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Interview: Carson Kressley on Discovering Your Own Eye for Art & Style

Grant Walters Grant Walters Interview: Carson Kressley on Discovering Your Own Eye for Art & StyleCarson Kressley -Photo by Rainer Hosch
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The renowned designer, stylist, author, and television host will headline the Columbus Museum of Art's 'Art in Bloom' Exhibition on April 23.

One of our city’s oldest cultural institutions, the Columbus Museum of Art enters its 143rd year in 2021, housing collections of American and European modern and contemporary pieces, in addition to a broad spectrum of folk, glass, and photographic art. On any given day, Columbus residents and visitors can see original works by Picasso, Degas, Matisse, Monet, and Rockwell, and participate in workshops, book clubs, and art talks designed to provide hands-on experiences in a variety of media. 

Among this year’s exhibitions is Art in Bloom, showcasing galleries brought to life through imaginative floral designs paired with works from the CMA collection. Headlining the weekend’s events is a Friday evening engagement with designer, author, celebrity stylist, and Emmy-award-winning television host Carson Kressley, who first appeared in American living rooms as a member of the original Fab Five on the Bravo reality series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy in 2003.

A native of Allentown, Pennsylvania, and an alumnus of Gettysburg College, Kressley began his career as an independent stylist before working for Ralph Lauren in a number of capacities between 1994 and 2002. After his Queer Eye breakout, he hosted the Lifetime series, How to Look Good Naked, ABC’s True Beauty, and appeared as a fashion critic and commentator on The Oprah Winfrey Show and Good Morning America. Kressley has competed on several reality shows, including NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice, Food Network’s Celebrity Cupcake Wars, ABC’s Celebrity Family Feud, and the 13th season of Dancing with the Stars. In 2015, he became a regular judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, for which he now serves as an executive producer. Soon, Kressley will return to the Food Network with his own series.

The foundation of Kressley’s successful career in design and styling is his respect and admiration for many forms of art, which we discussed at length when I sat down with him last week for our interview. Art is something he believes everyone should embrace and explore regardless of their experience or skill level.

“I think it’s a huge part of humanity, and something really healthy for your brain and for your eyes and for your soul,” he explains. “Because it really is about our common humanity and experiencing how other people see things. I think that’s so exciting, I think it keeps our minds sharp, it keeps us stimulated and entertained. Art just feeds something that we all, as humans, need.”

What would you say is your own personal definition of art?

Carson Kressley: “The first thing that comes to mind is beauty, and I’m a beauty junkie. But, as you grow older and wiser, you realize that art is not just beauty – it actually doesn’t have to be beautiful. It can be really anything that tells a story, I think. And it can be through dance, or acting, or the art of drag, or fine arts and painting and sculpture. Really, to me, art is when somebody bears their soul and tells their story through whatever medium they choose to use.”

In what ways do you consciously think about art in your day-to-day work with clients, or in books, or on television? It must shape nearly everything you do as a professional.

Carson Kressley: “Yeah, I’m programmed to be, like, ‘Oh, how can I make that better, or prettier, or more balanced?’ And I’ve always done that in my career, whether working for Ralph Lauren in the fashion business or working in television in the makeover space. Even right now, I’m working on a new food show for the Food Network, and it’s still about art – having things taste balanced and taste beautiful and tell us a story through food. 

For me, art is just something that’s omnipresent, and something I’m always looking for, and it’s always been a very continuous thread through my life. I loved art as a kid. I studied fine art in college. So, it’s always something that’s been a part of what I look for and what I kind of tend to gravitate toward.”

What was the first piece of art you ever saw that evoked a visceral or emotional reaction?

Carson Kressley: “The very first thing, and I was thinking about this, was in my elementary school library. There was a copy of Goya’s Red Boy, you know, with a little dog. And I just saw that picture recently – someone had posted on Instagram, and it was with maybe its famous socialite owner sitting on a sofa in New York and the painting was hanging above them. They were just kind of, you know, casually hanging out. And I was, like, ‘Wow! That’s that painting! I forgot about it.’ I mean, it’s a classic, but I forgot that that was the first one that I saw growing up in rural Pennsylvania where we didn’t have a lot of art. Even our churches are pretty pared down. 

So I saw that, and I was like, ‘Gosh, the color and the subject matter, and the life in the eyes of the subject, and the energy of the little dog…’ I just found it so interesting, and I thought, ‘You know, don’t all the other little kids wanna go and try to climb over the counter at the library and get a closer look at this painting?’ So that’s the first one that really inspired me to be inquisitive about art and say to myself, ‘I wonder who this person was?’ and ‘That time in history must have been so interesting.’ and ‘Isn’t this cool?’ and ‘Isn’t it so lifelike?’ So, it evoked a lot of emotions and a lot of interest.

And then I just started doing my own art history research in my elementary school library with the World Book Encyclopedia and learning about Greece and sculpture, and pointillism and Henry Surat. I guess I was very nerdy about it, but it was really interesting to me, so I just enjoyed the exploration of it all.”

