Kiky Thomanek has spent years city-hopping--acquiring cultural references through her senses--and fusing them into her art. When I met her through a friend up at The Pastry Shop on the Upper West Side a few years ago, I was enamored with her quirky, strongly accented Austrian humor--and later, after being introduced to her art--her clever and whimsical screen prints and illustrations. Her dark and silly characters, the rich and bold lines, and the ominous anecdotes, reminded me of early day Basquiat. The wonders of Skype chatting allowed us to surpass a few time zones and continents to talk about her globetrotting days, the many iterations of her art life, and how Francis Bacon changed her world. 

How did you get started as an artist?

I’m a late bloomer so to speak. When I came to anything graphic design related, I was 20 or 21. I had some time abroad behind me. After high school, I went to London for a year. I just wanted to get away from home and see something new. I London I worked in a night club. I came back to Austria and was totally confused and didn’t know what to do. I started business school for half a year, which was a bad call. I don’t even remember why I enrolled, I never went to class.

Sort of by chance, I was talking to a friend who got interested in this graphic design school, and he brought me a brochure. I went to check it out with him and applied.

What about it locked it in for you to be an artist? 

I took one illustration class. Actually, I think I begged the teacher to take me because there was no more space. I’m still very grateful for that decision. He gave us a lot of valuable information, but I think the most important thing was just the way that he was. He just kind of let us be.

There was one project that we did about typography, which was a real turning point for me. We had eight weeks time to complete it, and I did it all in five days and four nights, just drinking Red Bull.

Because you were so into it? I was so into it. That’s how I really found out what I am capable of, and what circumstances have to be like where I can produce something that is good, valuable, and that I really care for.

...it was sort of the first experience of just letting myself go, not fearing if I was going to make anything good, and just to go and do it.

What about that changed the game for you? 

It was sort of the first experience of just letting myself go, not fearing if I was going to make anything good, and just to go and do it. It was a big turning point for me that one project, and from then on, I just felt like I want to be an artist. I still like the work that I created then.

What did you do after you finished school? 

I was living in London with my ex-husband Peter and had a waitressing job at a pub. I tried to be creative and I was drawing a lot. That’s when I started printing t-shirts and fabrics and sewing images on t-shirts. I sold them at a market. That was in 2003.

And you lived in a few cities from that point right?

2004 I was in Berlin for a year--pretty much doing the same thing--but a little more extensively. That was the only kind of income that I had--making t-shirts and little dolls and bags. I sold them at this really nice weekly market in Berlin, and then I came to New York.

What was living in New York like for you?

I already started a silkscreening business in Berlin, so I wanted to continue doing that in New York. Right from the beginning, I started taking classes at SVA [School of Visual Arts]. I did that for all of those 6.5 years in New York. I would take those classes, at least one per semester through continuing ed. That’s what kept my creativity going.

I would walk through campus and see the art building and walk by that print shop that they have, because it’s on the first floor, and you can look in. And there was nobody there ever. Whenever I would walk by, I would never see anybody, and I would think, this is so fucked up!

Did you come to New York for an art career?

Yes, but also--Peter--my husband at the time, was coming for work. Peter was working at Columbia and he told me that since he worked there that they had a deal and relatives could study for free, but the contract that he had didn’t have that privilege. I had no idea what sort of institution Columbia was. I said "okay it sounds good, I’m going to try to do that." But when I went to Columbia with my transcript, they just said no. They also don’t offer continuing education courses, or anything that is sort of available to the general public.

I was living in that neighborhood with Peter, working at a local coffee shop, sometimes I would walk through campus and see the art building and walk by that print shop that they have, because it’s on the first floor, and you can look in. And there was nobody there ever. Whenever I would walk by, I would think, this is so fucked up! That made me really grateful for the openness of SVA.

Did that experience change your perception of art school?

In general, the whole arts school thing is—from the outside—so scary and elitist to me. In Austria, Germany, and France I hear stories about people who apply 3 times, 5 times, up to 10 times. I just don’t understand why it's made so hard for people to go to school. It's easier to get into medical or law school.

How are artists viewed in Austria?

I think that [there are] probably two major distinctions: an artist who's in the spotlight and who [is] seen as interesting and looked up to, and there are artists that are viewed as crazy, or somebody who will never make it, who will always struggle to make money.

