Kelsey Montague’s murals have graced walls across the country and the world, from Nashville to the Netherlands. You can find the Colorado native’s whimsical street art at a bar in Ireland, an airport in Switzerland, a hospital in Laos and a hotel in Sydney, but her most recent work in Phoenix sets the record for the highest density of murals in one geographic area.
The 33-year-old visual artist, best known for her fanciful renditions of angel wings, was recently commissioned by real estate property management agency Macerich to add her personal touch to five of the company’s local shopping centers. Montague and her big sister/business partner, Courtney, spent a month in Arizona completing the murals, which can be found at Scottsdale Fashion Square, SanTan Village, Biltmore Fashion Park, Chandler Fashion Center and Arrowhead Towne Center. “It’s cool to make almost a scavenger hunt of murals across the city,” the artist says.
Each piece varies in size, color and theme, but Montague always creates her murals with an interactive element in mind. People often pose in front of her wings and post pictures on Instagram. The artist says she is fascinated by the intersection of street art and social media; she wants her audience to be a participant, not just a spectator.
“Interactive art is really important to me, it’s what really drives me as an artist,” she says. “(I love) the whole idea of focusing on other people and different communities and inviting them to not only step into the mural and become part of the art piece, but to be creative themselves and take a moment for them.”
Montague painted her first pair of wings five years ago on a rotating art wall in New York City. She instantly fell in love with the concept of including other people in her work and came up with a hashtag, #WhatLiftsYou, so people could share their photos and stories online. There are currently 145,000 posts under the #WhatLiftsYou hashtag on Instagram.
“I had just gotten on Instagram at the time and I really loved social media and that I could share my work with anybody and everybody and I decided to put a hashtag on it,” she says. “I wasn’t sure if it was going to work or not… but it was amazing. It was instant. There’s a lot of power in sharing something positive.”
The muralist quickly learned the importance of positive messages on a platform that can easily produce and perpetuate negative feelings and habits.
“I think a lot of people underestimate doing something positive and the simplicity in being nice or creating a kind moment; #WhatLiftsYou has really taught me that people love that and want more of that,” Montague says. “It’s been an amazing experience as an artist to be able to create something that not only highlights other people and invites them to be creative and step into the piece, but also share something that’s positive and uplifting for their community and see the power in that.”
Montague says she constantly gets messages from people telling her how much the #WhatLiftsYou project means to them. Because she encourages the community to reflect on what lifts them, she says she spends a lot of time thinking about what influences and inspires her. “I’m super close to my family so my family is a huge inspiration for me. They consistently lift me up and inspire me. Also, traveling and just meeting new people and seeing new cultures would probably be one of the biggest influences I have,” she says.
Montague grew up in a family of artists. Her mother and maternal grandfather were watercolorists, her uncle was a sign maker and her great-grandfather was a painter. “Drawing and creating was always an extension of myself, it’s just part of who I am. I’ve always done it. It’s always been something I’ve loved,” she says. “I never thought I would make a career out of it, so that’s been really incredible.”
Montague took classes at University of Colorado Boulder before studying abroad in Florence, Italy and eventually earning a degree in Art, Design & Media from Richmond University in London in 2008. Since then, her work has taken her to Costa Rica, Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Poland, Spain, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Singapore, Mauritius, Laos, Australia and across the U.S. She says capturing the essence of each city is crucial to the mural she leaves there.
Montague felt especially inspired by the vibrancy of the desert. Her wings at Fashion Square feature bright orange, amber and crimson hues to reflect a fiery Phoenix being reborn. Her piece at Biltmore is an emerald-colored saguaro with a magenta backdrop. “I’m obsessed with cactuses. It’s like a newfound love affair that I’m having with cactuses right now; I can’t stop drawing them. (Phoenix) is already kind of influencing my work.”
This year, Montague wants to travel even more and check a few things off her bucket list – including drawing underwater, creating a mural on a cliff and working with more clients that align with her ideals, like Macerich.
“I’m constantly writing down ideas that come into mind or if I hear of a great group like Macerich,” she says. “Macerich is amazing to work with and they’re so like-minded, it’s been a perfect fit for my art and just finding the right people to work with and creating that magic; it’s important.”
Words by Madison Rutherford.