An Interview with Muralist Team Jessie Unterhalter and Katey Truhn by Elena Kindy
Jessie Unterhalter and Katey Truhn are a Baltimore-based artist duo tackling large spaces through collaborative, geometric and colorful murals. Both originally from New York, the artists met while studying at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). The duo have been awarded two PNC Transformative Grants and their work has been featured in a number of national mural festivals and showcases including Pow Wow Hawaii, Living Walls in Atlanta, GA, Open Walls 1 & 2 in Baltimore, MD, Wall Therapy in Rochester, NY, RVA Street Art Festival in Richmond, VA and, most recently, Artmosphere Street Art Biennial in Moscow, Russia.
Jessie and Katey are interested in community engagement and draw inspiration from architecture and the variety of environments they work in. They strive to immerse the public with their large scale work and inspire others to reach their creative outlets. I had the pleasure of interviewing Jessie and Katey in their studio in Woodberry, just as they were getting ready to complete a new mural for the new headquarters for Union Craft Brewing in Baltimore.
EK: As a BmoreArt intern and graduating senior at MICA – I am wondering if you would you talk about your experience at MICA?
Jessie Unterhalter: I was General Fine Arts major. It was awesome. Katey, myself, and one of our other friends, Emily C-D, got really into exploring Baltimore. We’d walk around and collect objects and stories from people.
Katey Truhn: I was an Illustration major. I think Baltimore influenced us so much, coming from the suburbs of New York, it was shocking. We had a dog and a shopping cart and we would just go collect things from all over the city. For a while, we made work with what we found, and about the people, we met, but then we thought that rather than taking items for our work, it would be cool to start making work in the public for the community. So that started our transition to what we do now.
Jessie and Katey in their studio
EK: Where in Baltimore would you walk?
JU: We would just walk west. Through Sandtown all the way to Fulton. It was like a huge treasure hunt for us.
KT: Yea it was pretty naive at the time, we had no idea where we were or the context of anything, we were just very open to learning about the city. I wouldn’t do that now, but it made for such an incredible experience in a new city and we met so many people that way and we found the craziest stuff! We would be in abandoned building for hours just going through letters and photos we found, and then we’d take all of it home. It was very precious to us. Our house was insane.
JU: We filled our studios at MICA. We were just living our art.
Seattle Center Mural: Liquid Sunshine
EK: How did you decide to work together after graduation? And how did you get started?
JU: We both had other jobs for a while, I actually went back to MICA for the Community Arts Masters, but that was just a one year program. Then I worked for a community arts center, Jubilee Arts.
KT: I stepped away from Baltimore for a little while. I was living in New York, working with kids with autism. The whole time I wanted to come back to Baltimore. Emily and Jessie were still there and we all had an exciting energy about us. There was so much that we wanted to create together. When I came back to Baltimore I wasn’t sure I would find a job in the arts so I worked for Kennedy Krieger. At a certain point, we just decided to go for it. Jessie’s job was coming to an end, and creating murals had been on our mind for a while.
JU: There were a bunch of open calls through the Baltimore City Mural program and we just applied to a ton of them.
KT: We ended up getting one, four months after we applied. It was probably a fluke. The other artist fell through or something. So I quit my job, Jessie was done. It was our shot.
JU: We both quit our jobs for $5000…which is nothing split between two people. We thought we were making it!
Juxtapoz Clubhouse, Miami Basel 2017
EK: Had you done murals together before?
JU: Not really. We did one through the city, and then one on our own. We lived in a warehouse, so we made a large mural in our space for our portfolio, and then we did Open Walls.
KT: And then we worked with Emily for some projects, and she had experience, so that was helpful.
EK: What made you decide murals specifically?
KT: It just made sense. The found object pieces we were creating had evolved into paintings and our collaborative doodling had helped us to develop a unified aesthetic that we were ready to expand on. We were really drawn to the accessibility of murals and felt it was a great way to connect with communities while working. It’s also probably one of the more sustainable art forms because it guarantees a paycheck and a home for the artwork.
JU: Another aspect of painting murals is that it’s so physical. When we were collecting all the stuff from Baltimore City, that was such a physical act, and I think making art while being really active is a big part of what we do.
EK: What’s a day in the life? Working as a team?
KT: There’s really no task division. At this point, we have our own language. We know that if one of us is working on something the other one will work on something else. Which helps get twice the stuff done. Also, it’s more fun that way, because it could be a really lonely job. It’s really nice to have someone to bounce ideas off of.
JU: We’re usually in our studio or we’re out painting. When we’re in here, we’re designing, answering emails, taking care of administrative stuff.
KT: Our weeks vary extremely. It’s good to keep it different so it doesn’t get stale.
