Kelly Reemtsen Interview

While painting the female form in vintage fashion with domestic items may seem like an out-dated notion, painter Kelly Reemtsen is actually conveying the essence of modern women who are capable of doing essentially whatever they want. In response to a 1950‘s survey-ad asking, “Should women be able to water the lawn?” Reemtsen has spent the past decade answering that question with her oil-paintings of retro-styled women holding such tools as garden hoses, axes, shovels, chainsaws, etc. Cliché talks to Reemtsen about her work and its impact on women.

Cliché: You have a very unique style that features retro-fashion, household items, pills, etc. Where did this begin?
Kelly Reemtsen: I started 15 years ago with still life paintings of vintage dresses on dress forms. (I used to paint shoes and bags as well, so one could assemble themselves a full wardrobe, if they wished.) I was already collecting and wearing vintage dresses and thought they might make for fabulous subjects. They are very feminine and have a great shape for painting. And I love the full skirts. When trying to decide which dresses to paint, I’m attracted first to the color of the dress, then to its shape.

Most of your paintings focus on retro-dressed women holding items that could be either domestic tools or dangerous weapons. Which way do you wish your audience to perceive this?
I use the tool to represent hard work. The more aggressive the tool, the harder the job.

Is the fashion featured in your work a reflection of your own personal style or taste?
Yes and no. I like to put on an awesome dress for an evening out, but I usually wear darker colors. For my paintings, I’m attracted to bright pop colors, but I prefer to blend into the crowd in a way I could not if I wore the dresses I paint.

You often paint your female subjects from the neck down, never including their faces. What statement are you making with this strategy?
I like the female viewer to see her self in the painting. If it was a portrait of someone specific, this idea would not work. I love overhearing women at an exhibition say, “That is me.”

Congratulations on your first published book, I’m Falling! What was that process and outcome like for you?
It definitely was a labor of love. Emphasis on Labor. My friend Chris Fogg (Fogg & Associates) approached me about doing the book. When I saw the truly awesome design by Stephanie Meadows (of Fogg & Associates), I took a year to paint all new work for the book. I photographed the painting and my friend Vanessa Stump shot my sculpture and studio. It was designed in Manchester, England and Printed in Leeds, England. There were many 2 a.m. (Los Angeles time) Skype meetings. It started as a three person project and then blossomed into a huge group effort, which I feel was an amazing experience, and I loved working with each and everyone of them. I feel that together we created the book I envisioned.

From the dresses, to the tools, how do you go about picking and choosing what goes into a portrait?
I start with color and pattern and, depending on my mood, I pick what interests me that day. I put it on a model. I shoot it a bunch of different ways with different tools, different lighting. And then I end up using the shot that appeals to me most.

Tell me about your creative process. Does the setting have to be a certain way?  
My studio has to be really clean and orderly, because clutter slows me down. I usually don’t sit down to paint until 3 p.m. at the earliest, and I hit my stride around 7 or 8 p.m. Often I’m working until four in the morning.

When did you realize oil painting was your favorite medium?
Since primary school. I love the smell. Oil paint is amazing, you can turn it into anything.

You’ve already accomplished so much with your artistic career. What’s next?
Some days I feel like I’m just getting started. That is the BIG question always on my mind. “How do I evolve as an artist?” Not change, but evolve. Hmmm. I guess I will know when I see it.

To see more of Kelly’s work, visit her website at
Kelly Reemtsen’s interview originally appeared in Cliché Magazine’s February/March 2014 issue.
Images courtesy of Kelly Reemtsen. 



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