Allison Kunath is still unsure about when or how you become a “real” artist. After working in graphic design, she decided to leave the traditional 9 to 5 work world behind in favor of freelance art jobs, and now travels the world painting. Her murals can be seen everywhere from Nicaragua to Santa Monica, where she sets up shop as an artist in residence for weeks at a time. The secret to her nomadic life? She paints hotels, restaurants, and other businesses in exchange for room and board. Before her upcoming trip to Nicaragua for another artist residency, Kunath told Here Magazine about bartering for a living, and how she makes her unique career work.
How did you get to where you are now? How did you transition to making art your full time work?
When I was trying to decide on my major I chose graphic design, because it felt linked to art, which was what I wanted to do, but it was also a legitimate major. I had this fear of being a professional artist because the education system delegitimizes it. So after I graduated I worked in downtown Los Angeles at a boutique design agency doing graphic design. I started an Etsy shop in my spare time and did both jobs for awhile, but then the firm that I worked for closed. So I was faced with this choice: should I do art full time? I went freelance, and I’ve been like that ever since.
How did you get your first residency?
I was reaching out to lots of “proper residencies”as I refer to them. Traditional residencies [which usually have an application process that is long, tedious, and full of paperwork] have donors and funders and they’re super competitive. That’s the name of the game as an artist—you apply to a million and you get a lot of no’s and you just keep going. So, I got tired of waiting and I was like there have to be a lot of people with no formal residency but with extra space they’re not using. I could use art as an exchange and it would give me a chance to experiment outside my normal studio and get a fresh look.
You’re never going to get anything unless you put yourself on the line for it. You’re not going to get something you’re not willing to ask for.
[My first residency] happened at a time when I desperately needed a creative 180. I was having a really hard time breaking out of the style that established my career while staying in my environment. So, I had a trip planned to Tulum, and I figured if I was going to go all that way it’d be awesome to stick around for a little while and justify it with work. So I did some poking around and got referred to a woman who was building a new facility and we had a really wonderful chat. By the end of the day she was like, if you paint a mural on my building, I’ve got a place for you to stay for a month. And, when you’re not working on the mural, you can focus on your own work. I was like, “oh my god, is it really that simple?”
Sometimes it’s not, but for that first experience it was and that was a huge lesson for me in seeing what’s available if you’re willing to ask. I had not been willing to ask before and it was really special to have that affirmed sort of right off the bat. You’re never going to get anything unless you put yourself on the line for it. You’re not going to get something you’re not willing to ask for.
Oh my god maybe I’m still a real artist even though I’m not stuck in one specific location in one studio.
Did that help affirm in your mind that you could be an artist full time?
Yeah. I think in so many ways people in creative careers are at the mercy of other people deciding when they work, when they show, and where they show. I’m a big fan of autonomy and being in control of my life and my career, so anytime I can find ways to self-source opportunities that make me feel good, I love to share that with other people, because that creates space for somebody else to be bold and brave and to build something for themselves.
The way I understand it, I got married to the studio by getting one to work from as my career started to pick up, and subconsciously I started feeling success as an artist related to having a studio. I am therefore a “real” artist with a “real studio.” So it became this inextricably linked component that kept me tied to one place. When I started moving around making better, more relevant, braver, and more interesting work out of these remote studios, it was like “oh my god, maybe I’m still a real artist even though I’m not stuck in one specific location in one studio.” That was a super liberating experience. I kind of got addicted to that.
That’s such a lovely opportunity that I have in this career—that I can play and experiment and fail.
How do your residencies end up changing your work? What’s your creative process?
I’ve done it both ways, where I go with a body of work in mind, and where I go very freeform and open. I really prefer the freeform and open approach, because that’s kind of the point of doing residencies for me—to be in a new place with new inspiration and let the place inform the direction that I go in and what comes out. A couple years ago when I started doing residencies, I was doing work that was all super geometric, lots of animals and portraits, and I always had a specific idea of what was going to happen.The art was sort of the same every time and it didn’t give me the space to let the creation process teach me anything. At a certain point I had it figured out, it was dialed in, and I had a flow and a process, so one of the biggest benefits of going someplace else and doing something different is that it totally changes the way that I’m expressing. Going without any plan is the best way for me to approach it so I can just experiment. I’m totally in an experimental phase and I hope that I stay there.
I did a cool performance a couple years ago where I painted blindfolded and I was talking to a performance artist after the event and mentioned it was the first time i’ve like done anything experimental like this and he was dumbfounded. He was like “What do you mean? Everything I do is an experiment!” And that just struck me. It’s such the polar opposite of the way I was approaching my work. I thought, “wow, that’s such a lovely opportunity that I have in this career—that I can play and experiment and fail.” I know I’m not going to get to new and interesting places unless I’m brave enough to do those things… The residencies have really helped me be brave and experimental in my work.
Do you have a favorite place you’ve been an artist in residence?
Oh wow it’s almost impossible to choose. It’s really hard to say because every place has been beautiful in a different way. The Nicaraguan residency [about a year ago] was supposed to last for one month and I could not bring myself to leave for four months. That’s pretty telling. Nicaragua was a place where the community welcomed me in.It was cool to go somewhere new and just roll with it.
Is there anywhere you’re dying to go next?
I have my sights set on two different regions. I’m really excited to explore Portugal/Morocco/Spain. I’ve also never been to Southeast Asia. I really want to experience setting up shop in that region and I’m definitely interested in spending time in Bali, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia. I have a feeling that artists can be supported in those regions—it’s all an experiment though! I don’t at this point have anything set up in those places, but the last few years have given me confidence to book a ticket, book a place to live, and just start making work, meeting people, and seeing what I can create organically.
Seems like you’re more comfortable now traveling around and making that your creative process.
A lot of people in any field deal with impostor syndrome from time to time, and I remind myself that the things that are working for me are because of who I am inherently and not because of some external detail. I can take away a detail like the studio or being represented by a gallery and still be an artist, and that’s the most empowering thing I can think of.