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City Life

For the Love of Hamilton

This regular feature will highlight people from all walks of life who have embraced Hamilton as their new home. 

Kayla Whitney is from Chatham, Ont. She attended OCAD University in Toronto and opened Koe Design, a commercial arts studio offering illustration, design and mural services, in 2017. Effective public art, she says, “makes everyone feel good, feel represented, feel included, feel beautiful, feel heard, feel at home, feel safe, and feel welcome.” She lives in the North End.

What brought you to Hamilton?

In 2016 my husband and I had just wrapped up a few years of life in the country and concluded farming was not our thing, we desperately needed to return to city life. I think artists are always seeking that place where you can afford to live and make your work and that also has a thriving arts community, and that’s what initially drew us here. Being able to rent something affordable that would have space for studios for both of us was all very enticing. We actually moved here having never even been here before, and then just immediately fell completely and passionately in love with this city.

How would you describe your artistic style?

My artistic style is vibrant, playful, expressive and heavily influenced by colour. I tend to lean towards organic imagery like birds, fruit and florals because I find so much room for expression and exploration within their forms. I am really drawn to spontaneous impulse within my work and I like to express that through gesture and line. These little marks show a strong presence of my own hand, and bring my humanity into everything I create. I think this allows viewers to connect deeply to my work whether it’s my studio work, or my large scale public projects. I hope that by combining these traces of the human hand with recognizable motifs my work is accessible to all people. My goal, especially with my public work, is to create murals that spark joy, wonder and inspiration in every person who sees them.

Kayla Whitney with her artwork "Pink Still Life" projected onto her. Photo: Marta Hewson

How has your lived experience influenced your work and your outlook, your perspective on life, work?

As I move through the world I am very sensitive to, and moved by the moment to moment beauty of everything around me. I feel lucky to be alive all the time, but I am simultaneously very sensitive to those around me who are suffering or are having a difficult time in their lives. I think because I live in this way where I am always feeling so much of everything around me I feel a constant need to reach out through my work and connect with those around me and I hope I am able to, in my own small way, add something to people's lives and uplift them. I think my practice is essentially one of participation with the communities I am lucky enough to be a part of, and my only hope is that I’m able to make a meaningful contribution. 

What are some of your favourite projects so far?

The project that I am currently working on for Carol Anne’s Place, which is inside the YWCA downtown, has instantly become my favourite project ever. I believe so deeply in what they are doing there, and the way they are supporting the people of our community who need it most. I am honoured to have been invited to be a part of creating a sense of home for these people, and I have put so much thought and love into my concept for this project. Now to be there onsite, using the mural to infuse the space with a sense of love, light, ease and belonging that will hopefully come through the mural and into each person who spends time there – it is a really moving process. This mural is very meaningful for me, I am using my art to do the things that I wish I could do for each person I see who is struggling, and I am supporting a beautiful organization that is changing the lives of so many people here in Hamilton. I have had a similar experience working with Empowerment Squared, creating murals in their downtown and east end locations. They are another essential community organization which welcomes new comers to Hamilton as you would welcome someone into your home. They provide essential services and supports so these families can truly thrive here. (Hey wealthy people reading this!  Support the YWCA, Carol Anne’s Place, Empowerment Squared and other organizations down here doing the work!)

Who inspires you in your art and in life generally?

Joe, my husband, inspires me endlessly. His work ethic, dedication to his painting practice and motivation in his studio is astounding and just bearing witness to his studio practice causes me push myself to be better and better with my own work. He also helps me a lot with designs and concepts and my work is as polished as it is because of his eye. My fam at the Hamilton Craft Studio is also a huge source of inspiration for me – just being in that space surrounded by the creative acts of so many infuses me with boundless inspiration and has lifted me up from some difficult creative blocks. Also, my sweet grandma who has really taught me the value of laughing it off and moving forward, because really all we can do is laugh in this life, we are just here to have a good time.

What’s your take on Hamilton now that you've got some roots here?

Hamilton is…the first thing that comes to mind is … completely insane but like I absolutely deeply and purely love it here. It's got grit, as they all say, and our housing crisis and substance abuse issues are getting worse and worse by the day. But at the same time, the community response to these issues is not something I see in other cities. There is a heart here - like a deep sense of connection, and loyalty to one another. Some kind of understanding that we are all each others’ responsibility and there is room for everyone. As an artist, I have never ever felt a sense of competition from anyone, the attitude has always always been “What do you do? This is what I do, how can we work together?”

