The Dream of Roots: a Conversation with Kelly Spencer

Lyttleton, New Zealand

On a sunny day in Lyttleton we met Kelly Spencer (making art using the name Kell Sunshine) in an empty lot next to where the historic Harbourlight Theatre stood before the 2010/2011 Earthquakes. Lyttleton, a town of under 3,000, is just a twenty-minute drive from Christschurch. Despite its small size, it packs in more local coffee spots and artistic spirit than cities far more populated.

We came to see the mural Kelly just finished the night before as part of the 2017 Street Prints festival. Across the street in the Lyttleton Coffee Company, we sat outside along the port to hear more about her piece, sense of place and roots, and the joy and vulnerability of painting walls.

Kelly

I had to paint on walls.

It's social. It's outdoors. It's moving—moving my body. It's talking to people and meeting new people. It's listening to music, loudly.


On Painting on Walls

I dabbled at first, but then I got the bug and I had to paint on walls. It's social. It's outdoors. It's moving—moving my body. It's talking to people and meeting new people. It's listening to music, loudly. To do a wall, I feel more involved in everything that's going on around me, in the space and in the community.

People say the weirdest things when I’m up on a wall painting….so often positive, but a lot of people just don't know what to say. You're exposed and vulnerable so people are really ready to talk to you which is good, but then they don't know what to say. They’ll say things like, “did you paint that? Are you being paid to paint it?” But it's also really beautiful—people share little bits of their life with you because it's there in the public realm.

About the Piece

Choosing a mural with the word Place was fitting for so many reasons. I wanted create a piece that holds place—people stuck it out here to rebuild [after the earthquakes] and everything that goes into having something like this happen to your home.

Place seemed like a bold, solid word to hold the main composition. I was actually going to write the full quote [from Salman Rushdie], but I didn't want it to sound cheesy—which is a concern doing type. If they don't know the idea behind it they might not think about it in the same way. The [word] journey is the idea of the seeds traveling across the area from the flower to the bird, since birds are one of the few ways that seeds can travel. The bird is there to symbolize travel and freedom and transience and the poppy is there, rooted in the ground. And [I chose] a poppy—because around the corner I saw a little patch of poppies when I arrived in Lyttleton.

On place.

When people talk about looking after your mental health, they often talk about putting roots down. When I try to visualize that place of “roots” I get caught up in this whirlpool...even though I love my homes—of Gisborne and Wellington. It wasn't until reading The Ground Beneath Her Feet and saw characters who are most themselves when they are moving that I realized I'm just carrying these roots with me and that's fine.

"The dream of Roots. The mirage of the Journey" - Salman Rushdie

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follow Kelly: @kell.sunshine