and there’s a pretty big market right now for wood signs that are made using vinyl stencils, but I just love the process of painting the pieces by hand. I don’t want to make pieces that look just like what everyone else is doing. I’m developing my own style and using stencils doesn’t really fit with that for me.
CC: What’s up next for you?
KR: I’m currently the featured artist for the month of February at Rev Coffee in Smyrna. I pushed myself to make some different things and trying to express some of the emotions I’ve been processing personally the past few months in these new pieces. I’m also excited to be partnering with Crafted Westside and Sis & Moons to sell my work, and I’ll start prepping for spring shows soon.
One of my goals for 2017 is to paint a mural, so I’m in the beginning phases of that right now, exploring ideas and talking to local businesses about the possibility.
KR: I love it! I love that Atlanta is a city that is full of so much great street art and public art. For me, there’s still so much to discover and it’s fantastic that the Art on the Beltline is always changing and there is something new to see.
Atlantans have a huge appreciation for art and handmade goods, and this city is rich in so many great opportunities for artists and makers, like the Indie Craft Experience. Participating in their shows has been a huge boost for me and has helped me grow immensely as an artist.
I live in Smyrna so I’m a little bit outside the perimeter. I’m working with a few others that live near me to grow the arts community here as well. We’re working on starting a Free Arts Smyrna movement and an Artist’s Showcase at the Old Smyrna Firehouse on April 8th.