“Through strife comes creativity and ingenuity.”
Despite the pandemic’s harrowing impacts, Kelly Towles is excited for what the future will bring in the District. The artist speaks with earnest candor about the cultural landscape of the city, and how he’s watched it survive – and even succeed – over the past six months.
“To see our creative community thrive, push forward and be able to make things happen, it is because D.C. comes together as a city,” he continues. “People stayed and made it a community, and something more than just an urban development. We’ve actually supported each other through these times. I’m very proud of our city.”
We’re sitting at opposite ends of a long wooden table in Towles’ studio at 52 O Street on a Saturday afternoon in late September, discussing his upcoming Pow! Wow! DC mural festival on October 8-18. His space is filled with an eclectic mix of playful works all rooted in his background in graffiti art.
Canvas paintings, boldly painted clothes and shoes, and subway-inspired porcelain tiles all line the walls. Worktables are covered with current projects the self-described multitasker works on in tandem with a cohesive body of work in mind, Pow! Wow! swag is neatly stacked on available furniture, and countless boxes of colorful spray paint line the floors and shelves.
This is clearly Towles’ second home, and he opens his doors to me with a genuine warmth. One of his colleagues and Pow! Wow! collaborators hangs out during our interview, making “Zoolander” references and teasing Towles about his “Blue Steel” look in photos, and his son Atticus lounges in the loft above us waiting for lunch.
As we chat, he emphasizes the importance of our local community helping one another as we navigate the future – especially creatively.
“I know how it feels to shit your pants when everything goes wrong. But if you can go through this and survive and thrive, or even just make it, you’ll be able to get through it and be better improved.”
Towles extends this optimism to Pow! Wow! The popular street art festival in NoMa turns five this year, and with it comes an entirely new approach appropriate for our current climate of social distancing. The festival will be half virtual, half in-person: walking tours of the works will be livestreamed, but locals can also go on self-guided tours at their own leisure.
“This is something people can do if they want to get outside, take a walk and tour the festival. It can be an experience we can help provide safely. We can actively get artists and creatives and walls to paint without putting them in danger, or putting them in a situation that would make them feel uncomfortable.”
The artists and their works will be roped off, with lawn signs encouraging social distancing etiquette. Viewers are encouraged to stand six or more feet back from the action and shout questions to the artists as a form of safe interaction.
“Nine-tenths of the time, I come to my studio and work by myself for eight or 10 or 12 hours a day and figure out what color blue I hate. Your career [as an artist] is a lot of self-isolation. It’s the same thing when you’re painting a mural. You’re up on the wall by yourself or you generally have one person with you. You’re not really interacting with people.”
Towles handpicked 15 artists from the District, Virginia, Baltimore and Japan to paint murals throughout the neighborhood in public spaces with total creative freedom – as long as their works don’t feature sex, violence or politics.
“There’s never a theme,” he says. “We’re here to beautify the community, and to be a positive force for that.”
Each artist must provide a sketch in advance so Towles knows what they’re planning and can share the concept with the client or sponsor connected to the building.
“My job as a curator is to make sure I get artists who are falling in line with our culture [and] I don’t get artists who just want to draw dicks all over the place. Hopefully, we’ve built up trust in the community showing [that the artists] will do an amazing job, and the full transparency of the artists doing sketches and sending them over and everybody signing off.”
The artist roster includes notable D.C. creators like Trap Bob, Chris Pyrate and Emon Surakitkoson, as well as Baltimore additions Red Swan and Josh Van Horne. Towles put an emphasis on including returning artists who don’t need to be shown the ropes and keeping this year’s collaborators hyperlocal.
“It’s great because there’s no flights involved. There’s no people worrying about flying in or staying in a hotel. Everybody gets to go paint their wall, then go home at the end of the day and be with their loved ones or do what they’ve got to do. It’s a fantastic situation because it is bringing less stress, hopefully, to everyone else.”
Towles says a major goal of the festival is not only to celebrate the participating artists and bring them exposure, but to actually put money in their pockets.
“If I can make my community smile and other artists can get jobs and work through it, the goal has been met.”
He views Pow! Wow! as a positive outlet for the city, and himself as a conveyor of work being produced by his talented peers. With countless artists reaching out to him about participating in the festival, which is curated and not submission-based, and art lovers often following up with muralists about other projects or commissioned works, Towles has begun to play around with a new idea. He’d like to act as a third-party coordinator by creating a job board where artists can connect with potential clients, buyers and peers about projects.
When he’s not connecting creators or curating experiences for the local community, he’s focusing on his own work – something he’s been able to do with far fewer interruptions during Covid. He’s humbled by the opportunity to keep creating mid-pandemic, and says he and his wife Virginia Arrisueño, who owns Steadfast Supply, grind all the time.
“I’ve never worked so much in my entire life on just my artwork, and I’ve never been so excited to come to my studio and keep working.”
The fifth annual Pow! Wow! DC festival runs from October 8-18 and is free and open to the public. Learn more about the festival here, and about Towles’ own body of work here. Follow the festival on Instagram @powwowdc and Towles @kellytowles.
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