Kelly Korzun is a multidisciplinary designer and artist born in the hometown of Marc Chagall, a prominent French-Russian artist within the so-called École de Paris. Kelly grew up deeply influenced by his poetic and figurative style. After getting formal training in fine arts as a junior, she continued to explore other creative disciplines. In 2014, she launched METAL & DVST as a personal collection of original, in-depth interviews with the industry’s top emerging and established artists, including Karim Rashid, Stefan Sagmeister, Esteban Diacono, Galen Hooks, Joe Perez, Mona Kuhn, Gary Bunt, Christina de Middel, Jean Jullien, Sara Blake, Fabien Montique, and others.
During OFFF Barcelona, we met Kelly to ask her a few questions about curiosity, the central theme of her personal and insightful talk, and other influences that have informed her creative journey.
In your OFFF talk, you focused on curiosity as the most important asset any creative person can have. Why did you decide to pick this specific topic?
Curiosity has always been my main driver and it moved me forward in life in ways I would’ve never expected. Not so long ago, I watched an interview with Malcolm Gladwell, writer who popularized the 10,000-hour concept and co-host at the Broken Record podcast by Rick Rubin. Questlove asked him an interesting question: “Can you actually be too good at something? What happens when exploring the unknown is no longer a part of your process?”, to which Gladwell replied: “Well, it’s the end; the end of your life as a creative person. Privileging your curiosity is an incredibly important part of what it means to be creative”, and I couldn’t agree more because once you stop exploring, it is the death of your creativity.
How do you foster your curiosity?
There are many ways to keep the flame burning, but I’d say investing in personal projects and stimulating critical thinking are the most important areas of focus. METAL & DVST is a solely personal project: every single pixel on the website is pushed by me. Whenever I get asked if I have any intentions to monetize it, my go-to response is that METAL & DVST is not about making money, it’s about making friends. Many years ago, I made a pact with myself that none of my art is ever gonna be commercial. Today, I donate 100% of my illustration proceeds to Feeding America and the NAACP Legal Defence Fund.
Enjoying the work you do without getting paid means you’re being rewarded in a different way, which is far more important to me. Art is my playground, and I just wanna let my inner kid explore without anyone’s supervision. As a multidisciplinary creative working in both art and tech, I find personal work to be the fuel for commercial work and one of the most effective ways to ignite one’s curiosity. Aforementioned stimulation of critical thinking is something that can be achieved by making research an integral part of your process, paired with a careful selection of the content you consume on a regular basis. Research will give you answers and generate more questions, which is exactly what your curiosity needs; it’s a muscle that can and should be trained.
You also brought up fear as a universal struggle many creatives are facing. What about self-doubt, and how do you think it correlates with curiosity?
Fear can be paralyzing, which is harmful to your curiosity, so it’s important to make fear your friend, not your enemy. Marina Abramovic talked a lot about it in her book Walk Through Walls where she mentioned that she only looks at the ideas her students put in the trash, the ideas they didn’t like because, ultimately, it’s a treasure trove of things they are afraid to do. Facing your fears is one of the most effective ways to grow as an artist and a human being; it’s important to embrace your fear and let it highlight the areas of potential growth.
Personally, I find self-doubt somewhat healthy because it keeps us grounded: we limit our ability to learn and grow when we stop questioning ourselves. The thing is, that type of self-doubt is actually constructive, while a lot of destructive self-doubt is informed by constant comparison, this idea of never-ending competition amongst creatives. Last fall, Adobe Max had Jeff Koons as one of the speakers, and he said a very important thing: “You don’t have to bring anything to art: the only thing you can bring is who you are, all the experiences that have happened to you up to this moment.” Once you realize that your unique life experience is the main differentiator, any idea of comparison or competition becomes absolutely irrelevant. Questioning ideas or products you’re putting out there is important, but I also want to encourage creatives to believe in their talent because, again, all you can bring to art is your personal experience, and the more you explore, the more experience you have to pull from. That’s it.
Issie, 2020. Daphne Guinness x The Isabella Blow Foundation
What fear did you have to overcome recently as a creative?
One of the biggest fears for me is lack of control, especially when it comes to my creative process. Last year at OFFF Barcelona, Rob Draper and I ended up discussing our creative routines, and I mentioned that I rarely freestyle because the idea comes to me as a highly-detailed vision, so the only exploration I have to do is playing with different techniques to visualize it digitally. Rob was wondering why I don’t create things manually, and my response was that working digitally allows me to have more control over the process without being afraid to mess things up.
