TBT: Kelly Herring Explores The Strength In Vulnerability With Intimate Portraits

by Shannon Jay, originally for Veer

Three years ago, I found a friend in longtime acquaintance Kelly Herring for my first published piece outside of my college paper. Our interesting conversation over beers at Taphouse sparked my love of divulging creative's processes and exploring the work-art balance all artists struggle with.

She's got a cushy city job now as Norfolk redevelopment housing authority's graphic designer. "Got out of Whole Foods a year before Amazon took over and got rid of the artist job," she said, "so good timing on my part." Finding the balance is still hard, but she's been able to make some headway on pieces she foreshadows in our 2015 interview (see progress above).

Her style is developing and changing, with time on her side. Keep up with her upcoming works at her website, kherring.com


With a full-time job as a designer at Whole Foods, Kelly Herring’s art engulfs her free time, with intricate drawings taking anywhere from a few weeks up to a month. Colorful paintings take a whopping three to six months to complete, each session lasting about six hours.

“If I wasn’t working 40 hours a week and trying to have a social life and relationship,” she said, large-scale oils would probably be her sole medium. Alas, bills must be paid, so Herring’s currently focused on drawings and watercolors to get her ideas out swiftly.

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Herring’s new works also incorporates old family snapshots, exploring the idea of family, and learning to love kin purely.

“A lot of it is about… the need to be able to love and accept yourself but also figuring out your own identity,” she said, “and the need for other people to love and accept you for who you are.”

For Herring, this collection has a paternal focus. “A lot of the issues I have with [my dad] are a lot of the same issues I have inside of myself, and I know are the same issues he had with his dad, and probably his dad had with his dad, and so on and so forth.” Her new mixed media work hopes to explore a “generational cycle that makes us who we are,” underlying recurring issues in each upbringing.

Themes in newer work change the context of what she’s explored in past oil paintings, which take a close look at what she calls “pure and utter love” that’s “beautiful and wonderful.” Her nude subjects and empowering symbols highlight an oxymoronic strength in vulnerability, lifting daily veils for an intimate look at relationships.

One symbol she uses often is a cigarette to signify power and addictiveness. “When you’re in the early stages of love,” she said, “it’s this addictive rush.” Others include geometric symbols and icons of evolution, such as the Metatron’s Cube and magnolias, that convey a collective connectivity. “Everything [in nature] evolved to work together,” she said, “and I like to think that all of us on some level are connected that way.”

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Each painting starts with a half-baked plan and Herring hitting up her dearest friends to model for a photoshoot. To be a subject, they must have “something they can share and bring to the table…something I’m trying to say and explore inside of myself as well,” she said. However, shoots always change Herring’s original vision when the model brings their personality to the table.

Plans deviate even further with each layer of oil, figuring itself out along the way. “Things build, relationships you didn’t see at first start becoming apparent the more paint you add,” says Herring, “every time you look at [a portrait], you see things in a new way.”

A two-year gap between Herring’s current and past works was filled with empty inspiration, riddled with frustrations and no outlet. “I didn’t know entirely know what I wanted to say… which made struggling so much harder,” she said. This rut was void of exhibitions, which she hopes to get back into before the years is up.

To get back into her grid, Herring turns to music to get brushes moving. For intimate portraits, she throws on classic soul like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, or “anything really sexy like that.”

Herring likes Tune-Yards’ unadulterated messages, and, much like her subjects, she “has something to say, and I like when people keep it real like she does.” The biggest inspiration for her recent project came from the latest Thao and the Get Down Stay Down release, which chronicles the troubling relationship between frontwoman Thao Nguyen and her father, who abandoned her at a young age.

Despite it’s personal subject matter, Herring wants people to relate. She paints her subjects as honestly as possible, and desires viewers to let themselves feel and experience the paintings instead of scanning the didactic panel for meaning. “What people take away from it is entirely up to them, and not up to me at all,” Herring said, her biggest hope being her blend of colors and images can make viewers look at the world a different way, if only for a moment.