A Space of Belonging

“I was invited into this space with these people who are all deeply caring and deeply welcoming and they told me, you belong here and your art is good enough and you are good enough and we need you.”

Dr. Kacy McKinney

I first met Kacy McKinney in a classroom at a small college in rural Vermont. She was a professor in the geography department and I was a student who didn’t know what I was interested in so I took my friend’s advice and took Kacy’s class about GMOs and was so glad I did!

When I moved back home to Portland in 2017, it felt like Kacy was appearing everywhere I went. First, at Sisters of the Road, a community space and cafe for the unhoused community, and then at the Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC), a community art studio, where I was a front desk volunteer and Kacy was a student in their comics program. And then again this year when I started this program at PSU I was delighted to remember that Kacy is a Professor in the Urban Studies department and we can continue to run into each other. 

Kacy is the facilitator, instigator, coordinator of “Changing the Narrative,” a project that “produced a series of ten short comics created through collaborations between PSU students with lived experience of homelessness, Portland-based comic artists, and the research team” that culminated in a book of comics sold by Street Root vendors on the sidewalks of Portland. It was a pleasure to talk to Kacy about this project that brought together ideas and people from the two places we encountered each other in Portland.

Marissa: I think it would be fun to start with how when I moved back to Portland you just kept popping up. I saw you at Sisters of the Road– I saw your picture on the board members list, and then I started volunteering at the IPRC and I was like “Oh, there’s Kacy again!” It was so fun. 

Kacy: And I think the funny thing is– you didn’t ever take a class with me at Middlebury, did you?

Marissa: No, I did!

Kacy: You did? Okay. Which one did you take? 

Marissa: I took Political Ecology of GMOs with you!

Kacy: Okay, cool. That was a hard one. Nice. I was trying to tell Sage, my partner, last night, and I was like, I think maybe she never took any classes with me. We just were following each other in Portland, but that’s a good class for you to have been in anyway.

Marissa: I was glad to be in it!

Kacy: Did you live in that house too? The house that everyone lived in? With the food? 

Marissa: Yes! I lived in Weybridge.

Kacy: Yeah. That’s where I would’ve lived if I was a student there too. 

Marissa: I wanted to start with how you feel about where you are now as an educator and also as someone who is in the comics and DIY world? And how you feel about how you got here?

Kacy: My path through education began with not going to high school and instead I took a test. So I had this different way of doing school and I did finally start a four year undergrad at University of Texas because I wanted to learn Portuguese really well. At that point, I didn’t have that many people in my life who were excited about education or who wanted me to do graduate school or anything, so I just followed models around me and it was very, you pick a discipline and you do the discipline and it’s all social science, and I was drawn to that. So even though I had art and creativity in my life (I was even making comics then), I didn’t take it seriously because nobody around me did. I sort of moved through undergrad and then into a master’s and then into a PhD, all the while being like, someday I’ll have time for art. Someday I’ll have time to volunteer and do service. And by the time I got to Portland I’m like, I cannot separate these things anymore. I cannot only do art over the summer. I’m trying to retrain myself to not think of art as extra or on the side. When I was at the IPRC I was unemployed, so I had the space for the first time since I was 21 to ask, what do I really wanna be doing? So I found myself in Portland like a teenager again asking, how do I wanna live? What do I wanna prioritize? Maybe not a teenager, but maybe more like my twenties because I have a good position that’s grounded and that fits me, but there’s still a bunch of other stuff that is not in my job description that I need to be doing.

The pages of All My Dad’s Cars (2019) with the artists’ dad, Steve McKinney, the subject of the comic. At a gallery show in California at Toby’s Feed Barn. Photo courtesy of Kacy McKinney

Marissa: When I found myself at the IPRC, I was coming from the fine art department at Middlebury where I wasn’t finding any models and was feeling very out of place. At the IPRC I got to realize that printmaking wasn’t about the fine art world or making a single piece. At the IPRC it’s about hanging out with people, or making zines, or just being part of that intimate world. I didn’t have to fit into the fine art world. 

Kacy: I’m realizing now that the IPRC was a window into the fine art world for me. I was able to be around that amazing group of people and in that kind of space and work on comics and I could start to believe that I could be in the fine art world. And comics were leading me to painting and drawing and I am sort of like, Wait, am I not doing comics anymore? Am I an illustrator now? Am I a painter now? And I think, for now I’m not really doing comics and I’m okay. Just a couple months ago I finished a giant drawing that is inspired in some ways by comics, like I’m using the same pens I would use, but it’s six feet by four feet and it’s a life size pelican. That is not comics. And that’s okay. So I’m having to sort of settle into the fact that comics are a big part of my life, but I am like, does this mean now that I could have access to this world of fine arts? Yeah. And I’m like, could I do both? You know? How would that look? I wonder for how many people the IPRC leads them into a space of belonging that then allows them to see what they’re capable of and not just in one area.