In front of Allumination, Boston, MA
EK: Do you have individual practices as well?
JU: Not really, I took a clay class. I had to miss half of it because we were so busy, but I tried!
KT: Once we’re done with our work, I just want to chill.
JU: Yeah, you want to veg.
EK: What inspires you? What is your creative process?
KT: In terms of why we want to keep doing what we’re doing, I think we’re inspired by architecture and environments, and how people can engage and interact with those spaces, or how they can see them differently.
JU: When we’re coming up with a design we’ll usually have two renderings of a space and we pass the designs back and forth between us. So, in the end, we have 2 to choose from.
KT: We like to check out the space in person if we can because the context can be really informative. Sometimes what we envision the space to be is so different from what it actually is. It’s rather surprising.
JU: You don’t always have the luxury of doing that, when the space is a couple states away, you have to use a picture but it’s always awesome when you can see it.
EK: Did you always imagine working in such large spaces? Like Knoxville Steps?
KT: Yes, we have always wanted to go big. Painting a staircase had been a goal of ours for a couple of years. When we saw the open call we knew we had to nail it. It was really tricky to design. We worked on graph paper to scale and we even made mini steps. When it came time to actually paint it we were a little freaked out. It was a lot of math and it definitely rocked our bods. We had to climb up and down the stairs so many times. We made templates for some sections, and that helped. But sometimes certain angles we thought would work just didn’t. It was a lot of eyeballing and back and forth.
JU: And that one was kind of based on Appalachian weavings, that’s where we started the design. It was tapestry inspired.
EK: Was that something you were interested in?
JU: The open call wanted the mural to relate the project to the history of Knoxville in some way, which is always a challenge for us because we like to work in the abstract. It was a good jumping off point, but I don’t know if any weaver would be able to tell.
KT: It helped us to take our work in a new direction. That’s what is always fun about a challenge. We did something new.
EK: How does basing your practice in Baltimore influence your work? Such as with the Sundala project?
KT: We feel like that was a turning point for us in terms of what we wanted to focus on as artists and where. Leaving MICA, we were really community oriented. But it was controversial going into that neighborhood. Local community organizers had brought us in to work with Civic Works, but other people didn’t know what was going on and resented us for being there.
It put us in a weird position. We were working with parents whose children were victims of gun violence and they were adamant about seeing the project through. In the end, it was well received but we felt that we shouldn’t have been the chosen artists. It was unfortunate that there wasn’t someone in the community who had the access that we had to get the job. From then on we decided to shift our focus away from intimate community spaces to broader public spaces. It was pretty influential in that way.
JU: Thinking about it now, it’s so interesting because we were basically doing what the civic works community lot team does. They transform abandoned lots into public space for people to enjoy. They don’t often get criticized however people tend to have a lot of opinions about public art in general, no matter where you are. We both reflected on it a lot.
EK: What about Sunflower Village?
JU: That was amazing. We applied for a grant with the Franklin Square community and Civic Works, so everyone was behind it. And we came up with that design with the community. They gave us feedback and we would go back and make changes to the designs, we had a good back and forth dialog. It felt like everyone was involved in the process.
KT: And we worked with them for so many months. Prior to getting the grant and once we got it. It was our first community project. We proposed to do a lot with a limited amount of money. So it was a real challenge to navigate. We didn’t have enough money to have our scaffolding set up so we had to hire people from the community to help us do it ourselves. It was Insane and everyone got so tight! It was definitely the most rewarding project we have ever worked on. We were there every day for one month doing workshops or painting. Kids would stop by to help out or just hang out. we got pretty close with a guy named Dwayne who lived across the street. He helped us almost every day. That relationship specifically made the project really meaningful.
Waxing in the Honey Moon, Russia
EK: That’s your ideal type of project?
JU: It is, but I can’t imagine working on a month-long project right now. Back then, that was all we had going on, and right now we have about 10 projects happening.
EK: Do people engage with you when you’re working?
JU: Sometimes we have organized engagement. We’ll do a mural, and have a couple of paint days, or we’ll organize a project to go along with what we’ve done, where people can take a screen print home or create their own pieces.
The City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and the Fairmount Park Conservancy: Summer Kaleidoscope, a mural in Eakins Oval.
EK: How does your work differ between public and private funding commissions?
KT: It all depends on how involved the people who hire us want to be.
JU: We recently worked for Starbucks, and they’re obviously a heavily branded company. Working with them was interesting because you have to stick with their brand. It was a cool challenge for us. They pushed our design process so much, in the end, we made something that works for both of us that we all really enjoyed.
EK: What are your future goals?
KT: We really want to start working with tile, and more sustainable materials. Transform environments with materials other than paint.