Visual design

“Abstraction makes people pause and think a little” – Interview with Jessie and Katey

Since 2011, Jessie and Katey have been turning urban areas into works of art with their bold colours and shapes

Based in Baltimore, Jessie and Katey are two artists working as a team. They have been creating large-scale murals and installations in public spaces around the United States for the last decade. Their colourful pieces carry a recognizable style and take inspiration from each of their surroundings.

The artists’ bold geometric style is driven by the reflection of its environment aiming to influence people’s emotions and state of mind. Their astonishing works create an immersive experience of colour highlighting the landmark’s visibility and express its vibrant history.

Since 2011, Jessie and Katey have been creating vibrant murals in public spaces

Who are Jessie Unterhalter and Katey Truhn? How did your creative journey begin?

Jessie and Katey:

“We are a duo of women artists, based in Baltimore, MD creating murals all over the country – and hopefully soon all over the world. As far as origin stories go, ours is pretty prophetic; we met as freshmen at Maryland Institute College of Art, dressed together as one person for Halloween, and have been best friends ever since.

We weren’t collaborating then, but we were making art alongside each other and were going down a parallel trajectory all throughout college. We bounced ideas off of one another and influenced each other’s art practice during that time. In 2012, we started fostering our collaborative partnership while living together in an artist live-work warehouse. 

Our goal was to create work in the public sphere, so we decided to apply for several city-funded mural opportunities, and eventually had a proposal accepted. After that, we had the opportunity to participate in a number of mural art festivals in Georgia and Hawaii and the pace of our career began accelerating from there. 

We each worked multiple part-time jobs and always had to be ready to drop them to pursue painting opportunities. Our career journey has been very organic, and at this point feels fairly sustainable.”

Jessie and Katey - knoxville
Knoxville Steps – design based off of traditional Appalachian weaving

Why focus on abstract painting and sculpture?

Jessie and Katey:

“We believe in public art and making art accessible to everyone. Too often, people think that art belongs in museums and galleries – spaces that are not the most welcoming or hospitable. We see art as an immersive experience and a means through which people can interact and connect differently with public space and one another.

We love watching people respond to our work in their own ways, whether they’re posing with the mural, modelling in their own fashion line in front of them, or sharing an intimate moment and using our work as the background. The interactions people have with our murals become personal collaborations and expressions that live on through social media.

Both of us are drawn to the openness of abstraction and feel that this kind of visual language connects most broadly with a public audience. We want people to assign their own meaning to our work and make up their own narrative. It’s always fascinating to hear what people have to say about the pieces.

Abstraction makes people pause and think a little. It’s really nice to witness people taking the time to decide what story the work tells, or what memory it evokes. It’s rewarding to be able to provide those moments and conversations. We personally believe that abstract art is timeless, and you can always gain something new from it. It’s important to have it in our daily, visual lives.”

Jessie and Katey - meow wolf
“Abstraction makes people pause and think a little. It’s really nice to witness people taking the time to decide what story the work tells, or what memory it evokes”

As artists, we have a few “ultimate goals” when creating work; first and foremost, we want to transform public space. We want to brighten people’s days with the surprise of colors and shapes. When living in an urban environment, so much of the public space is taken over by advertising or drab stretches of concrete.

It’s invigorating to reimagine a world that is more focused on how people can positively experience shared space. Bringing a sense of playfulness and joy into our collective environment is really important to us. We want to inspire, change the pace of daily life and bring people together with our work.

 Another goal of ours is always to challenge ourselves and push our designs, it’s hard to evolve as artists and so much of what we do is influenced by where we are working. We’re always striving to create something unique and more epic than the last project.”

[ Read also Machine intelligence as a narrative tool in experiential art – Interview with Refik Anadol ]

Jessie and Katey - jersey city bridge
Jersey City pedestrian bridge, 2019

You transform public spaces into colourful and vibrant experiences. What process and practice do you follow while designing a new project? 

Jessie and Katey:

“We’re inspired by architecture and the elements that are already in the environment. We often design based on what we feel compliments or enhances those aspects, coupled with research on the history of an area or meaningful aesthetics related to the region. 

A good example is our staircase mural in Knoxville, TN, the pattern was based on Appalachian textiles, while the palette was contemporary and chosen for the look and feel of the campus. Our work is constantly changing because we play off the small things that already exist in the environment. We are invested in learning about the communities we work in and finding a balance that makes each piece fit its location.”

Jessie and Katey - boonesteps
“We’re always striving for the equilibrium between rhythm and structure”

Your work explores themes of movement and symmetry, which artists and designers are you inspired by?

Jessie and Katey:

“Some other artists and designers that we have been influenced by are: Roberto Burl Marx, Hundertwasser, Lee Bontecou, Yayoi Kusama, Ruth Asawa, El Anatsui, Joseph Albers.”

What other fields and inputs outside of the design world provide you inspiration? 

Jessie and Katey:

“It might not show in our work but we’re both very influenced by obsessive and repetitive art and collections. We’re both drawn to the process of something as much as the end product. Other influences are all forms of celebration: parades, costumes, masks, dance and movement.

In our work, we’re always striving for the equilibrium between rhythm and structure. We rely heavily on mathematics so that is definitely a big inspiration for us. We approach maths like artists, it’s a very organic relationship. We’re also inspired by music, textiles, board games, plants and the landscape.”

Jessie and Katey - revmill
“Our work is constantly changing because we play off the small things that already exist in the environment”

Out of your creations, what has been the most challenging one to create? And which one is your favourite?

Jessie and Katey:

“That’s a hard question, each project presents its own set of challenges. Sometimes the measurements we get for the project are off and we need to adjust our entire design, and other times our paint won’t stick to the wall.

No matter what, there is always some problem to be solved. Something that is consistent, and often challenging is putting our design up. We actually design everything by hand and literally pass paper back and forth until we feel like it is complete.

Then we use photoshop, add colors and do another layer of designing on the computer.  Then, we need to scale up the design and put it on the wall. We use geometry and trigonometry to figure everything out. We are super process-based. It can be a real challenge figuring out how to recreate the shapes. It’s almost like putting together a puzzle.

It’s also a super satisfying part of the work. While picking a favorite piece is hard, it was a new and exciting challenge to work with blacklight paint for our mural in Las Vegas for Meow Wolf this summer.”

Jessie and Katey - boonestepsdrone
Jessie and Katey rely heavily on mathematics for their large scale pieces

What is next for Jessie and Katey?

Jessie and Katey:

“We have a couple of really exciting projects happening in the spring. We’ll be working on our biggest mural to date a 60ft x 400ft wall down in Virginia. We’re both really amped about being able to work on that large of a canvas. 

In Baltimore, we’ve been working on a collaboration with Tamarian Carpets and have a few rugs designs in production. We are also working on a long-term goal of working with recycled materials and mosaic in future pieces. We’re still working on the small-scale studio tests and prototypes for these pieces, but we’ll be excited to share them when we’re ready!”

[ Read also A geometric shelving composition between art and nordic design ]

Jessie and Katey - sacramento
“We’ll be working on our biggest mural to date a 60ft x 400ft wall down in Virginia”


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