You can find Kaitlin Ziesmer’s work at Ironton Distillery until the end of July and at Helikon Gallery.
Before Kaitlin Ziesmer recognized Carrie Fisher at her booth at an LA art show, she noticed the movie star’s insta-famous French bulldog Gary Fisher, whose signature tongue was eye level.
“I’ll take all of these,” the actress said, pointing to Ziesmer’s Star Wars-themed pieces and handing her credit card over before walking off. Luckily, her assistant came directly after to collect the art and the card.
Ziesmer, who works out of Helikon Gallery & Studios, has also sold original work to Julia Roberts, and her whimsical character portraits have been a staple at the RiNo Made Store.
In advance of her July show at Ironton Gallery, we chatted with her about her art.
RiNo: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
Kaitlin: Oh gosh. It's kind of weird because it never feels like a set job. It's always changing.
I always just grew up drawing as a kid and was in the more advanced art classes. I knew I wanted to do the harder art. That even started back in elementary school.
Then in high school when I was doing more advanced classes, I realized I wasn't going to do anything else. “Of course, I'm gonna do art.” I don’t even know if I realized what that meant.
I was always very much inclined to be drawing, and I love projects. I think it goes along with my work style—I’m very project based. I'm not much of a marathoner; I couldn't just do the same thing every day. I love running around in 100 different directions, even though it drives me insane. But I really wouldn't have it any other way.
RiNo: Where are you originally from?
Ziesmer: I grew up in Littleton but I lived in Texas for seven years and came back to go to school out here. I went to school at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design and graduated at the end of 2010.
RiNo: How would you describe being an artist in Denver right now?
Ziesmer: You get out of it what you put into it. I always tell people that if people don't really know that you're working, and you aren't putting yourself out there, then you're not going to get as many opportunities. The more you put out, the more people respond.
It’s a super supportive consumer community. Many people come out to shows and markets, and people are so stoked when you try something new. It takes a while to get in your own groove.
RiNo: You often choose bright and soft colors. What emotions are you hoping to convey?
Ziesmer: I just want my pieces to be light hearted and have a good sense of humor. I don't I don't like to take it too seriously. Something as simple as happiness, and those colors really lend to it.
RiNo: For your upcoming show at Ironton, we’re noticing a lot of animals in suit coats.
Kaitlin Ziesmer: It wasn't intentional, but those were the three ideas I had floating around in my brain for a while, so I had to get them drawn. Thinking about ideas almost takes me longer than it does to paint. Once I know what it's gonna look like, I can crank it out, but when I have an idea, I need to draw it on a canvas.
RiNo: How do you pick the clothes your characters are wearing?
Ziesmer: Sometimes it's based on movie costumes. and sometimes it's random stuff I find. For instance, I found this [rainbow suitcoat] on a vintage web site, so I knew it was gonna be one of a kind. I really like costumes, whether or not it's official.
RiNo: Do you have a name for your series of anthropomorphized animals?
Ziesmer: I always call them characters regardless if they're an official character or my own. A lot of times it's easiest to just call them mashups. It's very much like a school picture day. I'd love to see them all in a yearbook together. Like any portraits, they'll stand together, but you could picture them all hanging out.
RiNo: A banner in your office says “Let's Go Get ‘Em!” What does that mean for you?
Ziesmer: I love that! I set up next to a lady at this craft show in Lawrence, Kansas, and she was a full time lawyer who made these cute little banners on the side just to chill out. The color palette was right up my alley. It also just speaks to me—don't waste any time; just do it. I like to support the people that are around me at those craft shows. I can end up spending more money than I make.
RiNo: How long have you been at Helikon?
Ziesmer: I actually just moved in at the end of last summer. So I'm coming up on one year. I'd been associated with them like ever since they opened. Doing group shows and I did a while back. I did a two-person show in the big gallery, and then right before I moved in, I did a solo show in the smaller gallery. So I've been working with them for a long time.
RiNo: How has your studio at Helikon affected your productivity and art?
Ziesmer: I used to work out of home, but now I come to work with more intention to sit down and get stuff done. So I'm getting the same amount of work done but in shorter periods of time, which is nice. I can have more of a life outside.
