Bayou Artist – KMAK
ARTICLE BY STARLA GATSON AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY KELLY MOORE CLARK
Gentle, delicate, feminine, and peaceful are just a few of the words that have been used
to describe the work that Khalilah Maryam Al-Amin Kersey — KMAK, for short — makes.
These words also describe Kersey herself, the young artist reveals, as she’s found herself
at a point where the art she creates echoes her life.
“I used to be very angry,” Kersey explains. “When I was 18, I recognized that something needed to change. That was the beginning of my college career, and [though] you don’t have a lot of time to make art for yourself during college, there were moments in my classes where I could explore that anger and recognize that I wanted to move into something different.”
Kersey moved into something different indeed, a fact that’s made apparent by the neutral color palette full of serene hues like marigold and olive green that typically show up in the images she illustrates. Instead of showing the anger she once felt, Kersey’s current works seem to exude calm and, she hopes, compassion.
“It really is just a reminder that this is a thing that we all have in common,” she says of her pieces. “[Compassion] goes beyond ‘people have a hard time in life and so we should be kind to them.’ I think there are so many similarities when it comes to being human that it actually boggles my mind that we aren’t more compassionate toward one another. I think what I’m trying to do is pull focus to a common human experience.”
Take into account Kersey’s love of people and the joy she gets from talking to them about their lives — “I want people to reach out to me to talk about my work, but also to talk about being alive in the world today,” she declares — and it’s no surprise that she’s trying to draw attention to a commonality among people. What is a bit surprising, though, is the fact that she doesn’t use depictions of humans to do it.
Kersey’s art doesn’t feature people, and that’s something she’s adamant about.
“I have no interest in drawing people,” she confesses. “That’s what my writing is for. When I see [people] creating work that’s about body positivity or portraits or whatever, I love that for them, but it’s very difficult for me to put myself there. It’s not me, no matter how close to my identity it is.”
Nature, on the other hand, is something Kersey feels tied to and inspired by, and she believes many others find themselves connecting to it, too. That’s why most of her illustrations are of both real and imagined nature scenes. And so far, she says, her hunch has been correct: people who view her work, particularly women and children, manage to relate to it in some way.
“I think when people see my work, they begin to know something about who I am, and the response has been very positive,” Kersey explains. “They say, ‘Wow, this feels really peaceful’ or ‘This reminds me of this place I went to one time.’”
The work, Kersey goes on, is often about the insights she’s gained throughout her life. “Wisdom that I’ve picked up, my relationships with my friends, my husband, things that my daughter is teaching me — I take those things, and I try to give them a graphic element,” she explains.
Take her most current collection of work, a series of mirrored and reflected images, for example. Those were inspired by her infant daughter, she says, “There was a point when she was just now learning that she has hands. We would put a mirror in front of her, and she would get so excited. Even now, I put her in front of a mirror, and she lights up. It got me thinking about how I really believe there’s something in all of us that knows how to appreciate ourselves.”
Today, Kersey sounds sure of herself as she speaks of her art, the intention behind it, and the things that inspire her to create. However, she reveals that confidence in creating wasn’t always there; even though she’s “always been an artist,” there was a time when Kersey didn’t even plan to pursue art professionally.
Kersey is a native of Convent, Louisiana, a town 45 minutes east of Baton Rouge and home to power plants and not much else. As a child, when she wasn’t visiting nearby family members or playing in the sugarcane field across the street, Kersey was making things. Creative outlets like writing stories, reading books, or painting were effective ways for the middle child with “lots of feelings” to express herself.
She was connected to her creative side then (and still is now, as she dabbles in multiple mediums), but excelling in school was young Kersey’s priority. That’s why, at age 15, she left the traditional school experience behind to attend the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts (LSMSA). The Natchitoches boarding school had a good art program, Kersey recalls, but its impressive math and science curriculums excited her most. She explains, “I always thought I was going to go into some sort of science or math as a profession. I think that’s what my dad wanted, and everybody’s like, ‘That’s where the money is.’”
Her plans to follow the money started shifting once she began taking art classes at LSMSA, however. Kersey was beginning to discover that the worlds of artistry and academia could merge, and pursuing graphic design was the way to make it happen. She would study graphic design in college, she decided, and, at the suggestion of one of her LSMSA art teachers, she would do it at Louisiana Tech.
“I was pretty against going to Tech,” Kersey admits. “I was pretty against going to school in Louisiana, but it was affordable, and I was even more against going into debt for school.”
Ultimately, though, the artist, wife, and mother believes heading to Tech proved to be a good decision. There, she earned a degree in graphic design and realized she didn’t have to choose between pursuing art and making a living. She could do both, she learned, and that’s precisely what she does now.
Kersey, who chose to stay in Ruston after graduating college, spends her days working at Fine Line Supply and as a freelance artist. Most recently, her work was shown at a solo exhibition at Ruston’s newest art venue, Creative Exchange. It’s been difficult finding her voice, she says, but being transparent throughout the journey has helped her navigate life as a working artist.
“You don’t even have to know who you are to be making art, but be honest about that; be honest about where you are in your journey,” she advises. “I don’t tend to share a lot about my personal life, but what I do share is I’m not interested in making art right now. I’m not really feeling it; I don’t have much to say [other than] I made this because I liked it. I think that has to be enough.”
Kersey shares the truth about her journey on Instagram
(@studiokmak), and using her voice on the social platform has encouraged her to make art for herself, not for those around her, she explains. “I was like, ‘This might look like a hot mess, but I’m just trying to figure something out here,’ and that approach freed me up to make whatever I wanted and to do it honestly without worrying about whether or not people are going to like it.”
Transparency and a solid support system are two factors leading Kersey to a place of authentic artistry, and she believes they’ll do the same for other creatives, especially when they’re coupled with time and patience.
“Just because you’re not making art every single day doesn’t mean you’re not an artist,” she says. “Don’t stress so much about figuring out who you are; it’ll come. When you start recognizing what it is that you’re drawn to, what you’re interested in, all of that [will begin] to inform the kind of art you make.”