Marissa: It’s a multi-directional hub. That tracks for me, and it makes me be like, “Ugh, the IPRC is so great!” It doesn’t shoehorn anyone into one way of making art. It’s like, we have these resources and you can do what you want. And I think it’s funny because I talked about the IPRC making me feel accepted outside of the fine art world, but like now I’m in this MFA program. 

Kacy: I know. Look at you. 

Marissa: I’m like, What? But this program is just a little corner of the fine art world that actually is comfortable for me because this program is questioning what it means to be in a fine art world. And I think that’s what the IPRC also ingrained in me. It’s a place of people being radical within whatever space they’re in. And so now I’m in a fine art world where people are asking what it means to be trying to make art. And what does it mean to be an artist and what does it mean to show work in the world and what is an art project even?

Kacy: And that’s the part of it that inspires me, I’m super drawn to this program. Every student that I’ve had a connection with has been amazing. It’s so inspiring to me to think that you could do social science/art and that’s actually the dream. And I think maybe what I wanted all along was this ability to think critically and do social practice. 

I think I wanna say one more thing about the IPRC, which is that because of IPRC, I got connected to Short Run Seattle and I got the Trailer Blaze Residency. And I was so nervous for that residency. I was like, “Will I fit in? What will people think?” But I ended up getting so comfortable there and then got this connection into this Seattle-based women, trans, and non-binary collective. I was invited into this space with these people who are all deeply caring and deeply welcoming and they told me, you belong here and your art is good enough and you are good enough and we need you. It still gives me chills. I realized that I’m looking for that kind of community. That’s why I’m drawn to the program that you’re in because it feels like it offers some of that. Some of the, we are critical, we are welcoming, we are warm, there’s space for all of us.

Trailer Blaze Residency 2019 Residents and Short Run Seattle Board Members (left to right, top to bottom): Lee Bess, Kelly Froh, Graciela Sarabia, Amy Camber, Alejandra Espino, E.T. Russian, Lori Damiano, Leela Corman, Kacy McKinney, Ashley Franklin, Eroyn Franklin, L. Armstrong, Jessica Hoffman, Megan Kelso

Marissa: In academia, especially, there’s such a push for being critical. I love the spaces that are like, you’re here, you belong, but also, what could you be doing? Is that really what you wanna be doing? 

Kacy: Yeah, but that’s like a good friendship, right? You don’t want a friend who’s just like, No matter what you do, you’re wonderful. Everything you do is wonderful. You want the one who’s like, Wait, I just heard you use that word, like, are you sure you wanna use that word these days? We’re not really using that word anymore. And you’re like, Oh, shit. Thank you. Or the friend who’s like, I’ve noticed you’ve been interested in this thing. You haven’t really talked about it. Can you say more about that? I think that’s the right kind of belonging. 

Marissa: Do you wanna talk about Changing the Narrative? And the ways it’s twisted together and pulled in these pieces of your life and your interests? How has that felt? What have you learned? 

Kacy: Yeah, I love that you see that because it feels very natural to me. I have students who want to start right away and I like to express that this took all the things that I did before it. And I’m not young and I didn’t just start out, maybe I wish I could have done it sooner, but the only way that it has been successful is based on the relationships and the experiences I’ve had. Everything has been important: education, certainly the places that I’ve traveled to have been important, the languages that I’ve studied.

The biggest pieces are the pieces when I stepped a bit away from academia, and that was volunteering at Sisters, and I think we did it sort of the same way. I got interested and I got invited to volunteer right after I moved to Portland. And I was sold on day one. I just was like, this is hard and it’s wonderful. I met so many incredible people and started to make friendships. And then at the same time I did the IPRC program and it started to feel like I knew some of the key people and l was getting to know the richness of artists who exist in this area and what they’re capable of. 

By that time, I was at PSU and starting to feel comfortable, and there was a grant application that came up that was from the Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative. And I thought, I can get that. It was the first time that I just was like, okay, like these things come together in my mind and it makes sense to me. I care deeply about students and their wellbeing, and I care deeply about homelessness and dignity and respect and stories, and I care deeply about comics and their ability to tell complex stories in ways that engage people deeply. And it feels right to both recognize that yes, I’m an artist, but like this is not about my art. Let me be a facilitator of this happening. 