Yet in Austria, we have a big and important artistic culture. It is valued a lot. Vienna has the greatest density of cultural places in relation to the inhabitants; whether it's the museums, or theaters, concerts, music venues, there's really a lot of stuff going on. I feel like it's not just a lot of stuff, but stuff with quality, and I don't think people really recognize that in Europe. Everyone is going to Berlin. Everything is supposedly happening there--but I think there's a lot to explore in Vienna--stuff that I haven't even seen yet.

What are some aspects of Vienna's rich history?

Austria had its heyday around the 1900s through 1920s. Famous artists like Gustav Klimt came from that time. There wasn't just visual art--there was important literature, and science--like Freud. All those people were coming together. They weren't secluded in their paintings or specific mediums. People were meeting in the salons and they inspired each other and I think that was a really important time for Austria and art, and I think it still is.

In Vienna, are artists mostly working within their own creative enclaves now as opposed to that era in your own experience? I don't really hang out in artist circles. My circle of friends is so diverse. There are people who do all sorts of things. I think that's how I was a little bit different than my other friends who are mostly hanging out with artists. They do get together and talk about things that are a little bit interdisciplinary. There's definitely collaboration going on.

What’s next for your work?

Just the other day actually, I had a friend who came over and asked me to show my artwork, and I never really get to do that. It's always funny to pull out this stuff and look at it. I realize that although I am always putting myself down or feeling like I'm not doing enough, I have so much stuff that I discovered that have been lying around for years, and I really want to make an exhibition and see what it looks like up on the walls, and have people look at it.

What materials have you been digging into lately?

I haven't printed anything since New York. What I did the last half a year in Vienna has all been on paper, I also applied to The Academy of Fine Arts this year, and I was maybe thinking too practical, and thought ahead about how I have to put this into a portfolio, and not on a canvas, but that's the wrong way to go about it. People go to the application process with huge canvasses and lots of crazy things. Actually paper is good. You feel less intimidated to ruin anything, so you can just throw it away.

Are there times where you ever feel like you don’t know what you’re doing?

It's more like, how do I find the time and space to actually organize stuff, or get myself to be creative? It's not that I feel lost about my art or anything, I feel pretty good about it, and confident actually. I'm just trying to keep it easy. You can only do as much as you can, and step by step. I have this kind of faith that even if it's going to take another 10 years for me to have my first big exhibition or whatever, I'll do it. I'm not worried about that.

I really have this romantic idea of being a painter in my secluded studio with the paints flying around in, working until three in the morning and not caring what’s happening tomorrow

What's your ultimate goal with your work?

The goal is to have a studio, and just be able to work as much as I can in there. I really have this romantic idea of being a painter in my secluded studio with the paints flying around in, working until three in the morning and not caring what's happening tomorrow, and waking up with a picture that I created and being surprised by it.

What inspired that idea?

I took a trip to Dublin two years ago. I never really knew much about the artist Francis Bacon, but I saw this big retrospective at Metropolitan Museum and I was totally smitten. It was probably the one show that I will always remember based on that feeling it gave me when I looked at those canvases. I just wanted to have that feeling again. Maybe half a year later I thought to myself that I needed to see a Francis Bacon exhibition--I didn’t care where--so I just Googled it. He was Irish so there was this exhibition there to celebrate his 100th birthday if he were still to be alive. They transferred the studio that he had in London to Dublin for the show. They had a whole group of architects and archeologists, and they took every single item in his studio and photographed it and mapped everything out, and put it back together just as it was in that gallery. It’s now a permanent exhibit.

That studio almost brought me to tears. He was known for being very messy. Francis Bacon’s cleaning lady would not be allowed in his studio. She would try to keep his living space very clean because he had asthma, so it was important not to have it too dirty or dusty, but his studio—the dust would collect and collect, and he would actually incorporate it into his paint, which would give a really special structure. One day he didn’t have money for canvas, and he just turned around an old canvas, and used that one. He found out that he liked the backside of the canvas much better, so he did that from then on. It was a really emotional experience for me. That’s what art is really about. I’m not religious, but that’s like going to church for me. If I see a good art show, there’s nothing I can compare that feeling with.

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Check out Kiky's website, or reach her at [email protected]

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