Also, being around a creative community has been really good for my psyche and productivity. And from the retail side, I don't have to pack up all my buttons and mugs. It's just ready to go. It's so nice not to be digging through tote bins every time I get an order. That efficiency has made it so much better.
RiNo: What connections have you made with people who work here?
Ziesmer: It’s been awesome. A lot of people spitball ideas off each other. It could even be as simple as “I made this today,” and you're like, “Dang, I need to get to work. They’ve been better at art today than me.” It’s a really good crew right now. There's no drama between the tenants. In fact, we bowl once a week.
RiNo: Tell us about your bowling team!
Ziesmer: We call it the Helikon Bowling Cult. Four of us actually have our own bowling balls. It’s our side project—me, John Van Horn, Tom Sarmo and Clay Brooks and then Rob Jordan who works at the shop and different people join us randomly. It’s really fun!
RiNo: What resources have you encountered in your artistic journey that have propelled you forward in some way?
Ziesmer: I've been doing markets and shows. The people I've met have been massively helpful. Peers at the same point in their careers as you. You're discovering things at the same time. Utilizing your peers is like a really good way to go about it.
And I've made such good friends through those markets. You think, “Oh man, they're doing something that I really like, that I could make my own thing.” That’s massively helpful.
RiNo What drew you to Helikon as opposed to anywhere else in Denver?
Ziesmer: Again, it's a great community of people. You really can't beat the location, for being accessible for people to come see your open studios. And the quality of the shows that they put up is incredible. It's very inspiring to be around because it’s what I aspire to be.
RiNo: Who do you admire, that others should know about?
Katilin: I mean, honestly, I would say every single person that works under this roof. 100%.
Looking on my wall here, I could recommend everybody: I got Allison Bamcat, Keith P. Rein, John Vogl, Joseph Coniff, Tommy Tessier, Kayla Edgar, Mike Graves, Clay Brooks, Sarah Wilson, John Van Horn. Who else? Betty Turbo, Tom Sarmo, Tiger Sheep Friends.
RiNo: We love that you have a studio wall dedicated to artists who inspire you.
Kaitlin: It’s massively important. There's too much of a mindset where people almost don't want to appreciate their peers. I feel like it's really cool to support other people, not even just from Denver. It's so cool to establish relationships with people, something as simple as finding a print or buying a small painting. And then just keeping up from there is really cool.
RiNo: Who is your closest friend?
Kaitlin: Well honestly, my closest close friend doesn't even work in art. She works out in L.A. in production, and she is just killing it there.
A lot of my close female friends have moved out of Denver, so I'm aching for more female friends, but I just joined a female bowling league, all Denver maker ladies. We’re called the Lunch Ladies. The lady who made this bag is in it. She goes by Hazel Ray. Kiwi from Craft Boner, Taylor from Moore Collection, Lizzie from Craft Belly Pattern Co., and Shawna from Long I Pie. So it’s a whole crew.
RiNo: What’s the story behind your latest mural? That was new for you.
Kaitlin: Basically I had a seed planted that I wanted to do a mural, and someone had said that Pabst is a great way because they're very supportive of art. Back in September I was supposed to do a mural, and it fell through. I didn't feel like that was my only chance, but it was for the winter.
So then in October, I submitted to their art can contest. That gave me a Pabst-themed piece under my belt. And from there, I got associated with the rep Catherine, who's friggin rad. She put me in an art show and then donated beer to a Helikon event.
Once I submitted for their contest, it got the ball rolling. It made me seem more serious. A lot of people don't really like those type of contests, but they actually pay if you win. They aren't just sourcing free art “for exposure.” Even if you don't win, which I didn't win, you still got associated with them, which is awesome.
Pabst had been trying to get this wall on the side of Streets Denver for a while, and it finally worked out just in time for their National Mural Day they were putting together. So I had a week's notice. It was go time.
RiNo: What was your biggest lesson learned?
Kaitlin: Using the new medium—spray paint. Also, a pleasant lesson learned was that it went way faster than I was expecting. It's not the most like delicate thing I've ever painted. I had to let go of my neurotic line work tendencies. But once I decided it's gonna be what it's going to be, then it ended up being so much fun.
A lot of the times, you just need to get one under your belt and then you can go from there, and you know what you're in for. Honestly, if you hate doing murals, you'll find out on the first one. So yeah, I can't wait to do more.