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Faculty Spotlight: Keliy Anderson-Staley

A Q&A with Associate Professor of Photography, and author of “On a Wet Bough.”

"The most rewarding part of my experience at UH School of Art has been working with and mentoring our amazing students. I am struck by the new ways they find to tell their stories and channel their unique experiences into their art. Our students are making work as powerful and important as at any art program in the country." - Keliy Anderson-Staley

Q: Please provide your educational history.

A: I received a BA from Hampshire College and an MFA from Hunter College in New York City. I lived in New York for ten years where I learned the wet-plate collodion tintype process, participated in the Artists-in-the-Marketplace program at the Bronx Museum of Art and had an artist residency at Light Work in Syracuse.

Q: What are some fond memories from your journey in the arts?

A: Preparing work for an exhibition is always exhausting, but it is very gratifying to share completed work with others. The most exciting part for me is always the making— experimenting in the darkroom or taking portraits. When I am making new work and everything is falling into place, I feel the adrenaline kick in.

Q: Describe one thing that has surprised you during your career in higher education.

A: I have always known how important networks are, but that has only become more apparent. Opportunities lead to opportunities and they grow out of the professional relationships you form first in college and then across the discipline (through conferences, exhibitions, participation in collectives and collaborative projects).

Q: What accomplishments in your career do you feel most proud of?

A: My book, On a Wet Bough (Waltz Books, 2014) brings together 65 of my tintype portraits, made over ten years. The book coincided with several solo exhibitions of the work around the country.  In 2016, I completed a public art installation in Cleveland Ohio. Fifty of my portraits of Clevelanders were installed in the Rapid train tunnel leading to the airport. My images, representing the diversity of Cleveland, were inspired by Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration. This public commission opened up a new path in my practice which led to my sculptural installation, Shelter in Place, and the recent acquisition of a major piece into the Houston Airport System collection. That piece is on view in the C North United Terminal of IAH.

Q: What specific skills or ideas, which you have cultivated in your area of expertise, do you find valuable in your career now?

A: People are at the center of my work, from the families and homes I photographed in the woods of Maine for my project Off the Grid (2004-2010) to my ongoing portrait work in the wet-plate collodion tintype process. I often make new work at art and nonprofit spaces, engaging directly with communities. This interaction and the connections that emerge from it are crucial in shaping the work I make.

Q: What do you think are the most important attributes of a good instructor?

A: Empathy, patience, humility and an interest in other perspectives. Professors must always work to learn (or unlearn) and to listen to their students to find opportunities to grow.

Q: What are one or two of your proudest professional accomplishments? 

A: My piece, Shelter in Place, constructed after Hurricane Harvey, is an expression of the strength of community. It features a house-like structure sheathed in 540 tintype portraits, many made in Houston. The piece has now been reconstructed at several venues, including the Silos at Sawyer here in Houston and Shelburne Museum in Vermont. It is currently on view at Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago. There is an upcoming exhibition of it at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas in Beaumont. The piece was labor-intensive and it felt risky to go from concept to execution, but it was an idea I had for a long time and being able to see the finished piece travel definitely validates the effort. 

Q: What is coming up for you in the future that we should watch for?

A: I am part of two big group projects with multiple upcoming exhibitions, presentations and publications around the country.  A Yellow Rose Project, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment which guaranteed the right of women to vote, will be on view at galleries in Albuquerque, NM; Bloomington, IN and Denver, CO. A book, featuring work by the participating artists is forthcoming. The other project, Keeper of the Hearth, which brings together dozens of artists to respond to the winter garden photograph Roland Barthes famously wrote about in Camera Lucida, was published earlier this year and is currently on view at the Houston Center for Photography. I am also well into production on a major new project which I hope to begin showing widely in the next year.

Q: What advice would you have for incoming students who are focusing on a career in the arts?

A: Artists in general are quite flexible, and that flexibility will be essential in and after school. Students in the arts learn to think critically, to write, to connect their work up to history and culture. Art is a way of seeing the world and making sense of it, and I believe art should engage with the turmoil and crises of our time. My most specific advice is that students should not pass up opportunities to connect with other people.