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Rising Stars: Meet Kessy Sambou

Today we’d like to introduce you to Kessy Sambou.

Hi Kessy, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today.
I get so happily nostalgic whenever I think back to when I was a little art kid. My parents’ continuous hard work set the foundation for a ton of joy and support.

My dad frequently travels for work, which means I’m among a small percentage of Americans that have traveled abroad and to many different countries. I consider myself blessed and lucky to reap the benefits of those opportunities. My mum actually had a similar upbringing that involved moving and traveling a lot, and she continued to travel once she began working in fashion design and textiles.

She loved to decorate our home with art that she’d found.

In my girlhood that was ever-adapting from work-related domestic moves, our home decor was the constant: West African masks and statuettes, colorful Japanese kimono wall hangings, earthy geometric rugs, Indigenous Australian art, handmade mosaic garden tiles, Vietnamese paintings, beaded curtains – I could really go on and on. As a family, we continuously celebrated our West African heritage through loud percussive music and lots of delicious home-cooked meals.

I was already making art from a very early age. I drew and painted with every medium I could get my hands on, cut and stapled handmade storybooks, and crumpled up lots of “bad art” (and regretted it). I even erased and neatly rewrote my handwriting on school assignments.

Along with my grade school art teachers, I really engaged with my literature, social science, and history teachers. Not just because I took interest in the lessons, but because of how they supported my artistic endeavors. A good number of these people really believed in me before I even really believed in myself. So, I kept at it, and by the middle school my passion for drawing evolved into “hey, I want to make this my career!”

I’m about to enter my third year studying illustration with a minor in graphic design at the Savannah College of Art and Design. I’ve been coming back to my colorful childhood roots as I’ve progressed and really leaning into that with my current work.

I’ve had so much support over the years from a long laundry list of friends, family, professors, and mentors. I would not have accomplished what I have without them and I’m truly grateful!

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey has been a fairly smooth road?
Whew, definitely not. Developing my drawing and painting skills has been so transformative for me. What initially began as a therapeutic activity of practicing fun online tutorials over time slowly evolved into a way for me to explore my identity as I transitioned from adolescence to womanhood — all while coping with grief.

When I was in high school, I struggled a lot with identity issues. In many ways, my upbringing looked like that of my non-black peers, and in many ways, it did not. It was kind of hard figuring out ways to articulate that at times. Plus, moving a lot meant being “the new kid” many times, figuring out how to fit in all over again without betraying my authentic self.

Losing my mum was the watershed moment for teenage me. I think my position today is evidence of my resilience, perseverance, and adaptability, especially through coping with my loss and the changes that followed. Having my support system along the way allowed me to find success through grit, and to find peace in being a multifaceted person.

I think the best way I can give back is by continuing to lean into my strengths, composing images that communicate the value of life, and inviting people to view life from perspectives they may not have considered. That’s where I view my responsibility as an illustrator.

As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about what you do?
I am a freelance illustrator! I find myself attracted to editorial illustration, packaging design, posters, patterns, type, hand lettering, and more. I’m making the effort to apply myself to many different kinds of projects to boost my skills and get the most out of my time in school.

Most of my work is digital, but my traditional art practice plays such a huge role in how I develop that too. I love the look and feel of textured media, and I feel it gives my pieces an artisanal quality. Over the years, I’ve developed my own stylistic motifs drawn on from the decor in my homes.

I’ve been told that I have a distinct way of applying color and line, as well as exaggerating proportions and shapes. I like giving my subject matter lots of “bounciness” and movement while preserving form.

As I mentioned earlier, I enjoy pulling inspiration from my multiethnic heritage and my American girlhood. Computer flash games and TV cartoons played a decent role in this for sure. Back in the early to mid-’00s, I was really drawn to media that was marketed for girls.

More or less now extinct or corrupted websites like Everythinggirl.com, Girlsgogames.com, and other similar aspects of pop culture went on to influence my creative identity. Themes of childhood nostalgia, nature, and femininity continue to inform how I create.

We’re always looking for the lessons that can be learned in any situation, including tragic ones like the Covid-19 crisis. Are there any lessons you’ve learned that you can share?
In short, it’s important to take care of ourselves and also of one another. I was taught that my community can be one of my greatest assets as a creative professional, but it took me way too long to understand how truly important human connection is, even well into lockdown.

The gift of remaining safe and well meant that I had lots of time to focus on my practice. I think I made some really meaningful investigative illustrations following the initial lockdown that have informed my authentic creative voice to this day. Knowing yourself and what you want is a such valuable tool for young artists like myself.

The thing is, when you become so certain of what you want, you may neglect to make room for anyone else in your life. Or, maybe you can become too restricted in where you draw inspiration. At least both of those things occurred for me, and that affected me and my creative network for a while.

I feel that you have to be willing to open yourself up to those who see your potential, and who are willing to share their gifts, their joy, and their kindness with you. Make the effort to surround yourselves with people who share your goals and passion for creating. Above all, be authentic and true to yourself!

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