Last year, UNC alumna Jessica Szymczak (’20) came to Arts Everywhere with the idea of creating a mural in a stairwell of Fetzer Hall as a way to encourage people to be more active. Working together with the College of Arts & Sciences’ exercise and sport science department we sent out a call for design proposals. After a review, the committee was pleased to select artist Livian Kennedy, a UNC graduate with degrees in studio art and dramatic art. Livian completed the larger-than-life mural just before the start of the Fall 2020 school year.
Arts Everywhere recently spoke to Livian to learn more about her artistic journey, inspirations, and dreams and her experience and takeaways from creating the mural in Fetzer!
Thanks again to Livian for speaking with us and especially for sharing your amazing art with the UNC community!
On the artist
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your artistic journey.
First and foremost – thank you for giving me this platform! This project has been an absolute joy to take part in, and I appreciate being able to contribute a small amount of my art to the place that fostered, honed, and trained me in this craft. I’ve loved painting for as long as I can remember, not only its visual aspects but the feeling of freedom to create it can provide for absolutely anyone. That unconditional freedom to capture thoughts, emotions, themes of eternity or topics of the moment- that has appealed to me always, and I’m still fascinated- and sometimes stumped- by the vast amount of artistic possibility. I come from a family where art is an everyday part of life, seen as a virtue in and of itself, and I will be forever grateful for the support I got from my parents when I decided to pursue a BFA in college. After graduating, I ventured on a search of art as applicable to life – those years produced the first paintings I ever sold, my first mural jobs, my first full-time career as a working artist. I’m still in the early stages of this journey, and I’m incredibly excited for what’s to come!
Who or what are your inspirations?
More than from people, my inspiration tends to come from the everyday world that we’re surrounded by. I enjoy painting after visiting plays and musicals, listening to a new album, or simply being in nature. I believe there’s an enormous amount of themes and ponderings that can be expressed through art that may not necessarily originate in art. When it comes to people, my first inspiration would be my mother – as cliche as this may sound, she was the original artist in my life who found beauty in common places, and encouraged me to do the same. My very first paintings were murals in my bedroom – and she was the one who gave me the freedom and the tools to begin creating art. I also have to mention Michael Brown, my mentor and guide in entering the world of muralism. He has had a great impact on my artistic practice and remains a supporter and a friend. Then there are my teachers and mentors throughout my college journey- Lien Truong, Mark Soderstrom, Hong-an Truong, Joy Cox, Jim Hirschfield, Mario Marzan, Roxana Perez-Mendez, Guesche Wurfel. When it comes to painting and design- Banksy, Lisa Yuskavage, and Hung Liu are three of my favorite artists working today.
Any advice for aspiring artists?
Any advice I give would be subjective, and based on my personal experience – that’s important to start with. Art has been a fluctuating part of my life, with inspiration often coming and going at the most random of times. I find it therapeutic, but also recognize that there’s a time to put the brush down and step away from the canvas. As with other crafts in life, art is a muscle, and the more you do it, the more natural it will begin to feel- not “better”, mind you, just “more natural”. An important piece of advice would be to never think with words like “ideal” or “perfect” in your vocabulary- just “more authentic”, “closer to what I imagined”, “stronger”. Trying new genres can also be an incredible source of inspiration and experience- as scary as it may be to pick up a spray can or make a series of pottery designs if you’ve only ever painted on canvas – the new arenas will open up your technique to new possibilities, and your creative mind to new ways of expressing a thought. After that, trying for the opposite- finding your niche can be helpful. This is something I’ve struggled with a lot because I have a wide variety of artistic styles and themes I like to explore simultaneously. However, it helps to have a corner of the art universe that feels like it’s your own- doesn’t need to be something that’s never existed, just something you create in your own way, with your own signature and taste.
And finally- and this is, for better or for worse, a crucial, practical part of being a working artist- start learning the business side of your craft. Social media can be useful, but equally important are the connections you can make by attending events at local galleries and art fairs, or even signing up for your local “artists wanted” listings on Facebook and Craisglist and monitoring creative jobs. It will give you an idea of what people are looking for, which can help to inform the development of your portfolio. And finally, reach out to your mentors! Lots of professors, working artists, and gallery managers are happy to share their advice or meet for a chat, as long as the invitation is extended with respect.
Tell us about a favorite project of yours.
While this naturally changes with time, a few of my absolute favorite projects have been the ones I’m doing now. For the past year, I’ve been getting commissions by city municipalities, universities, and local businesses for murals, brand designs, and art pieces for their spaces. I absolutely love the process of collaboration with a client, allowing their vision to come into reality, even if that vision isn’t fully formed when we first meet. I’ve also been doing quite a few book illustrations and digital designs for independent authors, musicians, and other creatives, and it can be a tremendously rewarding process to provide visuals that support and compliment another art form. Finally, I’ve recently begun to design my own line of smaller, custom paintings- “Moments”, depicting people’s memories of the past or dreams for the future. This started as a passion project, and grew from there- an artistic depiction of a memory can be beautifully emotive, and is always unique to every client, providing both a challenge and an opportunity to me as an artist.