If you look at Rob’s work, it’s all about freestyling and experimentation, so his advice was to try to let go of control, mess things up, and see what comes out of it, which is way out of my comfort zone. Last fall, I went to Paris for my artist residency at Antoine Petel’s studio to start working on some abstract watercolor studies for my upcoming solo art show. Antoine, one of the most hard-working artists I know, is also very experimental in his approach, and I’m extremely grateful for the relationship we have developed over the years.
Would you say you struggle with perfectionism?
Certainly, but it has improved significantly since I had my daughter. Being a parent teaches you that finding flexibility and balance is far more important than perfection. As a parent, I’m pretty liberal and forgiving, but I’m not that forgiving when it comes to my art or whatever put out into the universe.
Because you feel like your art is a representation of who you are as a person?
Yes, but I think it happens to many creatives to a certain extent. Having a math degree and a highly analytical mind, I think my approach is definitely on a more pragmatic and calculated side, but when it comes to picking a subject matter, it’s the opposite: I always go with my heart and intuition, and I’d say my internal radar is pretty good. Since there are many sides of me, sometimes extreme ones, that I need to balance out, I’m often joking that I have some sort of personality disorder when it comes to not only my creative approach, but also career, lifestyle, and even my fashion choices. On top of that, I’m an aquarius, and basically ruled by the planet of shocking surprises.
Personal archive, 1989. Vitebsk, USSR.
In your talk, you mentioned that you grew up in the Soviet Union, in Vitebsk, with your father being a professional jazz musician and your mother being his tour manager. How did your upbringing shape your creative journey?
Everything from the environment I was growing up in to my early interests has shaped my creative DNA, which hasn’t changed that much, to be honest. Yes, many things have evolved, but I’m still that crazy girl obsessed with art, music, and writing. The environment I grew up in was very much informed by Western culture: jazz, literature, movies, cartoons, even fashion.
My mom has always been into fashion because she did some runway modeling back in the day, and with both my grandmothers being seamstresses, everyone in our family was dressed pretty fashionably, including my Barbie dolls. Growing up in the early 90s, we’d have to DIY a lot of stuff because of very limited access to pretty much everything. My dad and I would get our hands dirty a lot because if you wanted a new amp for your electric guitar, you’d have to make it yourself.
Being an only child with a pretty packed weekly schedule because of attending both regular school and Marc Chagall art school, I remember I hated weekends and semester breaks because I always had to find ways to occupy myself, and since I didn’t have any TV in my room, but I had a dual cassette recorder deck, I’d listen to music, create playlists, record my own radio shows and podcasts, or just transcribe song lyrics by hitting play/pause and writing it down.
Whitney’s music inspired me to learn English very early on because I simply wanted to understand what she was singing about, but I can absolutely attribute at least 50% of my English skills to my obsession with hip-hop in my teens. When I moved to Minsk to go to the university, I thought all of my new friends would introduce me to so much more hip music because, unlike me, they had MTV and VH1, but they ended up turning to me with that same request. Limitation always breeds creativity.
Whitney Houston, 1990. Photo: Andrea Blanch
Can you share the story you mentioned in your talk about how your love for Whitney’s music brought you to New York?
Many of my friends are joking that every story in my life is a crazy story. Growing up, one of my favorite Whitney’s records was I’m Your Baby Tonight, so I would study all the lyrics in that booklet for hours and look at the beautiful photography inside the CD. When I launched METAL & DVST and started interviewing creatives, I got approached by the Musée Magazine team asking if I would be interested in interviewing and writing for the magazine.
I’ve never heard about the magazine before, but I looked it up, and it turned out it was a respected photography publication based in New York and curated by Andrea Blanch who started her career as Richard Avedon’s assistant. Even though I had to go back and forth between Philly and New York, I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grow as a writer and interviewer.
Anyway, I ended up working at Musée for quite a while, sitting next to Andrea at least three days a week and getting to know each other on a personal level, and only years later I found out that Andrea was the photographer behind I’m Your Baby Tonight, the record that inspired me to learn English in the first place. Twenty-something years later, my passion brought me to New York and the dots have finally connected. Just recently, I flew to LA to interview Stevie Mackey, celebrity vocal coach who also did backup vocals for one of Whitney’s records.
Interestingly, the universe keeps connecting me to Whitney in many random ways, and I’m absolutely sure that at one point, our paths would have crossed had she been still alive. Nothing is out of reach if you act out of love for what you do. There’s a natural law that governs the universe: all actions have consequences. Call it Karma or Newton’s Third Law. To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction, so what you think and believe, you can achieve.