Kindah Khalidy: How to Plant an Electric Garden

March 08, 2017

Maintaining a fresh, spontaneous energy, Kindah Khalidy’s abstractions make a mark. We recently met at her home studio, a narrow garage space with a custom cushy floor and frosted-glass roll-up door that beams a glowing, filtered light. 

Surrounded by paints and palettes, her Frenchie pup, Bowie, snorted around as we chatted about her work as a painter and textile artist. “It’s pretty hard for me to make minimalist art,” Kindah confessed. With abstract painting, it’s hard to perceive what exactly sets one splotch apart from another. It’s the nuanced relationships between shape and color make Kindah’s work beg to be deciphered.

Kristin Farr: We’re at your home studio, and your other workspace is in a former mortuary in San Francisco.
Kindah Khalidy: It actually works out really well for painting because the doors are so wide from when they had to move the caskets.

Oh right, it’s in the same space as Incline Gallery, with the long ramp.
They’re behind the wall. They have the old embalming room in their area, which is now an art advisory space. My studiomate and I are the only painters. I’m starting to bust out of that space, but it’s such a nice location.

Sadly, there are not as many artists in the Mission neighborhood anymore, and it feels a bit weird that I’m surrounded by lots of tech stuff, but, in that sense, I want to hang out there as long as I can. We had an open studio recently and people coming in off the street were happy to see art.

I like the space because it has tall ceilings and the wide doors. I’ve worked on a ten-foot canvas in there. I’d really have to think about how to get it out of the space anywhere else, so it’s pretty convenient. I just took out my flat files and tables, so it looks like a hoarder is in there with all these paintings.


What kind of objects do you have around for inspiration?
I collect confetti in jars.

Tell me about your DIY career arc and your life story real quick.
My first job was lifeguarding and teaching swim lessons, if you want to go way back. Then I got into retail because I liked clothes so much, but the recession happened and I couldn’t get hired anywhere. I drive by places now thinking, “I couldn’t get hired there... or there.” Not at an ice cream store, or clothing stores, and I had a college degree. I was out of options and thought I’d just open an Etsy store to see what I could do. I also set up an online shop for a local vintage store, and they let me set up a sewing space in their basement surrounded by all the clothes, and I got to work in there and repair vintage stuff.

At California College of the Arts, I originally thought I wanted to do fashion design, but I realized there wasn’t enough creative room. I wanted to do more sculptural stuff. The program made sure you could successfully start a fashion line, but I just wanted to make weird things. I took textiles and painting classes, where they were open to costumes, stuffing things, and beading, and I found my place. I didn’t want to rely on painting as my full income, and I didn’t want to compromise or be a starving artist, so I started designing textiles and making bags and clothes, my own line. I kept it local. I sewed everything myself for a long time, and then I got help from a grandma.

Just any grandma?
I found her through a friend. She has thirty years of production sewing under her belt, so she’s a pretty badass grandma. That was around 2012, and all the fabrics in stores were really graphic at the time, and I wanted something with a hand-painted look. So I created my own major of painting, textiles and drawing, and that was right when the technology came out to print your own fabric on demand online, so I was pretty lucky. It was easy to upload your drawing and get your fabric in the mail. I got into quite a few stores, like Anthropologie. I didn’t have a studio at the time, and my friend had to help me cut out hundreds of bags on her floor of her living room.

Sometimes you design things, but you don’t deal with manufacturing, like with the new Land of Nod collection.
Yes. That collection has some baby clothes, and two rugs you can order in different sizes, and a garland. I gave them a drawing, just my shapes and some pom-poms, and they made the drawing 3D.

I just noticed the big pink pom-pom hanging in the corner from that amazing store in Berkeley.
Yes, Tail of the Yak. Everything in there makes you think, do I really need this? And it’s just so beautiful, you say, “Yeah, I do.”

Would you say your work is pretty balanced right now between fashion and painting?
Three years ago, I was doing more wholesale and my own line, and then in 2015, the paintings started taking up more time. I try to keep a balance. Our Pamwear line just snowballed in the last six months, and it’s really just my friend Courtney and me doing it ourselves, shipping all these little pins and things.

Who’s Pam?
Pam is this enigma. She’s a French bulldog. She just turned seven yesterday. I was just really fascinated by Pam and she seemed like the perfect creative director for our whole team. Courtney studied exotic animal training, and she was making amazing photographs of Pam in her outfits. Pam’s just something else. Courtney and I saw each other’s work on Instagram or Etsy a few years ago, and we wanted to collaborate, and it turned into Pamwear. The basis of the collaboration was that I’d do the funny fabrics, and Courtney would do the retro silhouettes.


Is Pam demanding as a director? She just blew up on IG.
No. She’s pretty easygoing. We make most of the decisions, and she’ll approve things. In the last few months, when we’d launch a product, we’d get so many orders that we couldn’t do anything else. Sometimes we do get help from our moms with packing orders.

What did your paintings look like as a kid?
I was drawing fashion girls and horses, but they weren’t that good. I was trying to render them well, but they were kinda odd. The way I draw people hasn’t changed very much. I never painted abstract things. I had a moment in college where I was thinking that I loved color and creating relationships between different shapes, and creating ugly shapes on purpose; a balance between trying to draw perfect things. I’ve just run with that ever since. It’s this continuous series that hasn’t changed too much.

What makes a shape ugly?
I think it’s just when you’re making marks with the brush in a way that someone would think wouldn’t look very good. I try to incorporate that stuff to have a nice balance.

Your show at Chandran Gallery is about to open. Congrats!
Yes, it opens on my birthday. I’ve been holding onto all my paintings and waiting for a good space, so I was pretty excited they wanted to have a show. The curator came to my studio last week and I thought, wait, I think there’s too much stuff to put in.

