10 minutes with Kevin Van Aelst

Interviews with Photographers,Still Life January 3, 2012 8:35 am
When did you first know that you wanted to be an artist, and when did you first start taking photos?


I grew up without an artistic bone in my body.  Looking back, I do think I was creative–in a lego-building and fort-in-the-woods constructing way–but to me “art” was about drawing, painting, “beauty,” etc.  Those things didn’t interest me, so I avoided art classes as best I could throughout school. It wasn’t until half way through college that I really felt an urge to express myself.  So I started taking creative writing classes, going to art history lectures, and I also bought myself a 35mm camera and found my way into the public darkroom in the student union.  I spent the remainder of college as a dedicated darkroom rat, always with a camera around my neck, snapping photos of anything and everything that caught my eye.  It was more of an escape than it was a career aspiration, though.  It wasn’t until I graduated and found myself not knowing what to do with myself that I really first considered the notion of being an artist.  Enrolling in an MFA program was one of the biggest chances I’ve taken in my life, but I figured I would probably never be in a position to take my life in absolutely any direction imaginable.

The Ocean, 2010, digital c-print, 24 x 36 - Kevin Van Aelst

Hercules, 2010, digital c-print, 36 x 24 - Kevin Van Aelst

Cemetery, 2010, digital c-print, 24 x 36 - Kevin Van Aelst

Blue Tape, 2009, blue painter's tape, variable / digital c-print, 24 x 30 - Kevin Van Aelst


You received your B.A. in Psychology, which may not be the most common path for a photographer, but your work feels connected in that it challenges the way we think about and view everyday objects. Do you feel like your background in psychology affects your work, or vice versa?

I’m not sure how my Psychology background directly influenced or reflects my work, I think it’s more evidence of my own interests and inclinations.  I spent years in university studying what makes people behave and make the decisions they do; how and why we perceive things the way we do, and what’s under the surface of our daily experiences.  Years later, I’ve found that my artwork has many of the same interests–ideas under the surface and the different ways of communicating those ideas.  

Elsewhere, 2009, digital c-print, 36 x 24" - Kevin Van Aelst

Sounds of the Jungle, 2009, modified cassette tape and player, bamboo, 20 x 12 x 6" - Kevin Van Aelst

The Brain, 2009, digital C-print, 30 x 40 - Kevin Van Aelst

Digestive System, 2009, digital C-print, 30 x 20 - Kevin Van Aelst


When you get a call about an assignment, I assume that most editors want to hear your ideas. Do you spend a lot of time brainstorming with them, or do you sketch it out and think it through on your own and then work together? How much creative control do you like to have for a shoot?


I always prefer to shoot my own ideas–coming up with them is the fun part!  One of the luxuries I have is being able to choose which assignments to take on based on my creative freedom–which is by far the biggest factor in whether or not I’ll take on a project.  Working hand in had with editors is crucial for the finished piece to convey the intended idea and to have the most affective aesthetic, but I won’t take on a project if nothing is left for me but the execution.   A typical process would be for me to spend a few days brainstorming on the topic before I submit sketches of my ideas.  The fabrication and construction of most of my images takes a few days as well.  Then, with  luck, it’s only a matter of tweaking details to get the final shot just right.  

One Heart Beat, 2008, digital C-print, 16 x 24 - Kevin Van Aelst

Hawaii, 2007, digital C-print, 12 x 18 - Kevin Van Aelst

Periodic Table of the Elements, 2005, c-print, 20 x 24 - Kevin Van Aelst

The Golden Mean, 2004, series of 9 c-prints, each 16 x 20 - Kevin Van Aelst


If you could go back 10 years, what advice would you give yourself?


The most important thing I’d tell myself is to not take everything so seriously.  Following your heart is more important than following the trajectory that your past, your education, your previous notions have set you on.  It’s better to be at the bottom of a mountain you want to climb than half way up one you don’t.  Rejections, failed projects, setbacks are all part of the process, and are the best way to learn.  
Some other things I wish 21 year old Kevin knew:
– Don’t spend so much money making slides–they’ll be useless in a few years.
– Get Lyme disease treated immediately.  Better yet, invest in health insurance–it will make things like traveling, cycling, and climbing up ladders less stressful.
– Don’t let people walk all over you.  There are kind, decent, and brilliant gallerists, art directors, and curators out there who will do more for your career and for yourself than the ones who don’t treat you right.  it’s better to wait for the good ones, than to waste time, money, and energy on the pure headaches.



(Kevin is based in Connecticut. See more of his work, here.)

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