I met Frances Berry at the retail store where I work. Whenever she came to shop, she made me feel like we’d be friends for ages. She’s bubbly, fun and always ready for a conversation. When I found out she was an artist, I knew I had to keep up with her work online. Her Instagram (@where_is_frances) documents all of her picture-making endeavors, and her work is colorful and flamboyant just like her. After following her craft on social media for some time, I decided it was time to get to know her a little more.
She graciously invited me to her new studio space which she shares with her new collaborative partner, Stacy Kiehl (@ssttaaccyyk). Together, they have been whipping up pieces that compliment their own personal styles, and I had the pleasure of getting to know both of them and learning about their journey to collaboration. Now it’s your turn to find out who they are and how they’ve become the artists we see around town:
Emily Zachry: To start, tell me a little bit about yourself and your background:
Frances Berry: That is a loaded question. I’m from Mississippi, and I’ve been in Memphis for 11 years. Honestly, I was going to move to Atlanta, but I moved here because my grandmother showed me an apartment. Suddenly I realized, holy s**t, I don’t want to go to a big city that I can’t afford. Here I’m able to have all this space. At the time, I was a photographer out of undergrad, and I did freelance photography work. Around 27 or 28, I went back to school and got my masters at MCA. When I was halfway through my first semester, I sold all my cameras because I decided that there was no need for the type of photography that I was doing. I took really formally beautiful photographs, and those photos still have their their place, but they lacked depth. For example, local photographer Jamie Harmon did a quarantine series, and that stuff is incredible. I mean, that’s the kind of thing that has a new purpose. But me, I realized I was going to be forever unpaid as a photographer.
EZ: How has your work evolved over the years?
FB: In graduate school [after leaving photography], I had no medium anymore. I was like…I don’t know how to draw, and I didn’t think I knew how to paint—so I just went back to the computer, because that’s where my roots were (I have my undergraduate degree in digital media and photography). I started messing around in Photoshop and before I knew it, I was hacking apps on my phone to make things. The best way I can compare it is like taking two glasses of liquid and pouring between them. I would take a photo with my phone and then I would import it into the computer. Then I would do something in there, and then I would print it back out and then put it back into the scanner. I did this to get to something that was, for me, a more honest record of time.
After graduate school, I got a lot of really good press for all my digital work. I actually had a gallery representing me in New York and an agent, but my heart was not in it like it when I was in graduate school. Back then, I had that time to like fully dedicate my entire focus to a narrative of some sort, but, at the time, it didn’t feel like honest expression. The art that I produced wasn’t what would have come out if grades didn’t matter, you know?
So I got out of graduate school and kept trying with digital work, but painting is where I started to feel the most at home. If I really look back, and I’m honest with myself, I’ve been a painter always. And now that I’m here, and able to sell work to people like me in a city that’s both affordable and seems to have a never-ending desire for what I create, it’s pretty rad.
I’ve always wanted to be an artist because everything I’ve ever felt or seen or done or experienced, I’ve wanted to share with somebody -Frances Berry
EZ: What originally piqued your interest in art and picture making?
FB: I’ve wanted to be an artist since I had cognitive thought. I’ve always wanted to be an artist because everything I’ve ever felt or seen or done or experienced, I’ve wanted to share with somebody. We all feel things that cannot be put into words. While I do not think everyone is an artist (I’m not one of those people because I’ve dedicated my life to this), I do believe that everybody has artistic tendencies. Everybody wants to create, and what comes out of that, who knows.
EZ: How do you work?
FB: Do you ask any other profession: “How do you get into the mood?” I mean, I just know this is what I have to do everyday. I try to be here [in the studio] doing something daily, and now that Stacy’s here, it’s amazing. In our collaborative pieces, you can very much see it is a hybrid of us. Our color palette is exactly the same; we just make marks very differently. She’s very graphic and I’m very painterly, so, it’s funny how her work has started to inform my own. You can tell it’s different than everything else I’ve made. She has given my work new life.
EZ: How did you two first start sharing a space? Is that when you decided to start collaborating?
FB: That Paradise piece was our very first piece together. I had it in my studio for months, but I didn’t know what to do with it. To be honest, I kind of hated it. Stacy came by after I bought two pieces of art from her, and I asked her right then and there. I’d had a lot of work that I had no clue what to do with, like I was too close to it or something. She came by two days later, added her special touch to the piece, and we’ve been doing the thing ever since. She’s become my very best friend in such a short period of time.
The older you get, the more you understand how difficult it can be to find your people. Friends are readily there, but then there are people who understand you on a fundamental level, right? That’s what Stacy is. It’s crazy. We were just homies instantly. Now it makes such good sense seeing it all in one space. Like our Pinterest board is just ridiculous.