That gallery is massive! How could you have too much?
At first I thought it was huge, but when you start spacing things out... there’s gonna be one really big painting, and then these 22” x 30” works on paper I’ve made for the last few years. I make a few of those a week, so we’re framing them, and I’m excited to get them out of my studio and let people see them in real life. There will be a big cluster, and then I incorporated some sewing and painting mixed with drawings.

Is there a theme or title for the show?
If you compared it to life, it’s like a balance of the good, the bad, the ugly, and the comical, and how it all has to coexist. I hope that when people look at the paintings for a while, they can see how everything is working together. I’m still thinking about the title, but it might be Electric Garden.

Why do you love fruits and plants?
Fruits are my favorite healthy food, but I guess they are not so good because of the sugar. I think the shapes and colors that pop up in nature are fascinating. I just got two plants with hot pink on the leaves. Seeing how things duplicate on their own is pretty neat. I really love gardening too.

What’s growing in your garden?
Poppies, sweet peas, eggplant, bell peppers. The slugs took my lettuce.

Do you paint to music?
I don’t make a move to the beat too often, but I love both listening to music and having silence when I’m working. If I get into a really good song, I’ll listen to it over and over through a whole painting. One painting I did on a loop to “West End Girls” by the Pet Shop Boys. I saw them in concert recently. They’re in their sixties now, and they still sound exactly like the record.

It seems hard to maintain spontaneity and playfulness in painting. Do you have to be in a special zone to make it happen?
Whenever I’m working, it feels fun, but sometimes frustrating. I’m working through things, and it’s like a roller coaster. It doesn’t feel easy, trying to be technically good and creating compositions. I can really psych myself out sometimes. It’s challenging, but I like it, and it keeps me busy.

Do you dress in your wearable paintings?
I’m a little nervous to wear them, but I should.

I like to say my favorite color is all of them.
When I see a tube of paint, it makes me so happy.

What’s your favorite color combo right now?
It's always changing, but my current favorite would be light bubblegum pink with an orangey-red.

Do you associate any symbolism with colors?
Maybe just the muddy colors feel unpleasant sometimes. There are a few objects from my childhood that have stuck with me, like this little pencil pouch I had. It’s been coming up a lot in my work. It had the best colors: elementary green, teal, royal blue, crimson red, and bright yellow—these stripes printed on fabric, and it just stuck with me. Little toys with color palettes I liked are just burned into my mind. I try to bring those colors into paintings.

Are you only attracted to colorful things? I am, and sometimes it’s hard to get into something black and white.
I feel the same way. You have to work a little bit to focus in. If I don’t like the palette, it’s hard to enjoy it.

Do you plan the paintings?
For the bigger ones, I’ll do some drawings, but those are really quick and spontaneous. Most of the time, I balance being spontaneous with stepping back and trying to make calculated decisions, like how a certain choice will make the whole thing feel a certain way, or how a certain shape might make someone feel uncomfortable, or might make them giggle. Sometimes it’s just quick gestures.


Your work is mostly abstract, but there are a few cacti.
I try to keep it pretty open. It’s interesting hearing what people see in them. The only straightforward thing is a cactus. I really like the shape of them. I love the way that they’re perfectly continuous and asymmetrical. They’re nice to look at. There are a couple other donut-looking things, but, for the most part, I’m not trying to be representational.

You said it’s hard for you to make minimalist art, but I see some big minimalist shapes here on the wall.
Those are out of my comfort zone. I made this fabric collage two years ago, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was just these layered sheer fabric shapes, and I wanted to try painting them, but I think I like the fabric one better.

Any other recent obsessions with materials?
I’ve been really into pipe cleaners lately, the neon and sparkly ones. I’ve been checking out the collections at different craft stores. I love craft supplies. I don’t know what to do with them sometimes, but I like to appreciate them for what they are.

Would you make big sculptural versions of your shapes?
I don’t want to be too overwhelming with everything going on, but I would like to do some big stuffed things.

Do people say your work is girly?
I think there are so many ways to look at it. It’s just feminine because I’m a woman making it. But sometimes I think my gestures aren’t feminine, or made in the way women are known to paint. But really, what are feminine gestures on the canvas? It’s hard to answer. I just try to get out of my comfort zone and not think about the way I should be working and making marks. Sometimes the marks don’t feel very natural, and I try to expand on that.

Who are some artists you like?
Shahzia Sikander, just the way she uses ink to make her paintings, and her color palette is inspiring. I found out about Misaki Kawai in your magazine. She’s amazing.


There’s a lot of color-focused work at the new SFMOMA. What are your favorite pieces there?
I like the Ellsworth Kelly section, seeing his simple use of colors. It’s encouraging to see something simple, and how striking its effects can be. It’s so big. I like the scale of the Clyfford Still works, and I love Philip Guston’s work. He has a Valentine’s palette.

What were your favorite movies as a kid?
Ferris Bueller and Purple Rain. My brother was obsessed with all things ’80s, and he didn’t really want to hang out with me, so our only bonding time was him showing me all his favorite ’80s songs, like New Order and Joy Division. I was five or six, looking up to my cool big brother. I was never very interested in Disney movies. They made me feel a little unsettled.

Where are you from?
I grew up down in Monterey, California.

Your signature looks like graffiti.
The way I write it hasn’t changed since kindergarten. I didn’t know how to do a capital “i,” and the teacher said it was wrong, but I just stuck with it. I liked the way it looked.

Kindah Khalidy’s new show, Nuclear Garden, is on view at Chandran Gallery through March 25, 2017.


Originally published in the April 2017 issue of Juxtapoz Magazine, on newsstands worldwide and in our web store.