Interview: Kelly Vivanco

Kelly Vivanco is an artist whose paintings invite viewers into a fairy tale-like world of mystery, wonder, and whimsy. A native of southern California, Vivanco earned her BFA with honors in 1995 from the Laguna College of Art and Design in Laguna Beach and has exhibited her work in galleries across the U.S. Vivanco’s pieces have featured in art shows with themes ranging from old school video games to Alice Through the Looking Glass to ghosts of Halloween past. She has also illustrated editions of Hans Christian Andersen’s Thumbelina and the Grimms’ Snow-White and Rose-Red. The narratives and characters of her original paintings, meanwhile, are just as compelling as those of classic fairy tales. In Vivanco’s paintings, children with enigmatic expressions navigate wondrous, secret spaces and interact with animals depicted in ways both otherworldly and familiar. A crack in a tree provides the perfect place for hiding marbles, a wombat sips from a can of soda pop, a pair of candy-striped frogs study a map in a forest, a bee feeds off plants growing out of a boy’s hat, and another tree grows cushions on its limbs for the comfort of a daydreaming girl and cat. I interviewed Vivanco to find out about the world she creates in her work and her inspirations.

Let’s begin by talking about your influences and what kind of things inspire your art. How would you describe your paintings to someone who’s never seen them?

I would say figurative–but not photo realistic. Sort of story-book–but not specific stories. Whimsical at times. Colorful. Quietly fantastical. I never feel like I have the description just right!

Do you aim to tell a story with each of paintings? Do you have a specific narrative in mind as you start on a piece? How does a painting of yours typically develop?

I don’t aim to tell a specific story. Rather than a narrative I go for the character. I keep sketchbooks of rough ideas and use my sketches to prompt me forward on a blank panel. I don’t like to overdevelop an idea or details before I get started because then the piece would feel “spooled out” already, like it had already lost its energy. The painting develops on the panel first with a rough formation with vine charcoal (easy to wipe off with a rag), then a tighter graphite drawing and then washes of colors. I tend to outline with darker colors, but not always. Areas get filled with color then washed and textured with other colors, details are added and glazes are built up. I use acrylic colors and mediums, so I don’t have to wait too long to build up layers.

“Cushion Tree”

You’ve created paintings for recent editions of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Thumbelina” and the Grimms’ “Snow-White and Rose-Red.” What drew you to those stories? How different is it to create based on set narratives, like a classic fairy tale, versus making up your own narrative (if any) as you go? Do you feel you have to stick to any specific parameters or limitations when you paint “on commission” or according to a set narrative? Continue reading Interview: Kelly Vivanco

White As Snow

by Kathleen Sawyer

“White as Snow” is a piece of book art that navigates the difficult ideological transition towards adulthood. The period of child development known as ‘foreclosure’ describes the refusal to enter the experimental phase most often associated with adolescence, in which the child tries out different experiences — often rebellious — as a fundamental part of forming their personality. A child who forecloses this period of freedom is unwilling to step outside their knowledge of themselves; instead choosing to remain frozen in one incarnation.

This work implements the ‘classic’ version of the Snow White story as a metaphor for foreclosure, as well as hinting at the consequences involved in maintaining purity and goodness (as defined in the fairytale genre itself). In the narrative, the active and cunning Queen is seen as transgressive and is punished, while the passive and personality-deficient Snow White is lauded as the ‘good’ character; a model for children to emulate. To step outside the rigid and restricted definition of what amounts to a positive female role model is to be irrevocably tainted as ‘bad.’ Anne Sexton’s poem on the subject depicts Snow White as a fragile china doll rolling her eyes open and shut, ever virginal, ever trapped within the limits of her self-imposed and immmobilising purity. The drawings animate as the pages are flipped, revealing a young girl (the model used was twelve) trapped under ice which slowly thaws, allowing her to blink at the viewer much like in the poem. However, the ice never fully melts and eventually freezes over once more, trapping the girl in the limits of her internalised self-restraint. In this way the character is ‘good’ only due to the lack of what is ‘bad;’ defined more by absence than presence.


Kathleen Sawyer is an art student and draughtsperson at Rhodes University, South Africa. Her Masters work investigates the societal impact of fairytales, focusing on themes of sexuality, femininity and coming-of-age. Her art can be found at KatSaw.com.

“White As Snow” won third place in Tiny Donkey’s Once Upon a Cartographer Contest.