Shylah Kay has been “Working On It” since May 7th, 2019. Really, Shylah is always “Working on It”, but May 7th was the day that she took over the Viaduct gallery at the Des Moines Social Club, designating a public-private-studio-living-space; as a place to be, to create, to dance, and to show, via writing, collage, social media, performance, events and her physical presence, what “It” is that she is working on.
“It’s not like your finding yourself.” I tell her, rather than ask. Shylah had invited me over to her claimed space for “tea”. I knew we’d figure out what we needed from each other during that time, plus we’re friends, when a friend asks for your time and your attention, if you can, you give it.
We both prioritize a Sunday evening. “Text me when you get here, all the doors are locked” I read in a message from her, immediately before my phone dies. Now at Des Moines Social Club, I park in the courtyard, I used to work here, and bang on the door instead. Shylah emerges from a different door, tall, striking, big eyes, dreadlock styled long dark hair, a soft baby pink dress that reminds me of a worker’s jumpsuit, “That’s the emergency exit, I thought that was you.”
This is my first time seeing the gallery in person since it became Shylah’s. Last month is was full of flowers and trash. Walking in I look around, the coffee shop is gone and under repair, the whole lower level seems under constructions. “Whoa” I’m surprised seeing the work, “I guess we’re all working on it” she jokes without laughing.
I feel like a kid when she “lets me in”, the moveable walls are placed to create a room, very hidden in a very visible space, an obvious secret gallery. We climb a little ledge and squeeze through the opening; I can tell she thinks this as fun as I do, even though she’s must have done this dozens of times by now.
“I moved those like that the other day”, pointing at the zigzag of the wall. The white gallery space is very empty but I see what she’s done with it, several reclaimed vertical mirrors perfect for movement, a great big mid-century desk for making collages on (a product of this work), and of course several well loved house plants. I have seen most of these features already on Shylah’s Instagram, I like that, this show isn’t about secrets. How can we have tea here I think, how can she do much of anything here, what is she working on, what is this all about? I have so many questions. But I know how we talk, and I also might suspect that she might not have the answers, yet.
“No”, she agrees, she is not here to find herself. Shylah is as self-aware as they come, she had planned on this work being a way to heal from some emotional trauma, dedicate time to work on her art forms, like a residency or a writers retreat (she never called it that). But art shows are funny, the work you want to do when you put them on your calendar is never going to be the work you need to do when it’s time to begin. We change too quickly.
“What’s that phrase, I like it, oh…is this like remembering yourself? Like you know who you are but it’s like we forget over time” “It’s more like that.” I can tell we both want to better understand this month long performance of the self. We talk about a lot of things, tea was very possible with the aid of an electric tea pot, a bottle of fiji water and a vintage canister of tea bags. We both have the dandelion leaf tea Shylah got from her Omi, “seasonal” I say, thinking about my yard. When we talk we zig zag, and “overshare” (which isn’t a thing with real friends). I love talking to her about mental health and relationships, she has an educated perspective on being human, that I’m grateful for.
“It’s about experiencing. About being human, the value in the individual’s experience. Enough so that that alone is the art piece.” **
“It feels a lot like playing” she says and I honor that. Play is powerful! Playing is pure creation and for most adults especially ones as busy as Shylah (artist, entrepreneur, single mother of a second grader and vital force in the community), play might only be achieved if you set aside the time and space. Most things can only be achieved if you set aside the time and space. We’re getting warmer. I tell her how profound her writings have been that she has shared, I hope she keeps writing. “Oh that’s a big part of it.” She shows me the collages that she has finished, layered women’s bodies on white paper, worked like puzzles, identity-less. I really love them. They emote a lot and are easy to project onto; The female body as commodity, I threw out some conceptual bullshit. I want to just say damn these are really good! But I try and say why instead. Her work is tender and honest, clean, thoughtful, and so very human. But it really is so damn good, beautifully composed. She tells me how she is going to display the work, she has frames ready and has the next whole week off of work to create (I gasp inside- that is incredible!) what a blessing she had fought for - time and space but this isn’t a writers retreat, I know that. She talks about how collage making is really healing for her. This place is too public to be a retreat, her process is too visible. “It’s about experiencing. About being human, the value in the individual’s experience. Enough so that that alone is the art piece.” I can tell my idea seemed new to her in a way, but we both know and we say how hard it would be for anyone to say “this artwork is about me”. I believe that the expression of the individual is what makes art.
Shylah has turned the process of process into a performance. Made the personal public and is fully present in this presentation. “I really think about it when people ask me how it’s going. That’s part of it.” Shylah is never not working on it. But thankfully this process, this overprocessing of process has a closing date. It will end. It will become a product. A thing to know and share.
Engage with this piece! It will be over soon, attendance and audience makes art matter more, exist bigger. Share, view, talk, attend, question. Shylah is brave for this display - and I can’t wait to see how she grows through it.
*After this meeting I read her discription of the show and now I feel silly for thinking I could illuminate anything to her- she’s working on it and she knows exactly how.
**not an exact quote