Jon Key: The Foundation of Rediscovery

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The Foundation of Redscovery

Interview by Evan Pricco and Doug Gillen //  Portrait by Doug Gillen

A thread runs through John Key’s practice and life, one that involves family (being a twin), art, design, and adventure. Though his work is focused on the relationships and heritage he loves to explore, through painting and conceptual fashion design he weaves a story about himself. Originally from the rural town of Seale, Alabama, and now based both in Brooklyn and Margate, England, Key employs greens, blacks, violets, and reds to visually address his central themes of being Southern, Black, Queer, and interested in family. On this day, we find him in Margate, inside the renowned artist Tracey Emin’s TKE Studios, where Key has found a new home away from home. But the key to Key is that home and identity are something in constant flux, where histories are rediscovered and a sense of self evolves with every painting. 

Jon Key: The Foundation of Rediscovery

Evan Pricco: It’s unique that you have studios in two places, one on each side of the Atlantic. So where do you tell people where Jon Key is based? 

Jon Key: I would say I’m based in Brooklyn and Margate. We can say that, maybe that sounds cute. Now, we are in lovely Margate in the TKE Studios in the beautiful main gallery space.

Doug Gillen: How do you end up with a studio halfway across the world? How convenient is that?

I was bi-coastal for a while in the USA, going to San Francisco, and this is literally the same amount of time to go the opposite direction, “bi-coastal and in Margate.” But how did I even end up here? I worked with the Carl Freedman Gallery, up the hill from here, and I’ve been working with them for a couple of years at this point. TKE Studios came about when Tracey Emin said she was opening this studio space. We did a tour when it was still under construction, and I was like, “I want a studio here.” Tracey loved it. She loves that we love Margate, and I think she’s always trying to find and figure out reasons to bring interesting people here. So Jarrett, my twin, and I share it. So when I’m here, I use it. When Jarret’s here, they use it.

I really just love Margate. It’s just because of the community, the vibe, the people. It’s nice being in a small town and walking around, and people know who you are. People say, hey, on the street, people stop you. It is just a small-town pace of life. And then, of course, there’s the beautiful beach and the beautiful sunsets. Every single time I come to Margate, once I get off the train or get out of the car, my shoulders relax, my jaw releases tension, and it’s just a very chill environment, and it’s filled with creatives.

DG: How does this compare to Seale, Alabama, where you grew up?

Seale is very rural. I grew up on lots of land, acres around me, with horses, cows, chickens, and all of that. Completely different. It’s not the same at all.

Jon Key: The Foundation of Rediscovery

EP: Can you articulate a little what growing up in small-town southern America was like? How did you get into and first encounter the arts?

My mom would set up an arts and crafts table for my twin and me when we were younger. That’s where we would first experiment with paint, glitter, and all of this stuff. Then we started making home videos with our camcorders when we were maybe seven or eight. Then there was singing in the church choir, and doing pageants at church and at school. That turned into playing recorder in the first grade, and then saxophone, trumpet, and piano. That turned into theater classes, theater camps, and all of these different things. So I just feel like at a very early age, we were really exposed to so many different types of arts. My mom was really supportive and put us in these programs, really allowing us to play around with that. I guess for me, it made me realize in high school that there are a million ways that you can express yourself and tell your story through the arts.

I was doing theater, I was still doing band, and I was still doing choir in high school. Then I was flipping through this book, a SCAD college perspective and I saw a graphic design section. I had been secretly doing graphic design the entire time. When I was 10 years old, my mom brought home an HTML coding book that one of her coworkers gave her. And I fucking loved coding. As a 10-year-old I was trying to figure it out, making little websites. And then that translated to me also learning painting at the same time, just playing with the digital and the design, but also with the analog and the oil painting.

I think because doing theater, doing acting, doing all those kinds of things just allows you to be able to communicate better. It allows you to be confident in front of a room, allowing you to be able to stand up and know who you are as a person. I feel like a lot of that, at least from my mom’s perspective, was definitely trying to make sure we were well-rounded, adjusted kids that could really go out and do anything while having the skills to do it, although never imagining us actually being full-time artists. I did think, while in high school, that I was going to be a psychiatrist… 

EP: I sort of feel like I have faith that you could have been! 

I was actually talking to my mom a couple of weeks ago, and she was, like, “I just don’t know what I was thinking. Of course, you were going to be artists. Every single thing that you did growing up was leading you to do this.” And I think that was a really nice revelation for her, just to realize it has been this lifelong pursuit, and it has been a passion for both my twin and me forever. My dad runs a construction company, and in some ways, it’s like an art form in terms of, there being a plot of land, and then you make a beautiful house. There’s a lot of interesting things there. My mom had these sketchbooks growing up, and we saw the sketchbooks of her drawings, and she’s so good at drawing. 

