Q&A with Kansas City-based John Knell, photographer, collage artist, illustrator and graphic designer

"I think all the arts affect culture and humanity in many important ways. Whether it is communicating a political position, pointing out a societal ill, providing hope, building community, telling a story or just showcasing beauty. The arts are vital to not only a culture but to humanity as well."

John Knell: Goin' to Kansas City

John Knell is a photographer, collage artist, illustrator and graphic designer who explores a new frontier of digital collage by skillfully weaving those complimentary disciplines into unique works of visual complexity, creativity and storytelling. He harvests his own photography, along with culturally significant American motifs, to build visual discussions with his audience. KC regional expressions, and heartland landscapes, are areas of focus and it is John’s hope that his work will bring beauty, inspiration and joy to his audience.

John Knell, says: "I’m a photographer, collage artist, illustrator and writer who explores new frontiers, and unique perspectives, of visual communication through my art. I create unique works of complexity, creativity and thoughtful storytelling by harvesting my own creative inspirations, along with culturally significant American motifs, to build interesting visual discussions with my audience. Kansas City regional expressions, digital collage, pop culture references, societal commentary and heartland landscapes are my main areas of focus."

Interview by Michael Limnios                       Artworks © by John Knell

How has the Rock n' Roll Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Rock n’ roll, especially of the late 60s with its rebellious attitudes and independent/artistic sensibilities, as well as the anti-corporate/punk scene in the 70’s, coupled with new wave and metal of the 80’s, all were heavy influences on my early years as a developing artist. I’ve take a bit from each here and there and have added it to my creative muse over the years. The beauty of a Paul McCartney’s bass line or melody... The razor wit of a John Lennon lyric. The gritty dark baritone of a Jim Morrison vocal. The phrasing of Sinatra. The passionate virtuosity of Jimi Hendrix. The funk from James Brown. Harmony from The Beach Boys. The Ramones hyper kinetic energy. The jangle from a Tom Petty Rickenbacker. The boundary pushing/ instrument defining technical expertise of Eddie Van Halen. The genre bending creativity and sensual soul of Prince. The methodical exactness of the Edge’s guitar playing. The kick drum from Lars Ulrich of Metallica. A rhyme from the Beastie Boys. Their creative spirts and collective works have, in one way or another, all informed me deeply as a visual artist and I draw on them daily for my inspiration.

How do you describe your artwork? How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started?

My current style is sort of akin to graffiti art. I work to build layer upon layer of colors, textures, shape and form. I want my work to feel like it has some history to it…that it has lived upon a wall for a while and that the artist has returned several times over the course of several years  to add another layer on top of what was previously there. On the surface, and on first glance, the bright colors and shapes jump out but, the more you look, the other patterns and texture just underneath the surface emerge and, consequently, the more you dig, the more satisfying and rewarding the journey through my work becomes.

I started drawing snoopy in 3rd grade, studied graphic design and photography in school, ran my own graphic design shop for 14 years and now I’ve come full circle, but this time with history/experience, to resume my first love - drawing. It’s that marriage between a more refined technical skill set, coupled with the years of living, that have allowed me to approach my art with more perspective and greater purpose and passion than I did 30 years ago.

"With my art - I feel that it should bring good vibes. It should communicate the joy I feel around the subjects I portray while also showing the amazing beauty that this world has to offer. It should be a respite, no matter how brief, to all the chaos that seems to be everywhere right now. Of course… I could wake up tomorrow and decide to do a series that tackles a very serious subject but for now… this is where I’m at." (Photo: Tab Benoit & Lenny / Artworks © by John Knell)

Where does your creative drive come from? What is the hardest part of making a music or sport portrait?

My creative drive comes from my very deep-seated desire to connect to my fellow human, and to bring as much creativity, joy and happiness into the world, as my skillset will allow. It’s what the best art, whether it’s visual, written or musical, will do. It connects you to a feeling. An experience. It allows you to share something with the viewer in the most profound and deeply human ways. As I’m creating my art, I have to get an emotional response from it. I have to feel it because, if I don’t, my viewer won’t either. How does the Willie Nelson line go? “Anything outside of your gut ain’t necessarily so...”

The hardest part, for me, in creating, is always the struggle to find that moment of emotional lift off for the piece. It’s having the patience to work through the process long enough that will allow you to find a moment that hits you and let’s you know you have something special. There’s isn’t a way to tell when that moment will arrive either. There’s no formula, equation or magic set of rules for finding it. You just have to trust that it will and keep working until, hopefully, it does. Consequently, I chase that feeling the first moment to the last, and all the moments in-between, in a blind-faith pursuit that lift off will, indeed, happen. For me creation is an act of faith in finding the heart of the piece.

