Kellie Talbot is an oil painter whose photo-realistic style depicts vintage signage, typography, and other symbols of human craftsmanship, perseverance, and unexpected beauty. She splits her time between the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle and New Orleans. She shares her studio space in both cities with a cat and a duck. Currently, she is represented by Patricia Rovzar Gallery in Seattle and Cole Pratt Gallery in New Orleans. In our interview, we discuss road-tripping, typography, and the thrill of the hunt.
I love typography and vintage neon so I had an immediate and very strong attraction to your work. Can you tell me how you came to focus on painting such a niche subject?
There really was an actual moment. I’d already been painting old rusty things and architecture when I learned about the Neon Museum in Las Vegas. So on my next work trip there I hopped in a cab and went to see. Back then it was three acres of signs enclosed in a chain link fence, but I was hooked. I, too, love typography—and studied it at Seattle Central Community College—so when I saw the architecture of the signs, the rusty bits, and the typography—well, that was my trifecta! That was the moment.
So cool. I read that you split your time between Seattle and New Orleans, and drive back and forth to find (and photograph) neon inspiration. Can you describe your process for searching and documenting?
I keep a journal as well as a master Google map with pinned locations of signs I find either online or in person, and when it’s time to hit the road, we reference the map of pins to the drive. Our routes vary depending on the time of year, so it’s good to have options. We have a truck that tows a camping trailer, so during the day, it’s me, my husband, our cat, and our duck in the cab. We pull over for signs and I jump out and take pictures. Usually, we’re only in one place for a night, but sometimes we stay a couple in the hopes of getting to see a sign in a different light. In the morning, we pack up and hit the road again. We take less busy highways when possible, and often stumble onto new signs. That’s always an exciting discovery.
Your work is a really wonderful celebration and documentation of things humans make. In a sense, your craft is to accurately render another person’s craft. Does that feel like a great responsibility?
I suppose you could look like it that way. I’m not a neon sign bender, nor a welder, so it is important that I learn and study the construction for my rendering. It’s been like my own apprenticeship, but with paint.
I grew up in Mesa, AZ, and lived a few miles from the Starlite Motel, so you can imagine my surprise when your painting of the diving lady showed up on my screen! It feels like you're shining a light on a personal childhood memory. Have other people’s associations or attachments to one of your paintings ever surprised you?
Yes, I love it when that happens! It’s great to hear people’s personal connection stories. These signs are part of our landscape, so they have an effect on us, even if it’s subconscious. Maybe that gets remembered when a sign is plucked from its habitat and put onto a canvas.
It’s really wonderful that you're immortalizing and documenting this massive body of American craftsmanship, and I know you strive for absolute accuracy, but what liberties do you take, if any, when it comes to putting the oil on the canvas?
Oh, I take plenty! Yes, I want there to be accuracy to the original craftsmanship of the sign, but I make quite a lot of changes. I might remove wires, change backgrounds, sometimes even the shape of a sign—things I need to do for the composition of the painting. I like to zoom in on an aspect of a sign I like or paint from an angle you might not see if you were just driving by. I definitely want to maintain the integrity of the sign, but I also want to show you something specific.
Congratulations on your current Seattle show at Patricia Rovzar Gallery. Beyond that achievement, what’s on the horizon?
Thank you! I’m hoping to get up into New England by summer. We haven’t been to that corner of the country yet, and I am sure there’s some gems waiting there...