EP: Did your parents know that you and your sibling might end up supporting each other in your creative endeavors?

Well, we had one rule growing up, that Jarrett and I were the only siblings that we had, and we had to be best friends. We had to support each other. We had to depend on each other. We had nobody else but each other. And obviously, it’s still super nice now that whenever we’re doing something, either having a show in San Francisco or whatever, or carrying a box down the street, you have someone to help you do it, or be there to support you.

Jon Key: The Foundation of Rediscovery

DG: Church was a big part of your experience creatively. Is that something that is still a factor, that still shapes and informs your practice? Where’s the connection in Margate? Have you found that same group of people that are able to nurture that? 

I think that’s a good question. I don’t go to church, but I think the idea of community, the idea of spirituality… The Black church obviously is a space of worship, but it’s also family. It’s checking in with people. It’s about making sure people are doing okay, supplying support for food or whatever. And so in some ways, I do feel like there is this tight-knit community of people in Margate that I guess now that you’ve mentioned it, is kind of that church community.

And I think in my work, there are these moments and themes of Southerness, or religion, or family, or these structural things that definitely form who I am as a person. If I didn’t go to a Black Southern church in Alabama, would I be a different person? And at some points, maybe, perhaps, definitely in some ways. And I still think all of those stories show up in the work that I do in some ways.

EP: Does the idea of the ritual of going to church play into the ritual and dedication of going to the studio, you know, keeping some sort of ritualistic routine in a different way?

Interesting. I have never thought about it that way, but I definitely think when I go to my studio, for example, in New York or even here, it’s like, thank God I have this space! Thank God, I can go in here and do this work. It’s quiet, and it’s really me focusing on everything, what I want to make, what I care about. Just having that moment of reflection, having that moment of manifesting in the studio. And making work and being like, I want to do this. I want these things out of this. I feel like there is something church-like. That’s very interesting.

EP: We’re sitting here with one of your paintings behind you as we speak. Maybe this is too simplistic, but can you describe your work?

What is my work? So my work focuses on the various intersections of my identity while using a limited color palette, using motifs and things from my own personal memories, and that creates my work. So for example, I paint with the color red, which for me means family, bloodline, ancestry, and legacy. I paint with the color green because I grew up on a bucolic farm in Alabama. I used the color black for blackness, my community, my race, my people. And then queerness is violet. I like this color because blue and red make purple, whereas violet actually is its own color. It exists as its own light spectrum and comes out of the ground as violet. So it’s like this color that’s outside of this binary. And I think about that a lot in terms of how I think about my own queerness.

And it’s not trying to be more masculine or feminine, or all these things. It’s really like I am this own being. I have my own presence, space, autonomy, and agency. And then I use these patterns, for example, the polka dots. My grandmother’s nickname, my mom’s mom’s nickname was Polka Dot. And so that shows up a lot in my work. And my dad would wear these construction uniforms to work, with plaid, checker-board designs on his shirt. So that translates into my kind of checkerboard patterns. I think, again, having this matriarch and the patriarch, and having these two sides in my family, obviously, these two sides of my family, make up who I am as a person. And allowing that to come to life in the work as a foundation for this visual language, I think is really fun, powerful, interesting, and abstract, but somehow keeps it on the nose. So all of the work, regardless of what I’m working on, sometimes I’m talking about myself, sometimes this painting, I’m talking about queer figures through history. There still is this personal connection in the work.

Jon Key: The Foundation of Rediscovery

DG: Is there a historical connection to this color choice and their histories? Or is this something that you’ve just quietly crafted for yourself?

I think it’s a bit of both. So a lot of my practice is inspired by writing. I do a lot of writing before I do a show or a painting. And even before I was doing any of this work, I was doing a lot of writing in college. When I moved to New York I revisited this writing and added more to it and created more stories. And some of them of course, like purple, like violet, are colors of royalty. It’s an expensive color. And I feel like that’s undeniable in terms of the research of that. I also think it’s amazing that the color obviously has so many different connotations; as a queer kind of person, a queer, black person, elevating me and my community to these places of royalty or importance, and feeling expensive, and all those things I think are interesting.

DG: Is that connected then to the fabrics, and your fashion choices in this particular time period that you’re crafting for yourself?