How important was music and sports in your life? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

Both occupy special, and similar, places in my life. For me they each mark the passage of time with memories of special events and the people in my life. Each profession has people utilizing a highly trained, and refined, skill set that then allows them to perform tasks at an above average/extraordinary way to achieve a desired end goal. Whether it’s catching a touch down or shredding a guitar solo…each outcome is backed by hours upon hours of behind the scene practice and dedication that led the athlete/musician to that point. Consequently, I appreciate watching people, no matter what their occupation, practice their trade at a very high level. The passion and feeling that each can produce in you is similar as well isn’t it? Each can thrill you with moments of emotional exuberance, so I also appreciate both for that as well. Having said that, while sports may inspire me to work on a specific piece and/or celebrate a particular athlete, music is a critical component to all the art I create.  It is as essential to my creative process as the air I breathe. It is the fuel that fills me up and allows me to do creative work and my art simply wouldn’t exist without it.

"For my musical time machine, I would either want to go back to Sun Record Studios in Memphis TN on December 4, 1956 to witness the “Million Dollar Quartet” session involving Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Or Hamburg Germany in the early 60’s to catch a Beatles gig." (Diana Rein & Samantha Fish / Artworks © by John Knell)

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Probably, if I’m being honest, what I miss most is having my generation's music be the center, and main influencer, of the pop culture world at large. Having the bands, I love creating the culture that defines the moment. That changes attitudes. That enlightens the masses. That creates music the whole world dances, sings, loves and lives with is, apparently, only reserved for the young folks. Don’t get me wrong… there are still plenty of ways for older artists to find, and maintain, a culturally relevant creative working life. I think to do so requires the willingness to shift your expectations and realign to what role your art can serve your fellow humans. Every major artists, at one point or another, wakes up to find that the years have marched on, that their audience has dwindled, the zeitgeist has shifted and the cultural landscape has cracked under their feat. Especially today - everything in culture is hyper fast and changes rapidly. My hope is that every creative striving to find their voice and audience will do so. We need art, beauty and creativity now more than ever. My fear is that a creative will give up before that happens for them and deprive the world of their vision and voice.

What would you say characterizes KC music scene in comparison to other local US scenes and circuits?

I can’t speak for other music scenes in other areas but… we have a song written about us - ”Goin to Kansas City… Kansas City here I come.” So… KC has a deep rooted history in jazz that goes back to the early 20th century and I think the city does a good job showcasing our contributions to that art form - especially since we have a museum dedicated to doing just that. As for being a working musician here in the city - I know several and, before COVID, they were gigging regularly. As for being a fan… I think we have venues to handle all sizes of events from small clubs to stadium size shows. Plus, you have Lawrence KS, home of the University of Kansas, right down the road and they have a very active music scene as well. So, I think there are plenty of opportunities to catch a show no matter what size of artist or genre’ of music you are into.

"My creative drive comes from my very deep-seated desire to connect to my fellow human, and to bring as much creativity, joy and happiness into the world, as my skillset will allow. It’s what the best art, whether it’s visual, written or musical, will do. It connects you to a feeling. An experience. It allows you to share something with the viewer in the most profound and deeply human ways." (Photo: John Knell & Grogu! aka Baby Yoda/the Child © by John Knell)

What would you like to ask Lemmy and Yoda? Where would you really want to go with a time machine?

Lemmy: What originally drew you to being a musician? How were you able to be so consistent in your approach to your craft for so many years and did your songwriting process change over the years?

Yoda: Does creativity make you a better Jedi?

For my musical time machine, I would either want to go back to Sun Record Studios in Memphis TN on December 4, 1956 to witness the “Million Dollar Quartet” session involving Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Or Hamburg Germany in the early 60’s to catch a Beatles gig.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Tough one… That Stevie Ray Vaughan didn’t get on that helicopter or John Lennon didn’t step out of that limo at that exact time. They both still had so much to offer us.

What is the impact of art and music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want to affect people?

I think all the arts affect culture and humanity in many important ways. Whether it is communicating a political position, pointing out a societal ill, providing hope, building community, telling a story or just showcasing beauty. The arts are vital to not only a culture but to humanity as well. With my art - I feel that it should bring good vibes. It should communicate the joy I feel around the subjects I portray while also showing the amazing beauty that this world has to offer. It should be a respite, no matter how brief, to all the chaos that seems to be everywhere right now. Of course… I could wake up tomorrow and decide to do a series that tackles a very serious subject but for now… this is where I’m at.

John Knell Art - Home

(Photo: Collage, KC Jazz - A Night Out & Prince / Artworks © by John Knell)

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