Talking Photography, COVID, & Coffee with Kalven Duncan

Where are you from?

Born and raised, St. Louis suburbs—Jefferson County (Pevely, MO)





What media do you primarily work in?

Photography and Portraiture

Talk us through your art-making process? What’s first? How do you decide what to make? Do you edit your images?

What’s first… I am not sure there is ever a concise starting point. I constantly think about things I want to possibly include or explore in my work. Along with that and being such a visual person, I often just get ideas and images in my head that I then try to recreate—often addressing whatever I have been contemplating for days or weeks on end. For example, Beauty Routine stemmed from someone making a comment about my appearance. I began to think about the fact I have never directly dealt with my insecurities about my body and ear in a true unobscured fashion. While thinking about that, I began to pull from my visual vocabulary that is heavily influenced by my background in art history. Later, when planning exact images, I began to contemplate how my insecurities play into my relationships. I think my process with whatever I am tackling develops in similar, organic ways. I begin working on a simple idea or concept and it gradually grows and takes shape to include more complex notions and pull from more nuanced thought-processes. In terms of editing I play with exposure, contrast, shadows, etc., the same way I would in the darkroom. Lightroom has become my best friend with no access to a darkroom. I even will scan my negatives in and push them through some tweaking just to play around with the visuals and see what sticks. 

How/when did you start making art?

I’ve always been interested in creative processes—I actually asked both of my parents if there was a particular moment that they remembered when they realized I was inclined to create. My mother said she had an inkling when I was around eight or nine and I got into the elementary school’s art club which was largely limited to the 5th or 6th graders. I didn’t play with cameras or any form of photography until I took film photography classes in high school. The photos were far from good, here are a few wild things I made, including a 3-D matted photo of one of my cats… I didn’t touch a camera or really create anything again until my last year at Truman and I was both overwhelmed and excited. 

Where have you been exhibited?

I exhibited, while at Truman, in the University’s gallery and at Tom Thumb, but besides that, I have exhibited at InterUrban ArtHouse in Overland Park, KS and Art St. Louis in St. Louis both in Fall/Winter 2019. I will be exhibiting a new piece at Art St. Louis again by the time this is out in a virtual exhibition, This Moment

Favorite way to spend the autumn? 

Autumn is a state of mind, I live in perpetual autumn. You will almost always see me in long sleeves and pants no matter the time of year, but as the days grow shorter I prefer to spend my time ritualistically watching the Blair Witch Project and Beetlejuice as I do every year in the season and painting and reading in cemeteries. 

Have you won any awards? 

Yes! I was awarded 3rd place in the Truman Student Juried Show in 2019 and in spring 2020 I was awarded a voucher by Saal-Digital to fund a single-editioned photo book that I used to create a small book of the series Beauty Routine, which is being featured in this edition of Hazel Art. 

Any overarching themes in your works?

I think my work has always more or less focused on the same themes. Growing up queer and battling mental health issues has rendered me incredibly introspective and inquisitive. I am constantly thinking about how I perform as a person and its effects on my relationships with myself and others. Earlier on in my work, I dealt purely with the concept of self-curation with identity and performance and gradually I’ve gone further to include elements of sexuality, intimacy, physical insecurities, fear, and discomfort. Now, these are avenues I walk along in my photographic work, I actually treat each medium as a different inquiry into my questions of art and life. Not something I set out purposefully to do, but my paintings and collage exercises are extremely different than my photography and explore different facets of my curiosity. 

Tell us about what you’re currently working on:

Beauty Routine works out of a need and desire to look at how my physical and emotional insecurities influence the dynamics in my relationships, catalyzed by reflecting on one recent relationship in particular.  For me, intimacy is a complex and complicated thing, and not always knowing what I want and what I want to be for someone else often leaves me at a loss. I used this series and the juxtaposition of myself with the bust of Michelangelo’s David to afford myself space to contemplate and digest my thoughts and actions in this relationship and what I want to gain from the hindsight and experience. Even as this relationship evolves, this series and the questions at the root of it can apply to it still; and many of my other relationships with people in my life for that matter. This series and the questions at the root of it still apply to this still-evolving relationship, as well as many of the other relationships in my life.