I feel every day that the energy I put into my community is directly reciprocated, and I cannot express the elation I feel when I am biking around and I see people I know and we yell hi or wave at each other. It feels like the opening scene in Beauty and the Beast, except with all of us also trying to figure out how to combat the crippling issues and social injustices all around us.

How would you describe this city as a place to work as an artist?

When I moved here my goal was to make my living full time as an artist and I achieved that surprisingly quickly. It was helpful that at the time rent was reasonable, but it was really made possible by the insane support of this city - even now, most of my work comes from word of mouth.  And all through covid when I was so certain I would not make it as a muralist during a pandemic (because who pays for art during a pandemic?) I was completely, and totally supported by this city. I would bike around and paint murals in peoples backyards and living rooms and on their patios. It was such a beautiful feeling. When I first started out I painted all throughout the GTA, but over the years I have actually become more and more local, and often I can ride my bike to my mural site which just pleases me to no end. I have made so many fiends here through my work, and I am just so thoroughly held by this community. I cannot express how supportive this city is to its artists. You can see it in Art Crawl, and Super Crawl, and the amount of murals we have up in the city. You can see it in the awesome collaborations between businesses and artists. Remember when Lewis Mallard made a beer with Merit? Like, that's amazing. Recently I wanted to test out this new mural technique and my local bar was just like oh yeah sure, put it up on the patio no problem. Like that kind of neighbourly love and support through a whole city … it’s just magic.

Kayla Whitney says her North End neighbourhood is 'complete perfection.' Photo: Marta Hewson

What neighbourhood did you choose to live in and why?

I cannot believe it,  and every time I say it it still blows my mind – but my husband and I managed to buy a house here! I cannot express my daily elation, and gratitude that this is my reality. We had been renting in the North End since 2018, and we love everything about this neighbourhood. We got renovicted last summer and were certain we would have to leave the city as rents are so ridiculously high and we are…well…artists. By actual magic, (and a split second dip in the market and a lot of help from our families) we were able to buy a house just a few blocks from where we were living. So now we are thrilled to permanently call the North End home. This neighbourhood is complete perfection. We walk to the water, to Bayfront, to James North, to get groceries to literally everything we could need. We have adorable community wide garage sales, and the most insane turn out on Halloween. It's a real neighbourhood, where you wave to your neighbours while they saunter by with a coffee mug and everyone watches out for everyone, yet we can still walk or bike to everything we could ever want or need. I couldn’t ask for more.

What Hamilton arts or cultural events do you most look forward to attending?

We go to Art Crawl every month and I love that I just see everyone I know there. Supercrawl is also great because its like art crawl just add way more money and mayhem. I really love the Lucky Lion night market in Bayfront park every summer, and every single event put on by Pier 8 Pop Ups. Oh and the Canada Day fireworks because I am sucker for fireworks. I also deeply love the Santa Clause parade. My taste isn’t very high brow, I kind of just love everything. 

Kayla Whitney and her husband moved to Hamilton for its supportive arts community. Here, she 'wears' her work "Oranges." Photo: Marta Hewson

How do you spend your spare time?

I have been very dedicated over the past few years to a deep and fulfilling practice of rest. It is really good for me, (it’s good for everyone)  and being raised by a farmer, its not something I was previously good at. So when I am not working I try to spend time with the people that I love. I read. I go to book club. I hang in my gardens. I stare at my beautiful pet rabbit Maeve. I saunter my neighbourhood (those covid walks really started a good habit). I have a trailer that I go to in the summer. I make things at the craft studio. I do little projects around my house. I dance. I do yoga. I journal and meditate for my mental health. I swim for my fitness.

What's Hamilton's best-kept secret that you've discovered?

Oh I would never tell.

What does Hamilton need more of?

Affordable housing. Accessible, abundant and safe overnight shelters. Community responders – for when police intervention isn’t appropriate. Clean, accessible public restrooms. Street cleaning - everywhere not just on the gentrified streets. Bike lanes – though we are doing better. Careless driving enforcement and pedestrian protection. Outdoor dance parties (bring back Sous Bay!)

What does Hamilton need less of?

Investment property owners. Destructive street drugs. Divisiveness.

What's the one thing you brag about Hamilton to outsiders? 

I brag about the way Hamilton feels, the way the community, and my neighbourhood, and the city generally, and the people here – the way it all feels. But no one really gets it. Sometimes I feel like ‘getting it’ is like this filtration system. Most people won’t get it, and won’t choose to move here, but the special few who do truly get it,  they are the ones who move to Hamilton, and that's how the city remains so great.

Some of Kayla Whitney's work