Which artists do you most admire now, or whose works do you find yourself actively seeking?

Carson Kressley: “You know, I’m not that snobby about it, so I’m not into who the hottest collector at Art Basel is [laughs].

But, I like a variety of art. I’m really into horses – that’s one of my big passions in my life. There is a famous equine artist from the middle of the 20th century that I collect, and his name is George Ford Morris. He was an artist from the United States in the middle of the century, and he kind of captured all of the great equestrian athletes of their era. I love LeRoy Neiman kind of for the same reason. He does kind of that same thing, but in such a modern way with so much color. Those are two that I try to collect personally, and I have a few pieces. And then, you know, being in the design space, I see art all the time for décor purposes. 

So, I’m not snobby about art, you know – I might have some authentic paintings in my house, but I also have just some stuff that I literally found at HomeGoods or TJ Maxx. It could be a piece of crystal, or a rock or a mineral that somebody framed. I have big soup cans that are take-offs of Andy Warhol that are done with designers’ names like Hermès or Cartier that are just fun pop art and…I don’t want to say disposable because they’re too good for that. 

For me, it’s about that mix – putting art in your home that really speaks to you. It doesn’t have to be pedigreed. You just need to love it or it just needs to provide you with a certain emotion.”

You’ve spoken in the past about the idea of ‘art meeting style.’ What does that look like in a practical sense?

Carson Kressley: “I think art and style are one and the same, and I really feel like fashion is an art, as well, and that fashion design is an art. It’s all about storytelling first and foremost. It’s about beauty, most of the time. And it’s about crafting that and putting it all together. I think even just fashion styling is an art because it’s about balance, it’s about symmetry, it’s about poetry, it’s about color, it’s about pattern, it’s about scale. So, I think art is everywhere, and anything you can design will have artistry in it.”

Certainly, a lot of people have seen you most recently on RuPaul’s Drag Race, which has done so much to spotlight drag as an art form for new and wider audiences. And, of course, Nina West’s turn on the show was a special point of pride for our city because of the tremendous work she has done on its behalf. What do you feel is important for people to glean from it as a medium?

Carson Kressley: “Well, first of all, we love Nina West and she was one of our all-time favorite competitors – and I love coming to Columbus and seeing Nina West Way on the street – that is really, really fun. Drag has always been very, very artistic, and a political statement, and something avant-garde. It’s maybe much more mainstream now, but it still, at its core, is about artistry and about storytelling. Some people, you know, do it in a very old-fashioned way, and some people do it in a modern way – it’s all very, very personal. 

But I think of some of our contestants like Sasha Velour, who considers herself a performance artist, and I think that’s really what drag is – it’s performance art. It’s song, it’s movement, it’s color, it’s fashion, and it’s painting to create an illusion. So, there’s a lot of artistry, and I think it just boils down to communication and telling your story through the medium of drag. It’s so fun to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race because everybody tells their story in a different way, so each season we get to meet some really interesting people and learn about them as they express themselves through that art.”

A lot of people may shy away from engaging with art because they don’t feel knowledgeable enough about it or might feel they don’t have an eye or instinct for it. What are some ways in which people can increase their art proficiency or acquire skills without pursuing a formal education?

Carson Kressley: “Just stay inquisitive. Learning about art is so fun. Most communities have really fantastic art museums, just like the Columbus Museum of Art. I’ve traveled all over the country for different work events. I went one time with Florence Henderson from The Brady Bunch – she was being inducted into the hall of fame in Owensboro, Kentucky, and she said, ‘Oh, would you go with me?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I would love to!’ We went and they have their own art museum. They have a Degas in Owensboro, Kentucky. It was, like, ‘What?!’ My hometown of Allentown, Pennsylvania has the Allentown Art Museum, and they recently discovered they have a Rembrandt. They had sent a copy out for conservation, and when they did so, the technicians were, like, ‘No, this is a real Rembrandt!’ And they were, like, ‘What?!’ So, there are our gems like that all over the country. 

If you can access your art museum in person or online – explore that! It will really unleash a world of ideas and inform you of what it is you like. You might not realize that you love modern sculpture, or that you like classical painting, but you can really fall down the rabbit hole in a great way by exploring these places in our own communities. And online, there are drawing classes and painting classes, where you can literally just dabble and see if you like it. It doesn’t have to be good. I think trying something new is just so stimulating and so refreshing. It’s just really, really healthy for you, especially at a time like this one we’re all, you know, trying to seek healthy outlets.”

Columbus Museum of Art’s Art in Bloom is open to the public from Thursday, April 22 through Saturday, April 24, and is presented by the CMA Advocates. General admission to CMA on Friday, April 23, and Saturday, April 24 includes access to the exhibition and is $23 for adults, $14 for seniors and students, and $9 for children aged 4 and older. Proceeds from Art in Bloom and related events support creative programs and learning experiences for children at CMA. Carson Kressley’s presentation on Saturday evening is ticketed separately. Rates and details can be found via the CMA website.

For more information on Carson’s current and upcoming projects, follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

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