What/who inspires your creative energies?

I think it’s hard to not be inspired or influenced by literally everything around you in one way or another. I am inspired by so many things I see, from taking a picture of a chair and making copies of the photo over and over again to see the abstracted chair results, to an abandoned pair of flip flops at a gas station that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about for months. In terms of music, I am really drawn to and excited by projects that come off as fully-fleshed out concepts that border on creating their own worlds, like the works of Mothers (Kristine Leschper, a super cool interdisciplinary artist who also has a background in printmaking, and who I owe the credit of the title Beauty Routine to.), James Yorkston, Shakey Graves, SOAK, the family tree in Radical Face’s music, and the DIY solo-working feel and intense focus on raw lyrics of Girl in Red. I love a lot of music and used to run a radio show where I tried to incite particular emotions and experiences through curated playlists. On the flip side, I also get excited by a lot of films specifically the short Surrealist film Le Chien AndalouRear WindowRope, and campy horror films such as Elvira: Mistress of the Dark.  As for television, the Twilight Zone, the original and the new CBS reboot has long been a favorite. Quite a few artists inspire me in many ways like Andy Warhol, Vija Celmins, Marcel Duchamp, Claude Cahun, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Hilma af Klint, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Andrea Vizzini, and many more, but I think I draw the most inspiration from my loved ones as cliche as that sounds. I think a key to really tapping into your unique qualities as an artist is by finding inspiration literally and figuratively close to home. 

Where do you see your art career going in the next 5-10 years?

I am interested in so many avenues and aspects of the art world that I wish I had enough time in my life to at least sample them all, but I would like to still be involved in a commercial gallery in some form as well as earn my income from my artwork. 

How has COVID impacted your art practice?

COVID has really affected a lot of plans, as I am sure it has for everyone. I took this last winter off of exhibiting and networking to create and focus on my art after showing all of Fall 2019. By the time I was beginning to start networking and seeking out exhibition opportunities, COVID hit, and only now are things starting to gain some semblance of organization. As I also casually toy with the possibility of looking at residencies and grants, most things are altered and changed due to COVID. Resources and opportunities are so much more scarce now than ever before. 

Favorite coffee order? 

At home, I like my coffee black, French-pressed, but I always gauge a cafe’s grit by the quality of their espresso.

If you weren’t an artist what would you see yourself doing instead? 

Hard question, but I think I would be inclined to do something government-related. My short stint (nine months) working at a DMV really hit home for me that I am fascinated by the mechanics of bureaucracy. The notion of laws and procedures being fabricated, often appearing to be constructed for no apparent reason is such logical chaos that I think I could easily lean into something along those lines. Maybe this is something I could look at for a future artist exploration….

Tell us about your ‘studio’ whatever it may be!

It’s a section of a basement, I do yoga, paint, sculpt, and shoot in the same small space. It looks a mess, but the space is in a state of flux between activities at the moment. 

Favorite way to relax?

Listening to music and cooking. With music, I listen most frequently to the discography of Mothers (Kristine Leschper) and Shakey Graves when I am relaxing. If it is pretty late at night and I am drinking champagne, then I’ll likely play something from the original crooner, Russ Columbo. My other pastime cooking feels very much creative like painting or sculpting, but I get to enjoy it for a much shorter span of time. Right now I am pretty into cooking anything incorporating butternut squash, such as a puréed squash pasta sauce or squash fritters to emulate a false sense of pumpkin-picking season.

Favorite painting/photo/artist? 

Hard for me to come up with any other answer to the dreaded “favorite artist” question than Andy Warhol, but current artists that I have been particularly excited about in the past year or so would be Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Susan Worsham, and D’Angelo Lovell Williams. I also regularly reference Claude Cahun and Ralph Eugene Meatyard when I am looking for inspiration. 

PS: Kalven is currently designing a zine and working on some writing for Beauty Routine and for the current body of work that he’s creating, which can be seen on his website or Instagram.

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