Mikael Kennedy: New Mexico

April 26 2015

Mikael Kennedy blends camera, car and the American highway into a singularly stunning body of work. His style is marked by expansive landscapes, dreamy natural light and a particular fondness for Polaroid. Beyond his personal exploration he’s worked for a long list of sterling clients from Vogue to Wythe Hotel, tours with his folk songstress wife and also happens to be something of an expert on Persian rugs.

He has a new zine out this week, New Mexico, an exploration of that most forgotten and enchanted of American states. We’re happy to have featured an excerpt from it in Human Being Journal 6 and talked to Mikael for the occasion of their simultaneous release.

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Hometown:  Randolph, VT

Current Location: Brooklyn, NY

How do you take your coffee? Dark

What’s your Sunday routine?

Most of my days at home start the same: coffee with my wife, read a little or answer emails, then over to my studio, if I’m in the city I’m in the studio most of the time. Sundays are special though, I can drive there, the streets are clear and I can tear apart my car, do a little work on it. 

Describe your style in a few words.

Right now I’d say it’s “never give up.” I have an industrial sewing machine set up in my photo studio, when I get bored I’ve started repairing my clothes, trying to see how long I can make them last, it gives them a bit of character.

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Before the New Mexico zine, you released California. What is it about the west that’s drawn you in? 

The wide open west. There’s really no where else like it. The west represents so much. It’s freedom, it’s the open spaces, I spent last February living in Joshua Tree, CA and I could feel my brain change, being around so much space. I am inherently an American artist and I’ve come to realize the ways that has infiltrated my work and psyche in ways I wouldn’t have thought. It’s about cars, and the open road, that sense of adventure, that you can make anything of yourself out there, make your life new. It’s the promise of a new life. A while back, somewhere I read this term “westering” this thing that humans have done for a very long time…following the sun as it sets. It’s almost like it’s in our DNA, a lot of earlier cultures thought that was where someone went when they died. The west has always held that mythic quality to me, it’s wild, it’s the promise of something else, something new, it’s the future.

We were really happy to find out about your New Mexico project and get a part of it in Human Being Journal 6, because it’s the place that best embodies the issue’s theme, In Plain Sight—it’s this massive state, larger than Britain, but few people seem to even know it’s there. What is it about the place that captivated you? 

New Mexico is hard to explain, there are two places and times in my life when I would say I “woke up.” New Mexico is one of those places. I’ve been exploring there since I was 19 when I was living out of my car for a few months driving around the country, I had come up through El Paso via the Guardalupe Mountains, slept in a truckstop outside of Las Cruses, woke up and drove into White Sands, a place I knew nothing about but was told to check out. Since then I’ve been back to New Mexico more times than I can count, and I’m sure all those who return regularly can’t put it in words either, it’s magical, some places just call you. Easy answer is probably it’s the light, that’s what everyone says, the light is different there.

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Did anything supernatural or otherworldly happen while you were there? They say there are more UFO sightings in New Mexico every year than the rest of the country combined. 

Ha, nothing like that but I’ve had some weird nights in the mountains up by Lama.

Any favorite cities or spot in New Mexico? 

Everyone should go to White Sands, drive the High Road to Taos, the Shiprock shop in Santa Fe, visit Nakashima’s church in Abiquiu, pretty much stop in every old church, buy some chilis at the Santuario de Chimayo, hike to the top of Tent rocks, go east to the grass lands and north to where the hills start rolling up towards the rockies, drive through Silver City and into the Gila National Forest, drive out to the Mogollon Ghost town just for the road, it’s gnarly, winding through the mountains. Just drive, all over, don’t spend too much time in any city, try to be outdoors at sunset everyday.

Red or green? 

Christmas, but I got yelled at by a guy selling chills in Chimayo that you weren’t supposed to do that because you lost the flavor of both.

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You’re also pretty well-known for your Polaroid work out on the road. How did Polaroid become so central to your work and what kind of camera are you using for it nowadays? 

I still shoot with the same camera, the SX-70, there isn’t a better camera for Polaroid. I started shooting Polaroid in 1999, I stumbled upon it, found one in an old thrift store and figured out how to make it work with different film types than it was meant for. From there, it’s hard to even say it was planned, but it just happened. I travelled with a group of artists off and on for 10 years bouncing around the country, Polaroid was what I carried with me, having a self contained process was great at the time, I wasn’t even really thinking of it as a project, it was just something I did, taking Polaroid of everything and everyone around me, I like the way they looked. They looked like the way I saw things, a little messy, a little bit they looked like what I thought memories looked like. Nowadays it’s about something different, it’s about having a one of a kind piece of art, an art object rather than just a photograph. The Polaroid becomes a relic of the experience, of the moment.

And your Persian rug connection? Tell us a little about that.

The rugs…again, an unintentional project. The rugs look like landscape patterns to me, something I’ve played around with before in my work. I started picking them up as I travelled, finding them in weird little shops or meeting dealers in different cities. It’s about the color and the textures, shapes and patterns, the same things I see in landscapes. In my studio on one wall hangs an aerial photograph of a forest across from a turkish prayer rug, they are the same visual language to me. The history of the rugs facinate me now, they are anonymous pieces of art made usually 100 year ago and you can trace their origins to specific villages or groups of people based on the patterns or style of weaving, in a lot of cases to nomadic people. They feel like paintings to me, ones that have so much life imbedded in them, I’ve found prayer rugs where you can see the wear marks of hands and knees over a hundred years. It’s just something that clicked in my brain that made sense so I followed it, now I run a private collection on the side where I sell some of the rugs that I’m done looking at.

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Your dream road trip. What are you driving, who’s with you and where do you go? 

I recently read The Way of the World by Nicolas Bouvier about his trip from Geneva through the Khymer Pass in 1953, through Iran and Afghanistan in an old beat up Fiat. Something like that. I’ve spent so much time driving around the USA I’d like to hit the road somewhere else, where I don’t know the roads as well….but where, it doesn’t matter I say everywhere is the goal, just show me something new.

Buy New Mexico.