It was very exciting to think about being able to compensate students and hear their stories and value their stories in a deeply respectful way. It was exciting to think about being able to compensate artists and I knew there were so many that we would have to choose from. I knew we would be able to find 10 artists who cared deeply about the project and maybe had some lived experience.

I expected from the beginning that the stories would be really wide ranging and so, therefore the art needed to be very wide ranging. I put it out into the world and then when I got it, I was like, this makes sense that I got this. This is right.

Marissa: I’ve been thinking about comics artists as organizers, about the anthologies that people put together and the ways that you can be an artist that taps into these kinds of organizing and synthesizing skills, rather than just being the visual artist for a project.

Kacy: That’s so interesting, yes. That part of it is hard for me because people will say, what was your role in it? And I’m like, Ooh, the editor? Facilitator? Organizer? Researcher? Selector of people? There’s so many skills that I’ve developed in the process. I sort of did everything and nothing is kind of how I think about it. Right? I made the whole thing possible and they’re not my stories, it’s not my art, you know? I’m trying to understand true collaboration– collaboration in which you are that person, just like you’re saying.

Marissa: What are you thinking moving forward? Like what are the things that need to stay and what are the things that are more flexible within the project, for the future? 

Kacy: I think I was just talking to students yesterday about the process, because I’m teaching a methods class and we were talking about how much you have to know in advance to be able to do it. Olivia’s working on a project with me called “Epilogue,” that is requesting the participation of all 10 artists, all 10 storytellers, the three interns on the project, and the two research assistants to come back and creatively reflect on what their experience was with the project. It’s less of what we should do differently next time and more of what did it mean for the artists and what did it mean for the participants? I think I’ll learn more about what to do differently next and how we can build and how can we do more? How can we work more with IPRC? How can we work more with Street Roots to make it easier for them, but also to engage vendors in meaningful ways?

And then I’m trying to raise funds to do the whole thing again. And I do think in this process of reflecting with the whole group of people, there will be some really concrete things that I find I wanna do differently. But the biggest and most important part is like finding the right team. And I’m hoping to do another one in two more years. I’ve doubted whether the right thing to do is to do the same thing again, but if the whole point of it is to share as many wide-ranging stories as possible that are unique and beautiful, then like we just need more. If it’s working, why would we stop? The social scientist in me is like, but what questions are you asking? And are you asking hard enough questions and are you building more data to inform the academy? I have to remind myself, that’s not what this is. This is creating more opportunities to tell stories and trying to change how people think about homelessness. 

Marissa: Yeah, and the structure’s already there. There’s such a pressure to do something different, to ask different questions. But since we’re working with people it’s gonna be different and you’re gonna learn different things every time even if you use the same structure.

Kacy: And that’s the point, right? I’m always talking about Chimimanda Adiche’s idea of “the danger of a single story.” I’m always asking: are we telling one story about this really complex thing? Homelessness is a perfect example. We’re telling like one or maybe two stories that supposedly apply to everyone. And anyone who’s experienced housing instability knows that there are so many different reasons why this could happen. It’s so systemic, right? It is so based in discrimination and inequality and poverty. Can we stop selling the same story? Of course we need as many stories as we can have. 

Marissa Perez (she/her) grew up in Portland, Oregon. She is a printmaker, party host, babysitter and youth worker. She’s interested in neighborhoods and the layers of relationships that can be hard to see. Her dad was a mail carrier for 30 years and her mom is a pharmacist. 

Dr. Kacy McKinney (she/her) is a critical feminist geographer and Senior Instructor in the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning, and Affiliated Faculty in Comics Studies. She is an artist working in comics, painting, illustration, and textile design. She is a graduate of the Certificate Program in Comics from the Independent Publishing Resource Center, and has had residencies with Short Run Seattle’s Trailer Blaze, Mesa Refuge, The Sou’wester, and The Verdancy Project. She has received grants from Regional Arts and Culture Council and Portland State University for her work in the arts and comics scholarship. She served on the Board of Directors of Sisters of the Road from 2018 to 2021. Her current research: Changing the Narrative Through Collaborative Comics is funded by PSU’s Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative and is in partnership with Street Roots and the Independent Publishing Resource Center. Courses of particular interests to art students that she teaches include: USP410/510: Arts and Community Change (Spring 2023), USP407/507 (and WR407/507): Comics into Research (Fall 2023), and USP325U: Community and the Built Environment (Fall 2023).

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

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Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

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