How has the current global pandemic impacted your art-making?
The pandemic has dealt a huge blow to the artistic community, not only through the more quantifiable things like the amount of freelance jobs and gallery showcasings, but also emotionally. Because of the uniquely solo nature of this form of art, interaction with fellow creators can feel like a vital part of an artist’s process, and to be cut off from that opportunity can be debilitating. I’ve been working on finding silver linings, such as taking the time to strengthen my digital presence (re-working my website, establishing a more consistent social media presence), as well as finding jobs that combine my creative interests with consistent income opportunities- for example, I’m currently helping with artistic design and execution at a local family business that produces custom, high-quality and hand sewn, soft pet accessories. I realize this can be a discouraging and lonely time for the art community both in NC and globally- my email is provided below, and I’m always happy to talk to a fellow aspiring artist struggling through these hard times.
What’s your dream project?
One of the most important qualities of art to me is accessibility. Ideally, I’d like it to be available to all those interested, regardless of their income level or my financial dependence on art sales and commissions. It is for this reason that creating large, central pieces for local businesses and cities truly appeals to me- the idea of the art being present and available freely to people who may not otherwise get an opportunity/desire to attend a gallery or buy a painting, feels like a wonderful thing to be a small part of. I’ve also been enjoying the artistic tutoring I’ve been fortunate enough to provide- be it one-on-one sessions, kids’ classes, or even starting painting nights at a local corporate office that provide employees with an opportunity to unwind and socialize during off-work hours (before the pandemic hit). Contributing to and encouraging other people’s journey in art is something I very much enjoy, and would like to continue.
On the mural
What’s your inspiration for the mural?
From personal experience, there are some Lifetimes Fitness classes which normally land students in Fetzer Gym or Woollen building, even if they don’t consider themselves athletes. Due to the number of students moving through the building and the speed of the elevators, the staircase which this mural was installed in is used often. Being a young adult surrounded by excellence and trying to set yourself up for lifelong success can make you feel like you’re in a pressure cooker. The white and Carolina blue walls of the university blur together, and you can go on auto-pilot taking your daily routes through campus. I wanted to create an immersive environment which surprises you with color and guides students out of the stressed and tired haze they can so easily fall into. Having something colorful, interesting, and perhaps a bit inspiring to walk by on the way to reaching your personal goals can be a real boost. This mural isn’t just about athleticism – it’s about the strength, audacity, and the perseverance to keep going, qualities which students have to exhibit everyday.
Do you have a favorite part/aspect of the mural?
I relate quite closely to the track runner, which was a surprise – I spent my childhood and teenage years swimming, so painting the diver felt like a small homecoming. However, I’m thrilled with the way the runner’s body matches ours as we climb up the stairs. It’s as if we have a moment of experiencing her explosive power as we pass by her, and it makes me want to join her in the sprint. But in a more general sense, the fact that I got to paint here, at the place where I made my second home and studied this craft, to now return and give a small amount of love, art, and time – the location might just be my favorite part of the project.
Creating a mural in a stairwell presents some difficulties logistically. Can you speak to how you adapted your art to the space and overcame any challenges?
That aspect of this commission was delightfully challenging! I appreciated being personally familiar with the surface and angles of the space I’d be working on, and designed all my drafts to flow with the natural bends, rails, and heights of this “canvas”. I enjoyed acknowledging and incorporating the viewer’s inevitable movement through the space into the energy of the mural, and used the narrowness of the stairwell to my advantage in creating an immersive environment. Logistically, the most challenging part was painting the parts of the wall highest from the floor- for that, I had to acquire some machinery, as well as hone the skill of painting with one hand while holding onto a ladder with the other. While physically demanding, the process was an invaluable lesson, and I’m grateful to have been able to complete it.
How do you think the mural will promote wellness and exercise on campus?
I believe one of the main keys to wellness – physical, mental, and emotional – is community. Sports, mindfulness, healthy diet, and a strong work/life balance can all be achieved more easily and made stronger by those around us sharing and supporting our goals. More than about perseverance and strength, my mural represents community- one that is diverse, inclusive, and supportive, as the Carolina community should always be. Regardless of one’s innate abilities, previous lifestyle, or any other barriers- I hope the diversity of this mural makes people feel that health and wellness are possible and beneficial to them. Finally, I hope for my color palette to make the students’ day a little brighter- with the monotony, stress, and home-sickness that students can experience, as the world can sometimes feel quite gray- perhaps the vibrant, saturated colors of this stairwell mural elevate their mood and bring some joy into their daily commute.
Final looks at the mural
The mural can be seen in the first Fetzer Hall stairwell on the left after the check-in desk