I feel like women are competitive with certain things, and we don’t have that at all. -Stacy Kiehl
EZ: How do you attribute y’all’s art together? Would you call it a collaboration, work-in-conjunction, something else?
FB and Stacy Kiehl: Both
FB: We maintain our own practices, and also work together at times.
EZ: How would you describe your collaborative work versus your own individual work?
SK: We have very different styles, so it makes me more free with my work
FB: Tag team wrestling is what it feels like to me.
SK: Yeah, like one of us will start something, and then we’ll just keep passing it back and forth
FB: It’s like almost like postal correspondence—like having pen pal.
EZ: Have either of y’all collaborated with other artists in the past. If so, how has this time differed?
FB: I have another collaborative partner, Captain. He lives on the west coast. But this is different, because I’ve never collaborated with another woman before.
SK: I’ve never collaborated with anybody before, so it’s all like a new thing. I never thought I would be able to, because I’m so particular about how I want things. But, our collaboration, it just seems like supernatural.
FB: We are supernatural.
SK: Also being female, you know? I feel like women are competitive with certain things, and we don’t have that at all.
FB: You know, it’s a lot of clapping for each other. It’s really rad to watch Stacy succeed, and to see the space coming together. I had no clue how much space Stacy was going to fill up in my life, but it’s all happened with such ease. It’s like the happiest place on earth.
I have people that approach me for advice all the time. But the thing that I can tell people is that what worked for me, isn’t going to work for you. -Frances Berry
EZ: I know it’s a little weird right now with everything going on. Obviously there aren’t going to be very many gallery openings or anything like that, but is there anything that you two are working on that we should be excited for?
FB: You should be excited for everything we are doing. We don’t need a gallery. We are living in the day of the internet, but we’re going to come up with something, eventually. We got all of these pieces that and I can already see a show with them, but the time for a show will present itself when the moment is right.
EZ: Frances, are there any artists that you look up to? What’s the best piece of artistic advice you’ve ever received?
FB: I mean, that question gets asked a lot, and it was actually mandatory in my graduate school thesis. To say no, would be a lie, but to say yes, would be reaching. So I’m going to say, I think it goes unsaid that there are [artists I look up to] right, because nothing is born in a vacuum. I did not come to be this person from just experiencing the world and all the people putting things into it. But that being said, I arrived at a lot of these conclusions on my own because I had access to all sorts of information.
My mom is a commercial designer, and, funny enough, she is probably the person who’s played the largest role in shaping who I am as an artist. Not in a way that was crazy supportive. If anything, she was the opposite. Because that’s what you need in order to do this— somebody to tell you that what you’re doing isn’t good when it’s not that great. I’m happy to mentor in any shape, form or fashion. I have people that approach me for advice all the time. But the thing that I’ll always tell people is that what worked for me, isn’t going to work for you. You have to figure things out on your own.
My mom told me that what I was doing was what everybody else in art school was doing, and it hurt my feelings at the time. I was all like, “you don’t care about me,” and I was all angsty—but looking back on it, it was probably my foundation for all of it. I had a sneaking suspicion of it. It’s kind of like when you ask somebody if you’ve gained weight, and you already know that you have. Them telling you “yes” didn’t make you gain weight. Right? I knew that I was making stuff that everyone else was making. Quite honestly, my success rate in art school was very low. I struggled in all of my fundamental classes because I had a hard time following the rules. You would think that artists would be super excited about that, but turns out not. The institution of school does not award the renegade. If anything, it does the exact opposite.
I don’t know, but I feel like something really cool is happening right now, specifically here, something different–especially between two women. -Frances Berry
EZ: What are your thoughts about the art scene in Memphis?
FB: I just know that I’m not necessarily a part of it. I know a lot of artists in Memphis, but I don’t think that I’ve been considered to be one of those people. I don’t particularly care about what people think about my work–this is just what I want to do. There are enough people that think it’s good. I don’t have to be everybody’s favorite artist.
All of that aside, I’m excited about what’s to come. This building (housing my studio on Broad Avenue) is so unsuspecting. Like who’d know all this coolness is happening inside?? We’re getting ready to paint the outside. We’re painting the building next door. We’ve got a wall across the street that we’re doing later in the summer. We’re hoping to really transform this little corner. I don’t know what it is, but I feel like something really cool is happening right now. Specifically here, it’s something different between two women. It feels like it’s a cardinal rule for us to be mean to one another, so coming together with Stacy seems pretty powerful. Something about it seems important. Maybe that’s just my own inner grandeur. I have no clue.