So this work, this particular painting, is of William Dorsey Swann, who was not even the “first black drag queen,” but allegedly the first drag queen in America, yeah, it’s in quotes. So basically there was a newspaper clipping that was written in 1880 in Washington DC, that said the queen was raided, basically a newspaper article about a party that she was throwing, these balls that she was throwing that were raided by the police. And that was the first time that someone in a newspaper printed about a drag queen or this kind of thing. What she’s wearing is very typical of what she would be wearing during that time period, these more lavish ball gowns. I’m working on a book project right now where I’ve been researching queer figures throughout history starting from the 1800s.

DG: So, you are attracted to more of history’s b-sides, stepping away from the icons and stories that we know already?

Exactly. And going through, again, because my practice is based in design, the print ephemera, and going to the archives, and looking at newspaper clippings and lithographs, and finding these stories about how black queer people were written about before we had our own autonomy agency to put those stories into print for ourselves, but also just even knowing who they are. 

DG: When was the first time you saw yourself represented through an artwork of any kind, be it music, visual arts, or another form?

I love this question. I guess something that was really pivotal and I don’t know if this is the first time, but the really pivotal moment was Tenth magazine, which is a black, queer fashion and lifestyle magazine that was founded in 2014, maybe 2013. So it’s pretty new. It was founded by Khary Septh, André Verdun, and Kyle Banks, based in New York. I just moved to New York out of graphic design school and was on Facebook, and I saw this ad that said, “Black, Gay, Unbothered. Order today.” And I was like, what is this? Then I clicked, and it was a magazine. And I was like, a magazine about black gay people? What is this? So I ordered it, and when I got it in the mail a couple of days later, I was flipping through so slowly. I got halfway through the book and I was sobbing.

It was the first time that I had ever seen a magazine that had beautiful images of black queer people written by black queer people, high art direction, super fashion, all the brands, all the things. And I was like, it was for me. So of course I closed the magazine. I emailed them immediately, and I was like, “What is this? This is amazing. I want to work with you guys. Let me help you. Let me do anything.” And I have been working with them ever since. So yeah, that was really kind of amazing. And from that whole process of working with the Tenth magazine, that whole gang of guys, and women, and people, I was able to meet all these amazing black animators, illustrators, writers, and fashion people. So suddenly in New York, my community of black queer creatives that I was so desperately searching for, that I did not have in undergrad was there.

Jon Key: The Foundation of Rediscovery

DG: It’s funny because as a straight white guy, I haven’t grown up with those labels and things.. It’s by default. The world is made by the default of the ancestors, and things like that. So we don’t question these things. Then the more I start to learn and have my worldview opened up, I learn about the power of labels and things like that. Just seeing a magazine asking if you are black and queer, it’s like there’s nothing else that needs identifying. Not about, are you into this? Literally, are you just black and queer? And those labels were enough to pull you in and get you to the point where you were physically moved. It just shows the validity of that terminology, and what it can achieve.

Absolutely, and at that moment, there really weren’t that many cool magazines or print publications that were that nuanced, that focused, that well produced, and trying to produce something every three months! That was a serious thing. And now that I’ve been researching and interviewing a lot of people, I’m finding these examples that were made in the nineties, that were made in the eighties, that were made in the seventies, that were critical for even the attempt to exist. But you don’t learn about these things. You don’t learn about these things in school. You don’t learn about these things in graphic design class. You don’t see these kinds of representations of these types of stories in a beautiful, highly well-designed way that validates the complete essence of who you are.

DG: Do you ever find the counter to that, where because you identify as a black queer artist, you are expected to make a certain type of art that follows a particular narrative?

There is. I think now the language has gotten way more nuanced around queerness, blackness, and all of these things in a way that in the early 2010s, it really wasn’t as much. When I first started doing the work, and when I first got into this thing, it was like I was doing this to be visible, to try to find other people who look like me. But I think to your point, sometimes other people will pigeonhole you into, oh, well, this is what you’re always supposed to talk about.

This is a problem with the art world in general. You’re a woman artist, you’re a Black artist, you’re an indigenous artist, but we’re all really just artists and we’re telling our stories from our various perspectives and our histories. Of course, all of us want to just exist and be seen as just amazing artists, without any of the asterisks, or any of the unnecessary language around it, the nuances of identity like diversity, inclusion equity, and all of these things. I think where that came from was desperation because people were just silenced. And now it’s like, well, we also can talk about other things. We also can do other things. Even in my work, I’m not talking about black queer history. I’m talking about American history. And I think there is that nuance of recognizing that America is a melting pot, and it is all of these different kinds of identities and people who come together that create it to be this amazing thing. Without all of these amazing different people in this space, it would not be America. It would not have the same history. I want to be able to make work about what I want to make it about. And I want people to be like, “Wow, great painting. Jon.”

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