If you follow me on social media you already know that I am very obsessed with the art of Kelsey Montague. Her #WhatLiftsYou and #WhatUnitesUs murals are all over the world, and before I go pretty much anywhere I check the map on the Kelsey Montague Art website to see if I might be able to take a quick detour to experience a new mural in person. (By the way, Kelsey’s first major fan? Taylor Swift…but more on that in a minute.) Kelsey’s style is very distinctive and bold and not only do her pieces brighten up any wall, anywhere, but they also are bringing tourists like me into small towns and big cities just to take them in and snap a picture for the ‘Gram.
What I started to notice over the past couple of years of fandom is that Kelsey has another half: her sister Courtney. Courtney manages the back end of their business while Kelsey creates the artwork, and to me, it seems like a perfect partnership. As a relatively organized, logistics-loving person myself I started to have all kinds of questions about how they run their business together. One day it occurred to me that I should just ask them if they would be open to an interview.
Spoiler alert: they were!
I’m so grateful to the Montague sisters for taking time out of their busy travel and work schedules to do this interview. Check it out:
Melisa: Most fans are already familiar with how your art took off thanks to Taylor Swift posing in front of your first New York City mural in 2014, as well as Taylor secretly hiring you earlier this year to create the temporary butterfly mural in Nashville’s Gulch neighborhood, commemorating the release of her single, “Me!” In addition to Taylor’s support you have a growing community of fans (myself included!) who will travel to see your various murals whenever possible, sharing them on social media with the #WhatLiftsYou and #WhatUnites Us hashtags. Has the social/interactive element of your murals developed in the way you intended?
Kelsey: I think the social/interactive element of my work has taken off in ways and at a speed I never could have dreamed of. I am so grateful and I believe that #WhatLiftsYou is so powerful because I believe we (humans) aren’t asked enough about what is most important to us and what inspires us.
Melisa: The original wings mural located in The Gulch is, according to my research (okay, not as much “research” as merely a perusal of the #WhatLiftsYou hashtag on Instagram *wink*), your most well-known and most-visited mural, by far. Why do you think that is? What are the locations of some of your other more popular murals from what you can tell?
Kelsey: The growth and fan support in Nashville has been incredible. I believe those wings are so popular because the Nashville community is so gifted creatively. Anywhere you go in Nashville you stumble upon incredible performers, music that moves you to tears and scrumptious food. I think Nashville’s focus on creativity and its support of the arts is the reason my wings have been so embraced by that community. My wings in Galway Ireland and my wings at Universal Studios LA are also incredibly popular. I am very grateful.
Melisa: Can you tell me a little bit about how your creative process works, once you contract with a client? Do your clients bring you their concepts and color suggestions or are you given free reign?
Kelsey: I work with my clients around what they are looking for overall. From there I create concepts that I feel represent their needs while staying true to my art.
Melisa: What kind of prep work do you do before your feet hit the ground in any given city?
Kelsey: I work closely with the client on design to make sure we are all on the same page. I rely on my team to work through a lot of the logistics on site (travel, wall prep etc.).
Melisa: You and Courtney seem to be an amazing team: with Kelsey on the creative, front-facing side and Courtney handling administrative duties on the back end in such a way that I can imagine is like trying to assemble a huge puzzle to which there are endless pieces. How did you decide to become business partners?
Courtney: We always wanted to work together. We wanted to be our own bosses, create change and travel the world. Kels and I have actually been working together for 10 years now! Our first 5 years we started 2 businesses (while working full time jobs) and neither worked. I’m really grateful for those really tough first 5 years because we learned so much about business and about what our strengths are. When the street art took off we were ready and able to scale that initial success (thank you Taylor Swift) into more opportunities.
Melisa: It takes good communication to be in a successful partnership and you two clearly have it, as well as a lovely appreciation for each other. Without getting too personal, was your relationship always strong, or did working together bond the two of you at a higher level?
Courtney: Thank you for your compliment! We have always been close; we are from a very close family. I do believe that our communication skills (with each other) have been enormously improved in the last 5 years. For the first number of years we couldn’t afford our own hotel rooms and were traveling about 3 weeks each month. When you live with your sister in a hotel room for years at a time you have to develop good communication techniques ☺
Melisa: What do you love the most about working together?
