Kelli Bickman has a chest full of hope. Currently, it's sitting at the foot of her bed under one of her exuberant, mural-style paintings—this one six-by-twelve feet of acrylic, oil crayon, and glitter on canvas. Titled Long Life, Joy, Prosperity, the piece is a meditation on the White Tara of Buddhist philosophy interwoven with sketched scenes from her life as well as the skull and blossoms motif that reoccurs throughout her work. It typifies Bickman's larger body of art, much of which is hanging, in print or original, along the walls of her sunny, floor-through loft. Comprised of the three upper stories of a former Odd Fellows Temple, it's a place where history, square footage, and purpose have conspired to create an 8,000-square-foot live/work/gallery space for Bickman. Themes of abundance and generosity, as well as iconography, memories, archetypal imagery, characters from ancient myths, and even candy wrappers blend into the many layers of her vibrant work.
"Reappropriation is key," Bickman explains, describing both her creative process and her decorating style. Her hope chest sits at the center of the open, street-facing second floor which is large enough to house her painting studio, a sleep area, and an alcove where she designs and mocks-up shoes, yoga clothes, and streetwear for her 11:11 clothing line. Inherited from her grandmother and restored by her father, Bickman has carried her carved cedar treasure chest with her from Minnesota to New York to Florida to the Catskills, using it to hold her sketch books and mementos. "It's the only piece in here I really care about," she explains, looking over the eclectic blend of dressers, end tables, lanterns, and desks she's salvaged, traded for, or picked up at thrift stores. "I'm really good at taking nothing and turning it into something," Bickman explains. Like her paintings, the harmonious whole of her home is so much more than the sum of its cacophonous parts.
Young Artists WantedA Minnesota native, Bickman attended the University of Wisconsin-Stout, where she double majored in sewing and art. "I've always been super creative, but I didn't really explode in creativity until I was in college and I had all these materials to play with. College was a free zone to do just that," she remembers.
Her first two years were spent in apparel design, where she took classes on textiles, tensile strength, and pattern making. It gave her a solid foundation in fashion production, but she didn't like working with conventional sewing machines, so she transferred to the art department. The freedom to be completely creative proved intimidating at first. "I took my first painting class and was so freaked out by the giant white surface, I didn't know what to do." So, for two years she focused on drawing, amassing a large collection of sketch books filled with her ideas, memories, and images. She kept them in her treasure chest at her parents' house.
It was in college while working at a local restaurant that Bickman met Neil Gaiman, who was living there with his family. "He has been one of my best patrons and supporters," Bickman says of the author, who is now a professor at Bard College. Over the years, Gaiman collected a dozen of her paintings, and his mentorship has proved invaluable. "He gave me the fearlessness to be creative and get out in the world. As a mentor, he has shown me that it's possible for an artist to make a living through discipline and focused intention."
After college, she wanted to give New York City a try. It was Gaiman who encouraged her to move, and connected her with a job working for Chris Claremont, a comic book writer best known for working on the Uncanny X-Men. She called up another friend she'd met at college who just happened to need a roommate for her West Village apartment.
Trunk ShowMeanwhile, her trunk overflowed. When she couldn't fit anymore sketch books inside, Bickman began the process of taking her drawings and turning them into paintings. "I had this trunk full of sketches that was just so full I didn't know what to do, but I knew I had to do something with it." Her first works were studies of found objects, painted in a stream-of-consciousness style. After completing a larger image, she would start drawing on the canvas, and then graffiti on top of her work. Her interest in spiritual studies quickly began to seep into her creative compositions.