Sometimes, it’s best to not act your age.
For artist Delisha McKinney, not acting her age has become the cornerstone of her work. Drawn from real life events, her paintings provide a journey through a storybook adventure set at the border of where the fantastic meets reality. It’s a place where heartache and loss aren’t just commonplace but also stepping stones to the next chapter.
Anchoring her work are three main characters: Hero, a powder blue, one-armed teddy bear; Kat, a tenacious young girl who dons a monkey outfit; and Scarves, an anthropomorphic narrator made up of—you guessed it—scarves. Together, they act as her dramatis personae in a vibrant storyscape.
Underneath it all is a mischievousness and whimsy that appears to have gotten lost on its way to a Dr. Seuss story and found itself on canvas. Unlike Seuss, though, there’s pain in Delisha’s work, and when coupled with pastels and chalk board paint, it creates a discordant edge that captivates and delights.
You’re from the South, right?
I’m originally from Chicago but I lived my whole life mostly in the South—Arkansas and North Carolina.
Could you describe your life in the South?
Boring mostly. [laughs] Very, very boring. I lived in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was so small. You have your same group of friends and everyone knows each other and bumps into each other. I think coming back to Chicago helped me wake up to what the rest of the world is about. You get too comfortable in small towns.
Have you always had an affinity for art?
Always. I was always marking on stuff when I was a kid. We moved around a lot since I was an army brat. So even on just our moving boxes, I was always drawing on them and—in my mind—I was making these beautiful portraits of my mom and my dad.
You’re mostly self-taught, but did you have any mentors growing up?
I think the most prominent mentors in my life, as far as being an artist, would be from art teachers who saw a light in me and would take me under their wing for however long I was at the school—and even sometimes more after.
What was the move back to Chicago like?
I wasn’t used to segregated communities in the city. So when I came here, it was a big culture shock to me to go to an all black high school where test scores were just terrible. So you can imagine that experience for me. There was an art teacher there, though, named Sarah Zoldan who was amazing. She put me in whatever program she could to further my education.
What else helped develop your imagination?
I think my imagination is pretty crazy, but I think my strongest influences has always been nature. Living in the South and rural areas, you can’t not get involved with nature.
As far as cultural influences, I’d say Jean-Michel Basquiat, Dr. Suess, and Bill Watterson. I’m a big Bill Watterson fan too.
Who doesn’t love Bill Watterson?
Yeah, he’s awesome! I think those are the three guys that helped mold how I approach art
That makes sense. Your work is very reminiscent of storybook illustrations—very playful and mischievous.
They’re all based off of real life events. I mean, who really wants to grow up as a person? [laughs] Even though we consider ourselves adults, we’re not really as mature as we tend to portray ourselves to be. So I think approaching people and serious topics in a playful way is the best way to show this.
How does this affect your process?
Every single piece is a part of a story. So it’s a long though out story from beginning to end. Each piece starts at a different narrative. If I’m creating a piece though, I’m usually starting off at the part of the story that I left off at and then add onto that.
The process involves lots of feelings of course. If I’m feeling sad, coarse colors are going to come into play. If I’m happy, the colors will be brighter. I do play with red more than anything else though. It’s just a beautiful color.
Could you describe the characters? I know there’s Scarves, Hero, and there’s a girl named Kat.
Yeah, the girl with the tail. She’s a little girl wearing a monkey outfit—like a leotard with a tail. She lives in this world with the bear, whose name is Hero, a one-armed teddy bear. He lost the arm trying to save her, and while they were being ripped apart the arm was ripped off with her.
Scarves is the narrator, so he’ll narrate every piece of the story or whenever there’s a scene change. He’s my speaking piece. If I were to identify with any of the characters more, it would be with Scarves. He’s my comfort zone.
You’ve described him as the Morgan Freeman of your whole art pieces. I love that.
I hope his voice is that nice! [laughs]
Any influences from modern day that you like?
Of course. Who doesn’t love Hebru Brantley? He’s one of my favorites. I really look up to that guy.
What do you like about him?
He works in layering. He layers each piece to create one solid voice. He knows how to talk through his art.
I’ve noticed you’ve been working on some of that, particularly with Scarves. He’ll be superimposed on the streets of Chicago or on a CTA platform. What’s your process with creating something like that where it’s more multimedia rather than say a painting?
That’s a part of the future stuff I want to incorporate into my work. It’ll be more reality vs drawing merged together. I want to make the characters more real and feel more tangible to people. If they see my characters in everyday settings it’ll really resonate more I think.
Why do you want to make them more real?
I feel like they are real! [laughs] I mean, since they are me and it’s life imitating art I do consider them to be a part of my ego as a person, as an artist. Just like Hebru Brantley has his flyboys and Dr. Seuss had the Cat in the Hat. They wanted to make them as real as possible. Even Disney made a statue of Mickey Mouse in his theme park where they’re holding hands.
To make that real to me would make me feel complete as a human being.
Do you think that’s a goal for a lot of artists?
I think so. It’s their voice. It’s who they are. If they can make it real then why not?
I’ve read before that you were homeless for a while. What led to this and does it affect your work at all?
I’m not sure to be honest. There are a lot of suppressed emotions regarding it, so I’m not sure if that moment in my life triggered me to make the work I make now, but it’s certainly a part of my life. I can take it and accept it and let people know and be aware about it.
Are you working on anything now you’re particularly excited about?
I have a book coming out soon. I’m trying my best to make a legit story where you’re going to have to kind of decipher my work. It’ll be the drawings and photographs together.
How far along are you?
It’s done! I’m just waiting to get it printed. I’m hoping in the spring it’ll be ready to come out.
Do you have a piece of work you’re particularly proud of now?
Not yet actually. I know I haven’t reached my peak yet. I have more work to do.
Any advice to burgeoning young artists who might have been where you were a few years ago?
Yeah, work. Work work work. Put focus in. Put time in. And work. There will always be time to hang out and kick it.
Do you feel yourself falling victim to wanting to just hang out when you’re supposed to work?
Oh no, not at all. [laughs] I’m always the girl at the party wondering why she’s there. But yeah, just sharpen your tools. It’s the best thing that any writer, musician, artist, or whatever can do. It means just being one with your gifts as an artist. If you’re a painter, know your paint brushes, how your hand moves, etc. If you’re a writer, know words, your language. If you’re a musician, you gotta know how to play. I wish I knew how to play.
Never dabbled with music?
I wish. My dad was a musician. He played piano and guitar. He was pretty good.
You didn’t pick up on it though.
[laughs] No, I didn’t.
You’re also a photographer. How did you fall into that?
I actually went to school for photography. It’s okay. [laughs]
Not as much love for photography?
Definitely. It feels just way more personal with drawing. I can play God a bit more with it.
I do like to capture things from time to time though. I’m not the best photographer though. I think that’s why I don’t like it. [laughs]
You just got to sharpen your tools.
Yeah, I guess so! I’m too busy painting though.