Kelsey: We absolutely trust and support each other.
Melisa: Where do you two complement each other the most when it comes to running the business?
Kelsey: We both say, often, that Kelsey Montague Art wouldn’t exist without the other. Court is really great with people and amazing at the business end.
Courtney: Kels has an almost otherworldly power to create art that engages people’s hearts and minds. It’s awesome to see her creativity every day. I think we both feel blessed all the time.
Melisa: You have murals in major cities worldwide AND small towns in the middle of nowhere. What do you like about having such a wide variety in locales?
Kelsey: I love doing pieces in all sorts of places because I believe public art shouldn’t be reserved only for the large cities. People should be able to enjoy art everywhere.
Melisa: I know that wings are significant for you—I read that your grandfather was a painter who included birds in his work and your mother loves birds—and that’s why you use them in your mural concepts a lot. You also do a lot of swings and balloons in addition to many other one-off concepts. I know you said that the hot air balloon in East Nashville at The Cleo was something you had wanted to do for a long time…do you have any other “dream ideas” for which you need just the right client?
Kelsey: Yes, I have a whole deck of dream ideas. I pull them for certain clients and certain walls ☺
Melisa: In the past couple of years, you’ve had partnerships with Starbucks and Guess. Do you have anything else coming up that you can talk about?
Kelsey: We have some big partnerships coming up that I can’t talk about and some I can ☺ I’m really excited to say I’ll be one of the artists at Wynwood Walls this December in Miami!! There are a number of exciting projects happening around that that will be revealed this December.
Melisa: Speaking of Guess, the proceeds of your Limited Edition watch benefited Pencils of Promise schools in Ghana, Laos, and Guatemala. You also offer the #WhatLiftsYouSchools program to teachers for use in their curriculum. Education is obviously important to you. Can you tell me more about that commitment to children and learning?
Kelsey: I strongly believe that the arts are critical to a child’s development. They help kids develop their creative skills, problem solving skills, confidence and imagination. If I didn’t have art growing up I don’t know where I would be now.
Courtney: I used to be in International Development and have seen first hand how educating children can lift entire communities and ultimately entire country’s economies. Educating kids is something we will always be focused on.
Melisa: If you weren’t painting murals (Kelsey) and keeping the business end up for your sister (Courtney), what would you be doing?
Courtney: That’s a tough question. I think we would probably be in the teaching space in some capacity. And we would probably have a dog rescue/fostering center. We love dogs and the plight of animals is also something that weighs on us.
Melisa: Do you buy all new paintbrushes in every town? I always wonder about your painting supplies! How does that work?
Kelsey: We bring a suitcase of supplies on each trip and then we buy paint and paint brushes if we need them. We try to re-use our brushes but if it’s really hot the paint tends to congeal on the brushes making them hard to use again.
Melisa: Is there a routine that you follow on mural workdays?
Courtney: Usually we meet the client, make sure we have the spacing down and then Kels just starts sketching! From there we layer on color.
Melisa: Often there is scaffolding involved in your work. Have you always been okay with heights?
Courtney: We are ok with heights but when a wall goes over 30 feet tall we have to be harnessed in and attached to our lift to feel safe.
Melisa: Do you each have a favorite mural? Which one(s) and why?
Kelsey: I still love that first mural I did because it changed our lives.
Courtney: Kels free-handed a mural of 2 doves in San Antonio and it’s still my most favorite (it’s no longer up). It was just beautiful and peaceful.
Melisa: Things and/or activities you most look forward to when returning to your Colorado home base?
Courtney: Seeing loved ones (our parents do a lot for the company!). Walking my dog Boomer. Sleeping. Eating home cooked meals.
Kelsey: Ditto and I love sitting on the couch with my dog, Roo.
Again, so many thanks to Courtney and Kelsey: this was an honor and I’m so appreciative of the two of you and the joy you have given me by doing this interview AND when I’m on the hunt for your murals.
By the way, last week the sisters announced their WLY Wear clothing line! Check that out, as well as all things #WhatLiftsYou, on the Kelsey Montague Art website, and make sure to follow them on Facebook and Instagram (Kelsey Montague Art and Montague Sisters), too!
Photo of Courtney and Kelsey in Pittsburgh was provided by them, too: thank you!